How to Show, Not Tell

November 4, 2011 | 42 comments


The best way to tell any story is not to tell it, but to show it.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on broken glass.
— Anton Chekhov

This is the golden rule of writing, to show not tell. Telling results in flat, dull images. Showing breathes life into a story, creating pictures in the reader’s mind.

That’s what I shared with my college journalism students this week, as we began to tackle the art of the feature story.

Always, when I begin this lecture each semester, I watch how the students sit up with their backs straighter, how they lean in closer to the words. They’re ready now. They are eager to move beyond the inverted pyramid and the just-the-facts-ma’am style of newswriting. They want to share words that stimulate the reader’s imagination with rich details. 

I instruct them this way: Instead of telling me a boy is tall, show me how he bends over nearly in half to hug his aproned grandmother at the kitchen sink.

Instead of telling me that a room is empty, let me hear the echo when the child creaks open the door.

Instead of telling me that the woman is afraid, show me how her muscles tighten as she flattens herself against the bedroom wall.

Confession Number One: I know how to write this way, but sometimes, I get lazy. (This sentence is an example.)

Confession Number Two: I know how to live a show-not-tell life, but I don’t always do it.

 “How do we show, not just tell, Jesus? I think it begins with the details of our lives.”  A writer-friend, L.L. Barkat, once wrote those words on her blog.

Dear L.L,
Yesterday, I witnessed one answer to your question, in my journalism classroom. 

It happened right before the day’s lecture began. I told the students about a painful situation in the lives of some people I love. I shared surface details, enough so they would know our deep hurt. 

A college freshman in the front row shot her hand into the air.

“Can we pray for you? Right now?” she asked.

I nodded my head, feeling a lump rise up in my throat.

And right then, thirteen heads bowed. The young woman talked with God, weaving words and details together in a way that only the Spirit could have known.

With my head bowed and fingers laced, I thought it: They could have told me they’d pray. That would have been enough. But they showed me instead.

Thirteen people lowered their chins to their chests. All of them shone Light on some broken glass in this life.

And just now, I think I can see the glint again.

by | November 4, 2011 | 42 comments


  1. Dea

    Thanks for allowing me to join your class. Oh, so thankful for your lesson—and for the lessons you have learned from others that you pass on to your students—to me.

    So grateful.

    And to let you know, another head bows for your loved ones today.

    • dukeslee


      My thanks to you for praying. I can’t get into the details here, but that you would pray? It means more than words can express. Thank ((YOU.))

  2. Ruthiey

    That’s amazing. Love how you made that connection. <3

    • dukeslee

      Thank you, Ruthiey.

      And go figure … it’s the teacher learning from the student. 🙂

  3. Linda

    Thank you, dear Jennifer, for these priceless lessons. I know that the lesson goes deeper for me when I see it.

    • dukeslee

      Me, too, Linda. We’re made to be visual people — to see it SHOWN, to allow our imaginations to do the work.

      Think of all those times when we’ve seen the movie, after reading the book? Almost always, we preferred the book to the movie. Don’t you suppose that it’s because even with the power of cinematography, it can’t match the power of our imaginations?

  4. L.L. Barkat

    Intake of breath. And I see yours, in a little fogged circle on the glass.


    • dukeslee

      This one comment …

      Just … tears here. If only you knew how close down to that glass I am, looking to see some light today.

  5. nmdr

    a ray of golden light
    comes with such speed
    and yet it can seem still
    and quiet as the sleeping
    cat absorbs its warmth

    you are reflecting that light
    into my heart

    • Jennifer@GDWJ

      Now that’s some show-not-tell writing. And it swells my heart, does me some good tonight.

  6. Nancy

    What you showed me here, dear Jennifer, is that teaching journalism to a bunch of college students is a high calling. When we do whatever it is we’re gifted to do, and do it faithfully, God will take what we’re doing and blow our socks off with it. Amazed at how he used your efforts to teach those students well and then turned the blessing back on you.

    BTW–I’m giving that student in your class an A. or +K. Or something.

    • Jennifer@GDWJ

      Yes, Nancy! There’s some major Jesus Klout in that classroom. I’m so grateful for these students. They teach me, as much I teach them.

  7. Andrea Perdue

    I needed this, today!

    Blessings and prayers,

  8. Betsy

    With arms wide open (in gratitude), i want to send a cyber boquet of flowers to you to thank you for sharing this lovely life-leason with us all. Verycool.

  9. Sheila Lagrand

    Jennifer, praying for you now…that you’ll find that light.

    • Jennifer@GDWJ

      Thank you, Sheila. You’re a dear. Love you.

  10. Erin

    oh, beautiful.

  11. Amy Sullivan

    I’m praying for you, friend, and for the situation of the people you love. Praying that God is present.

    • Jennifer@GDWJ

      This means a great deal to me, Amy. Deepest thanks …

    • Jennifer@GDWJ

      You’ve got a way of seeing, even when I don’t “show.” 🙂

  12. amy@to love

    oh. i love this. really really love this. and joining in with those lowering chins to chest.

  13. Doug Spurling

    Luke 6:40 “Students are not greater than their teacher. But the student who is fully trained will become like the teacher.” You know the light of the moon is a reflection of the sun? I think this broken glass just caught a glimpse of the Son. Keep shining my friend.

  14. Lisa notes

    This touches me, Jennifer. I want to be better about showing, not just telling…

  15. Dawn@Dawnings

    Jennifer, sorry for leaving this random comment but I wanted to respond to your comment and was unsure if you would see it at my blog. So here it is: We are indeed having mary moments.He is always a blessing to us when he comes. I think I stressed so much because this is the first time he’s come since I am no longer a stay-at-home-mom.

    If you would like to learn more, peruse my Guatemala label. I write of our on-going work there often. And there will undoubtedly be more to come.

    You can pray, come with us sometime, take a group of your own, or contribute financially. There are so many possibilities….

    Blessings, friend. 🙂

  16. Sherrey

    Jennifer, thanks much for this post for many reasons. I’m drafting a memoir — and I’m finding it hard to show and not just tell my story. In first person, one is using a singular perspective so I suppose I should start focusing on writing using what “I’ve seen.” Make sense?

    Also, thanks for the quote from L.L. Barkat — powerful!


  17. Katdish

    That was amazing, Jennifer. A writing lesson and life lesson. Wish I could say something profound, but I think you’ve already done that. Wow.

  18. Lynn Mosher

    {sigh} Jennifer…so touching. Words fail me. Lowering my chin for your friends and you.

  19. brian miller

    nice…i think telling and not showing when it comes to jesus is what has eroded much of the message honestly…as a writer i too sometimes forget as well, but oh how important…

  20. Bernadine

    Hi, I just found your blog and already love it. Thank you for that lovely post.

  21. Carolyn


  22. Lindsey van Niekerk

    Oh, I kinda just REALLY love this post. I am SEVERLY challenged. Thank you!

  23. Patricia (Pollywog Creek)

    Beautiful story that illustrates so much, Jennifer. Thank you for this.



    Bowing my head… and then lifting it,to pull my yellow taxi up a little further to see the reflection of a cathedral on my hood and the dull glow from my rooftop light shining in the reflection of the bell tower as if ignited with the hope of whats to come…Peace from the NYC Jennifer, very moving words. 🙂

  25. Megan Willome

    I would be privileged to have you as my teacher. As it is, I’m grateful to have you as my friend.

  26. Shaunie Friday

    Thank you so much for the bite-sized version of your lesson AND for the wonderful connection to our lives. You show Jesus all the time! Praying for the situation He knows is heavy on your heart and wishing you joy in the midst of it. {{{Hugs}}}

  27. Michelle DeRusha

    So many comments, so much good stuff already said. But what an incredible story, Jennifer. Such warm and generous students you have. {I think I would faint if someone in my workplace asked if they could pray for me!}

  28. emily wierenga

    i have a lump in my throat. the way they bowed their heads and prayed this way… so beautiful.

    and i am working on this in a novel i have written… going back now, the second draft, and trying desperately to show not tell. it’s so very hard. love you.

  29. Patricia

    Do you give tardys for coming in to the class late? Look at all the beautiful in this classroom already!! I know I came in late… I guess I’m going to have to quit my job (or buy an iphone) so I can stay connected more quickly. You are a beautiful teacher… I’m glad I’m in your class teach.

  30. Dolly @ Soul Stops

    Ah, I am so guilty of telling and not showing, but I am trying to follow your and L.L.’s advice.

    I am following your students’ example and praying that God would meet you and your loved ones’ needs with His presence and all manner of practical help.

  31. Beth Kinder


    What a beautiful stumble-upon today. So magnificently written. The ending left a delicately drawn image of Jesus in action.

    Thank you…


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