Showing, not Telling

WR3 | Workshops

Show, Don’t Tell

In writing that involves outside sources it is often more powerful to show rather than tell. But what does that mean?

While it is an important and necessary skill to summarize or paraphrase the words of other writers using our own words, relying exclusively on this strategy may give your readers reasons to doubt your presentation of the facts. You are, in essence, telling your readers: “Just trust me, this is accurate.” We can call this approach telling.

Another approach is to offer your readers some proof at decisive moments by presenting the actual words of your source in the form of a quotation. The quotations don’t have to be very long or involved; but when they exist, the reader will feel that your claims are more trustworthy. The reader doesn’t have to merely trust you; now you’ve provided some evidence. We can call this approach showing.

An overreliance on telling, even when duly cited, may weaken your rhetorical authority. In this workshop we will practice turning a telling sentence into a showing one.


Let’s examine two approaches to representing a key passage from a course reading:

Source Text

From Paulo Freire, “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education,” p. 72.

For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

Compare the following sentences:

  • Telling: Freire emphasizes that our ability to inquire is what makes us human, so taking away this part of us is taking away our humanity (72).

  • Showing: Freire maintains that our ability to ask questions and perform research are bedrock features of our humanity: “For apart from inquiry,” he writes, “individuals cannot be truly human” (72).

  • Showing: Freire insists that it is only through the “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry” that we “pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” that we can be “truly human” (72).

To Review:

Please understand: there is absolutely nothing wrong with the telling sentence above; in fact, your writing will be full of such sentences that accurately present another author’s ideas in your own words. However, relying on this strategy exclusively (or even just habitually) may have a negative effect on your readers' sense of how trustworthy you seem.

Again, summary and paraphrase are critical skills; however, when you state that another author says X or means Y, it makes your claim much stronger if you frequently (but judiciously) use the actual words or terms the author chooses. Now your reader doesn’t just have to “trust” you, they can see for themselves.



Rewrite the following three telling sentences to make two separate showing ones. Your second sentence should use a completely new sentence structure, as in the example above.

Passage 1

From Paulo Freire, “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education,” p. 72.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

  • Telling: Freire uses the metaphor of a bank to describe the relationship between teacher and student. The teacher deposits facts and information into the student like someone depositing money at a bank. The students are not allowed an active role; instead they just memorize the ideas and facts presented by their teachers (72).

  • Showing 1: Freire criticizes a model of education that he likens to banking, where “the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor” (72). Instead of dialogue and true communication, “the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.”

  • Showing 2: Freire described what he calls the “‘banking’ concept of education,” where students are treated as “depositories” and are only permitted the actions of “receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” made by teachers.

Passage 2

From Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature,” p. 47.

Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated—by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon. As a result of this preformulation, the source of the sightseer’s pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex.

  • Telling: Walker Percy argues that it is now extraordinarily difficult to see the Grand Canyon in an original way because of our prior exposure to images and descriptions of the place (47).

  • Showing 1: Percy argues that we no longer see the Grand Canyon authentically and without influence as its original discoverer could; instead, we must view the place through “approved circumstances,” through a complex lens comprised of all the images, descriptions, and representations of the place that we have been exposed to in our lifetimes (72).

  • Showing 2: For Percy, viewing the canyon as its original discoverer did is not virutually impossible, since our view is now conditioned by what he calls “preformulation,” an exposure to symbolic representations such as a “picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon” (47).

Passage 3

From Nicholson Baker, “Changes of Mind,” p. 7.

We must not overlook sudden conversions and wrenching insights, but usually we fasten on to these only in hindsight, and exaggerate them for the sake of narrative—a tool perfected by the great nineteenth-century novelists, who sit their heroines down and have them deduce the intolerability of their situation in one unhappy night, as the fire burns itself into embers in the grate.

  • Telling: Baker warns us that the detection of a change of mind often sends us on an investigation into the past, where we make up false narratives to help explain why our opinions change (7).

  • Showing 1: Baker argues that while we can’t completely discount “sudden conversions and wrenching insights,” for the most part we manufacture false narratives of this sort to explain how a change of mind occurred (7).

  • Showing 2: While Baker allows that we may sometimes experience a “sudden conversion” that changes our minds, most often we “we fasten on to these only in hindsight, and exaggerate them for the sake of narrative,” giving us a false sense of control or comprehension (7).