After teaching students how to create lively characters and to use imagery, I felt good about myself until I read their next assignment. My creative writing lessons had failed. Littered with a lot of telling and very little showing, my students' writing made me want to rip off my toe nails with needle nosed pliers. Seconds before the cuticle ripped, I thought of a great way to teach students how to show instead of tell. I released the pliers, wrapped some tape around my big toe, called my wife, and told her I’d be home late.
I had work to do. I had to find a better way of teaching writing style, a way to help students convert telling sentences into showing sentences. Here’s what I came up with:
Show Don’t Tell Exercise
Answering the news reporter questions_--who, what, when, where, why, how_--turns bland writing into active writing.
- Write the following sentence on the board: “Mr. Smith is celebrating.”
- Ask students the following questions:
- Does this sentence paint a picture for the reader?
- Does it leave questions in the reader’s mind?
- Does it answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, how?
- How could it answer who, what, when, where, why, how and paint a picture for the reader?
- Instruct students to answer the following questions:
- Who is Mr. Smith?
- What does he do when he celebrates?
- When does he celebrate?
- Where does he celebrate?
- Why is he celebrating?
- How is he celebrating?
Instruct students to rewrite the aforementioned telling sentence. Here’s my example:
After 12 years of teaching chemistry, Mr. Smith lost it. He began oinking like a pig and shouting, “I love Bastille Day” as he ran through the halls of Foothill High School. It didn’t matter to Mr. Smith that Bastille Day was over a month away.
“I’m going home and watch my favorite team in the NBA Finals!” Mr. Smith, my new boss, shouted while giving me a high-five followed by an elbow in the face. He stood over me for a few seconds and growled…
Write the following sentences on the board and instruct students to rewrite them using the reporter’s formula
Bill is handsome.
Susan is athletic.
I am enjoying school today.
Eggs are fun to throw
Allow several minutes for students to write their new sentences.
Ask students to share their sentences. I recommend a sentence challenge, similar to the paragraph challenge, the most motivating writing assignment I have ever seen.
Creative writing lessons can be used for revision as well. In fact, teaching writing style becomes more effective with revising. Follow these steps to help students apply their knowledge of changing telling sentences to showing sentences:
- Instruct students to read their rough draft to a partner.
- The partner should listen for telling sentences.
- Instruct partners to listen for telling signal words: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.
- Instruct author to highlight telling sentences and rewrite using the news reporter formula.
- Post rewrites on the board or read aloud to the class.
* This lesson has been adapted from Mini Lessons for Revision by Susan Geye, 1997, Absey & Co. Spring, TX.
- Teacher experience.
This post is part of the series: Style: It’s What Quality Writers Possess
Neophyte writers assume style comes naturally. That’s why they have none. Style occurs no more naturally in writing than it does in fashion or music. It’s a deliberate creation of the stylist combined with serendipitous discovery while engaged in the creative process. It can be taught.