Writing 101: Show Don’t Tell



It’s one of the first things you learn in writing:  Show Don’t Tell.

But it’s still a hard one to master.

Our dear Michael Arceneaux has graciously allowed me to use the unedited essay that became this week’s first guest blogger post to illustrate the importance of show don’t tell.

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read his post yet, don’t read this one until you do…]

Michael handed in a decent first draft. But it definitely needed work.

Michael is a capable writer. But there needs to be some fine tuning in his show-don’t-tell department.

Here’s how Michael’s draft began…

If you asked most people who my all-time favorite artist is, they’re likely to answer Beyonce. That’s because over the years I’ve made it seem as if I’d pour hot Popeye’s chicken grease on anyone who dared disparage her in my presence.

But if you really know me, you know that my favorite singer is Mary J. Blige.

Yes, I said singer. She can sing. Maybe there have been instances where she sounded like a dying cat or that she spent vocal sessions smoking a pack of Newport’s, but she has some nominal level of vocal ability.

Even at her worse (The Tour) I could always feel what she was going through. Whether or not she sometimes sounded like a banshee never mattered to me. Being able to empathize with a singer has always been more important in my eyes.

To me there is no contemporary album that bests My Life. I’ve been bumping it since the age of 10 – to the annoyance of those who have lived with me.

“God, you used to wear that out. Who listens to Mary J. Blige in 4th grade? And you wonder why I offered you a walker for your 25th birthday. You’ve been an old head since birth,” rants my younger brother, Marcus.

I saw the jewels there. But much of this opening had to go. The first lines did not draw me in. This is an essay on how he was influenced by Mary and My Life. Why is Beyonce in there?

But also. Michael’s not showing me anything in that opener. He’s telling telling telling. I can hear him yapping in my ear. But I can’t see anything.

He goes on and on about Mary’s voice. Again, this is not an essay about whether or not Mary can sing. I’m a hundred words in and I still don’t care about this essay.

And then, Michael hits me with this line:

To me there is no contemporary album that bests My Life. I’ve been bumping it since the age of 10 .

That’s when he pulled me in. I’m seeing a 10 year old listening to an album like My Life. Now I want to know more about this kid.

And then he hits me with the line about his little brother being annoyed. And again, I can see that. This is the stuff you want to get to. Show me something. Don’t tell me nuthin’.

Unfortunately, his brother’s perspective was written in the present tense. Instead of flashing us back, he gives us a quote from his brother in the present day.

“God, you used to wear that out. Who listens to Mary J. Blige in 4th grade? And you wonder why I offered you a walker for your 25th birthday. You’ve been an old head since birth,” rants my younger brother, Marcus.

I don’t want to hear from present-day Marcus. He’s boring. I want to hear from baby-brother Marcus who has to listen to this album on repeat. I needed Michael to set a scene for me here.

I needed to see some details. Posters on the walls? Decals on the headboard? CD or Tape? Cassette player? Headphones? Sitting at your desk? Curled up in bed? Where’s the window? What can you see out of it? How big is the room? Where’s Marcus in proximity?

Had I had more time to work with Michael, I might have drawn out even more details. But we settled on just describing what device he used to listen to the music.

Here’s another section that needed some work.

Maybe a 10-year-old child listening to an album like My Life warranted concern, but I couldn’t help it.

Those feelings of self-doubt, that longing for affection, and fighting to be happy. I got that. Even then.

Though My Life is essentially a love album, Mary sang everything with such sadness that she elicited more feelings of pity than anything else.

It’s a quality others used to pick up in me. A writer I admire once wrote this about me when discussing my blog: “Mike worries me with his ups and downs. Actually, that’s not true. Mike worries me because even his ups are tinged with a certain acidic quality.”

I got it. All too well.

But I continued to follow her career and silently encouraged her as she continued to fight for happiness.

I saw a lot of myself in her, and I her succeeding made me feel like I could, too.

Do you all notice all the telling that’s going on here? Michael is beating me over the head with facts. Stories other people have told him. Present-day quotes.

He’s teasing me like a virgin on prom night.

I was sitting in my office, sipping my coffee and reading this essay. And I wanted to scream: SO WHAT IS YOUR DEAL MICHAEL? WHY THE HELL WERE YOU LISTENING TO THIS DEPRESSING-ASS ALBUM.

He was giving a monologue. Not showing.

And he went directly from that graf to his story about meeting Mary.

Um. No.

At this point, Michael needed to lay his theme right on the line. I assumed what he was trying to say was: I’m gay. Knew it since I was a kid. Stuggled with it. Mary’s album helped. But nowhere in this essay did he say that. Or anything like it.

I needed details. When did he know? How was he affected? What were his families thoughts?

In the re-write, I got the story about the funeral he attended for his uncle when he was just six years old. And how he heard the word faggot for the first time.

That’s showing. I see that six year old, hearing that word and wondering if people would use that to describe him. Now you’re showing me how a six year old could be confused and feel vulnerable.

Next section that needed some fine-tuning:

I handed her a letter and told her I wanted to share that with her. She responded with a quick “cool” and placed the letter into her Louie Vuitton bag that probably retails for more than my life would.

Let’s stop right there. This is really important. But once again, he’s telling. I need Michael to slow down, close his eyes, look around the studio where this all takes place and write down what he sees. An essay is about painting a picture for your readers. I don’t see much there. He talks about an LV bag. But it doesn’t really hit me. This needs dialogue. Bad.

In the letter I told her that hers was the first album that I ever purchased. That even at a young age her music helped me deal with problems I couldn’t completely understand at the time. I thanked her for putting herself out there in a way that not many people would ever willingly choose to.

I encouraged her to keep moving forward and continue aiming higher because she inspires me to keep fighting to overcome all the adversity in my life.

I went on and on in the letter, but I had to get it all out.

Okay, so you know what I’m going to say about the above graf. Telling me what’s in the letter won’t work. Re-work it with italics so we see you writing it. Was it on paper? On a laptop? Where was he when he wrote it?

I listed my number at the end of the letter, but I didn’t expect to hear back from her. Even after she left everyone in the studio seemed skeptical of how polite she was.

I knew as soon as I read this graf that I wanted to take out the line about leaving his number. If you’ll notice, the fact that his number was in the letter is not in the essay at all. That’s because I knew that the reader would make a note of that. He left his number. And that would mess up our climactic ending. If you don’t know he left his number, you’re not expecting it when Mary calls him back.

It’s important to think about pacing in your writing. Slow down. Give your characters some dialogue.


Give ’em a beat to absorb what you’re showing them.

Then go back to whatever it was you were saying.

The above four lines are my example of pacing.

It’s something that Michael needs to work on. In some places in his essay, he was speeding past all the good attractions. And in some spots, he was pulling over for way too long at a rest stop.

Now, be clear on this. Michael’s draft definitely needed work.

But writing, dear readers, is actually re-writing.

And Michael’s final edit was tight.

I don’t care what you can send me in your first draft. I care about what you’ll send me after I send you an edit with a bunch of ALL CAPS layered inside your hard work. The sign of a good writer is one who takes direction well and hands in a revision that takes all edits into consideration.

dear reader: How are you with showing and not telling. Is it something you need to work on? Is it something you’ve mastered? Did you learn anything from picking apart Michael’s essay?

I’d love to hear from you…

P.S. Do you have a question about writing? Hit me up at aliyasking@gmail.com and I’ll cover it in this column….

23 Responses to “Writing 101: Show Don’t Tell”

  1. Paul Cantor Says:

    I enjoyed reading that. Thank you.

  2. Michael Says:

    *Placing bag over head*

    Haha. It’s nice to actually see the thought process behind an editor’s edits, though.

    LOL @ “He’s teasing me like a virgin on prom night.”

    Speaking of virgins, I think this was the first time I’ve ever written the words “I’m gay” in any published piece. That had a lot to do with my deflecting. I’m pretty open but only to a certain extent.

    I’ll remove the bag in like 15 minutes. Ha.

  3. Caila K Says:

    Aliya-Thank you for this post! After reading Michael’s guest blog, it never even crossed my mind that you had edited it to be such a well written, moving piece. I guess that’s why the role between writer and editor is so integral. My main issue with writing is that I hate to see that sucky first draft on the paper and hate to have anyone give it back to me with the words “boring” or “try again” stamped in bold red letters. But nooooww, well now I’m running home tonight to flush out all the ideas I have cramped in my head and to see how they unfold on paper! To be continued…

  4. Aliya S. King Says:

    And for the record, Michael didn’t write the words, “I’m gay” in this essay.

    I did.

    I had to actually hit him up on the email and ask him if I could swap out the words, “struggling with my sexuality” and just say it already.

    So really, Michael? You still haven’t said it in a published piece…

  5. Michael Says:

    Last week was the first time I said I was gay, but I’ve never just written it flat out “I am gay.” So this month has been one of firsts.

    I’ve written about gay issues before, let my guard down a bit on my blog, but I’ve never been that forthright about it.

    Not because I was trying to hide it as if I were ashamed. I just worried that in doing so I would be placed in a box.

    I felt like it would alienate some people or possibly deter them from taking certain opinions of mine seriously. After the course of months I’ve already noticed I get certain comments on my blog.

    I liked that some people couldn’t tell. It helps eliminate certain stereotypes. In general, though, because of the way I grew up I’m used to being guarded. As in opening up just enough to keep people from continuously digging.

    I guess after I saw your edits I was like, “OK, I guess I have to speak up a bit.”

  6. Kenesha Says:

    Thanks for this Aliya! I am an aspiring writer and this helped a lot, I plan on joining your fiction writer workshop on twitter SOON!

  7. Antonio Says:

    Damn damn damn, just damn. Mad props to you Aliya for these workshops. Mad props to Michael for opening himself up like this – both in his story and his willingness to be openly critiqued. Great piece, say word.

  8. Paul Cantor Says:

    Hey Michael… in the mainstream media industry (outside of this little “urban” box many of us seem to exist in), being gay might get you a lot further than you think. There are many gay and lesbian people in positions of serious power and influence. I wouldn’t be too ashamed to admit it if I were you, even though I’m sure it’s tough.

  9. Makkada Says:

    good to see a writer who actually enjoys EDITING and helping other writers

  10. Luvvie Says:

    I read this over twice, trying to see pieces of myself in Michael’s writing. I believe I would have written the intro from the same angle he did, so seeing the “NOPE, try again” actually helps.

    I just may read this one more time to see where me and Michael’s approach would be similar or different.

  11. Michael Says:

    @PaulCantor: I’ve told people at work, so that was never really my big concern. I was worried people would look at what I had to say (in a given piece) and respond with, “Oh he’s gay, of course he feels this way.” Or not even want to bother hearing me out at all.

    Now as far as gay people being in positions of power and influence, honestly, straight women have been more helpful to me than anyone else, though there have been some noted exceptions in recent months.

  12. la negrita Says:

    All my blog posts are first drafts and can use some editing. Sometimes I go through and fix typos if I happen to notice them, but mostly…one it’s up, it’s up. Something I know I need to change. I always feel my blog posts are missing a lot. When I’m writing them in my head, they’re filled with much more content than what’s published. The thing is, I usually write them late at night when I’m tired, and at that point I just want to get it done.

  13. jackieholness Says:

    My blog pieces are pretty much first draft pieces…but that’s part of the beauty of blogging…I think blogging should, at its best, give you an interior look at the author of the blog…I aspire for my blog to read like you just happened across my journals of which I’ve been keeping since high school…but I LOVE rewrites…

  14. jackieholness Says:

    And my blog for those who are curious is afterthealtarcall.com…fellow writers let me know what you think….

  15. Pamela Says:

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge/experience….I learned a lot from this post.

  16. clove Says:

    I LOVE THIS! great to see the original version and the changes that led to the final and to see that every writer gets edited

    “But writing, dear readers, is actually re-writing.”

    that to me is one of the most important lessons in writing. I think some writers write a piece once and never look at it again. how?! I was always told to keep rewriting a piece until you can’t writes no more. I dunno if maybe that can be too much sometimes and result in an over-written (if that makes sense) piece? More on that in my guest blog I guess ;)

  17. Yolonda Says:

    I am not writer, however, your blog (and Michael’s piece) and your editing skills, make me want to write something, however, I am a numbers person, so I should probably stick to that.

    PS. Can’t you tell from how short my comments are?!? LOL

  18. jay1 Says:

    that was dope.

  19. fuzzylogic Says:

    dude, i wish i had this advice when I first started graduate school 5 years ago. I learned more about writing and re-writing in the last 5 minutes of reading your edits than … possibly ever (U.S. education sucks!). I like this the most tho:

    “But writing, dear readers, is actually re-writing.”

    Truth. Thx for the helpful suggestions!

  20. Alisha Says:

    I’m so late with my comment, but this post is just what I need! I haven’t written anything in the last couple of weeks, but I will keep this in mind. I have to keep in mind that as a writer, you have control over what the reader reads and sometimes how they can interpret it. If I’d written Michael’s story, I would have probably included leaving my number in the letter, too. It does leave the element of surprise without it. Who would’ve known Mary would actually call? Thanks for pointing that out.

  21. JennyWHOA Says:


    This piece on editing is immensely helpful to me, a so-called fellow writer.

    I read Michael’s edited piece first and was immediately struck by the very first line. I thought, “Wow, Mikey is such a great writer.”

    And not that he isn’t but it almost made me feel inadequate with my own writing skills.

    So it was immeasurably helpful for me to know that while he is a great writer, it comes with some practice, some editing (re-writing) and a little help along the way :)

    This wasn’t just informative, it was encouraging.

    I’m dying to write, like, right now.

  22. JennyWHOA Says:

    Oh and leaving out the fact that he included his number in the letter to Mary? Genius!!! Three exclamation marks LOL.

  23. mamajanna Says:

    After being mugged several years ago I wrote a gut-wrenching piece and submitted it to several magazines, all of whom rejected it. The assault was so devestating to me and the hurt and pain and recovery were very evident in the article. So much so that I couldn’t stand to read it and finally destroyed it. Kudos to Michael for being able to put yourself out there, warts and all. It’s a key point to successful writing.

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