Show Don’t Tell — An Example Done Right

You may have had college professors preach to you to "show, don't tell." The ironic thing about that statement is that it contradicts itself.

Take the video I've embedded below, for instance. In the video, a blind homeless man is begging for change. A young woman comes by and changes what he has written on his sign–and in response, many more people begin to give to him. Now watch the video (I'll wait) and I think you'll see it's about a lot more than that.

Originally an ad for a web marketing company, the piece is about how much words matter and about creating a shared experience.

Being a Better Reader Makes You a Better Writer

Telling you what the video was about didn't accomplish the same ends as you watching it; telling you how to be a better writer doesn't achieve the same ends as you learning yourself.

There are many ways to learn to be a better writer–you can work to improve your grammar, you can improve by practicing (the more you write the better that writing is likely to be)... or you can learn by reading.

I saw my writing improve drastically during a 6 month period while I was working as an editor at Pet Business Magazine. During that time two major changes occurred in my life that presented me with learning opportunities.

First, our managing editor left our magazine; consequently, we got a new managing editor. The two women had very different writing styles; being exposed to the new managing editor's style taught me a lot about how to write–she's been in the industry for quite a while and her writing reflects that. She uses a variety of introduction styles and techniques that I may not have considered had she not exposed me to them.

Second, I started Moxy Magazine–and in addition to being the publisher, I was the primary editor. While I've had professional training on how to properly edit other people's writing, creating Moxy required me to develop a magazine's tone and offered me an opportunity to work with a variety of writers and writing styles.

Learning From Others' Mistakes

While reading may expose you to new ways of writing, and consequently you learn new techniques, it can also help you learn to correct your own mistakes. It's always easier to see mistakes in other people's writing than in your own–and noticing those mistakes (or imperfections) makes it easier to identify them in your own work.

For example, for a long time one of my weak points as a writer was writing transitions. When I travel from one point to the next it sometimes felt like a wooden roller coaster ride–the reader's head was jerked all about as they tried to reorient themselves. I was aware that this was a weak spot and actively worked to improve my transitions when writing by watching for poor transitions when editing my own work.

However, working on pieces written by other writers who are also bad at transitions helped me to better identify when one thought doesn't move as smoothly into the next as it could. By editing other's pieces I also learned techniques to smooth out that bumpy ride a bit. Reading pieces I wrote years ago when I first started my day job and reading recently written pieces, there is a huge difference in the raw quality.

Now when I write I am better at recognizing when a piece has gone from thrill ride to nausea-inducing scream machine. While my pieces certainly aren't flawless, they need a lot less editing–and I'm better equipped to do that editing during my own revision process instead of requiring someone else to do it for me.

So next time you notice there is an area where you could use some improvement, look for others who write particularly well... and those who don't... and give them a read. Then see if it helps next time you sit down to write.

What mistakes do you make most often as a writer? Have you improved over time? 

Profile image for Melissa Breau

My name is Melissa Breau & I’m a Raleigh-based tea-drinker and dog aficionado. If you’re local, let me know—I’d love to grab a drink.

By day, I’m a keyboard junkie, and (shameless plug) craft killer marketing content for small business owners far and wide.

By night (and sometimes on the weekend) I help out at several nonprofits, teach my dog new tricks, and try to spend as much time outside in the sunshine as I can.

Before joining the world of marketing I spent several years at various publishing companies in NYC, including both magazine publishers and book publishers. I also earned my Masters in Publishing from Pace University.

Want to chat? Find me on twitter or drop me a line via my website.

2 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell — An Example Done Right”

  1. A wonderful video, Melissa, demonstrates the point very powerfully. The key message for me is that you must write for the reader – actively talk to him/her in a way that will evoke a response.

    Many thanks


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