Show Don’t Tell (#5)

The best way to learn is by example! You’ve all heard: “Show, don’t tell”, right? This example illustrates the difference between showing and telling (plus helpful editing/writing tips).


I wasn’t sure what to do next,(1) everything in my life was telling me to move forward, to go off to college and learn amazing things, to get a job in a big city somewhere, to live a life they’ve only dreamed of living, (2) and everyone tells me that it’s what I should want, but the truth is hard to say sometimes.(3) I didn’t want any of those things, not the margaritas before midterms, not the gorgeous NY skyline, not the dreams they have for me, because everything I wanted was right here.(4) Right here in the(5) town with the library, my family, and the simple things I’ve come to love.(6)

1. Comma splice! A comma splice is when you use a comma where there should be a period. This happens sometimes when two sentences are closely linked, so you don’t pause as much between them when you’re writing it. Even though commas are where you pause when reading, that doesn’t mean you put a comma everywhere you pause. Most word processors will let you know there’s a problem. Easy fix! Just change it to a period.

2. See how each list item starts of with “to”? This is called parallel syntax (also sometimes called parallelism or parallel structure). It’s basically the repetition of the first part of list items, such as “I like to swim, to bike, and to run.” But if you add other list items that don’t match that pattern, it’ll break the rhythm and the reader will notice. wrong: “I like to swim, to bike, and running.” The parallel syntax of this sentence gets broken after this point, so it’s best just to start a new sentence here. In fact, let’s get rid of the parallelism here.

3. Out of breath? That’s because this humdinger of a sentence is 62 words long. Ouch. Part of that problem is the comma splice. Part will be solved by breaking the sentence in half (see note 2). Long sentences have their place. That place is not every page/paragraph. [sidenote: a variety of sentence lengths is important to having a good flow while reading. This is called “sentence fluency.” At least it was when I was in 5th grade.]

4. This is another case of broken parallel structure. We’re going to fix it a bit different than the first one though. This time we’re going to fix the parallelism in addition to breaking the sentence with a period.

5. Word choice is important. The article used here (the) should really be “this” instead. Partly because it matches with the specific “here” used a couple words earlier, partly because it gives us that sense that this is where the character is right now. That’s important in this scene especially, where the character is making a decision about where to be/go.

6. This sentence goes from vague (here) to specific (library) to vague again (things). Compared to the specific details we get of NYC, it would make more sense for the speaker to give specific details of the place s/he WANTS to be. More and better details than how she describes the place she doesn’t want to go.


I wasn’t sure what to do next. Everyone in my life was telling me to move forward, go to college, learn amazing things, get a job in NYC(1), live the life they dreamed of living.(2)

But I didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want the margaritas before midterms, the gorgeous big city skylines(3), or the life of adventure. Everything I wanted was here in Talon Township: the crooked library shelves, the wobbly curves of Hawken’s Creek,(4) and the pot roast family dinner every Saturday evening just before dusk. (5)

1. NY is the state. NYC is the city with the skyline.

2. In this format, the language makes it feel like these things are being phrased as orders, which is how the character is feeling. He/she is being told to go to college, learn things, live life a certain way.

3. It’s subtle, but we see in the first paragraph that the speaker is being urged to go to a specific place (NYC), and in the second paragraph, the speaker says s/he doesn’t want to go to a place with “big city skylines”. It’s subtle, but this intentional vague reference shows how s/he doesn’t care about the specifics of other people’s dreams.

4. Giving names to these places adds a level of familiarity. Even if we don’t know what they are, we know the speaker is familiar with them, and that makes a huge difference.

5. This last detail shows us a specific recurring moment in time in addition to the two locations preceding it. Given that the speaker is struggling with moving forward (into the future), it’s good to end on a detail that shows us the familiar repetition.

Additional Notes: OK, so Note 3 of After talks about how NYC is more specific than “a big city skyline,” which can be seen as rejecting the specificity of other’s dreams. However, to be fair, the speaker gives more details (margarita midterms) that are more specific than the vague dreams others have for her. So you could move the NYC reference to the second paragraph to imply that the dreams people have for her are vague, she rejects them with specificity, and chooses home with even more specific details. That would be a good escalation. It all depends on what you want to say and if it feels right to you.

What do YOU think? Every opinion matters! How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better? Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?

Additional ADDITIONAL Notes: This is the 5th one of these, and the excerpt got smaller, and my comments section is getting bigger and bigger. Hmmm…  I don’t know if this is a good thing or bad thing, but it’s happening. If you like these Learn by Examples excerpts, let me know! (so I know if I should keep doing them or not)


One thought on “Show Don’t Tell (#5)

  1. Pingback: Show Don’t Tell #9 | words — and other things

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