“Show don’t tell,” we say over and over to students.
It’s harder than it sounds, though, maybe for multiple reasons. First of all, sometimes writers DO tell. Sometimes, we just need to relay some information or make a scene go by quickly. As early as fourth grade, we have lessons that involve the differences between scenes and summaries. Summaries can be important in the narrative writer’s tool bag because if we’re going to slow down important parts, then we have to speed up non-important parts, and that involves telling and not showing.
Another issue that complicates the showing/telling conundrum is how do you really do it? Show don’t tell is trickier that it sounds. Working to make this concept become more visible for students, I teach them that there are four main elaboration strategies when they are writing narrative pieces: action, description, dialogue, and inner thinking.
With this chart in place, I introduce them to a “tool” that has these four strategies on it.
My challenge to myself and then to students is to go through their pieces, sometimes an entire piece and sometimes just in sections, and tally the number of times any of the strategies appear. In the example below, I used a story I’ve been modeling for a third-grade classroom about Cally who decided that she really wanted bangs and took matters into her own hands.
With this chart in place, students helped me with a reflective critique about my developing story. The tallies revealed places where I overdid a specific strategy as well as places where I maybe underdid a strategy. We had some great conversations about balance and whether stories need to have an equal number of strategies or if it’s okay to have some outweighing the others. We agreed that there are times when these strategies need not be equal, but our job as writers is to be intentional. “You just need to know,” one boy said, and his classmates agreed. The tool below is from the middle part of one of their stories when the main character breaks her arm.
“The action is so important in that part that it’s okay to have so much action compared to the other three,” one student declared– a sophisticated reflection about elaboration and its role in story.
While this chart and tool is specific to narrative writing, there’s no reason it couldn’t be tweaked for information or opinion writing. Just as narrative writing has concrete strategies for elaboration, so do the other genres. For information writing, elaboration strategies could, depending on your grade level, include facts, small stories, comparisons, description, or explanations. Likewise those strategies for opinion writing could be giving examples, explaining examples, using quotes, statistics, or facts, and addressing the other side.
Whenever we can make abstract concepts seem more concrete for our students, we create pathways of growth for them, and whenever we can encourage revision, the better for students. After all, revision is the process that makes writing better– for all of us.