Thursday, September 27, 2012

Teaching Students to Show, Not Tell

According to Prof Mark Spitzer in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2012):
Writing teachers from all disciplines and at all levels have been struggling with the issue of show not tell for centuries. I can't comment on how my colleagues encourage students to cast this demon out, but I can definitely remark on my own approach in introductory creative-writing courses. Basically, for the first half of the semester, I put my students through a drill in which they write "portraits" of people, places, and things. I tell them that what I'm looking for are physical details, and that I'm not interested in anything else. I don't care what their subject matter is, I don't want to see any clever summaries to put anything in perspective for the reader. I just want pure description in the realm of 150 words. Then, after they hand in their portraits, I come along with my red pen, circling words that "tell not show" like a tough-love tyrant.
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Prof Spitzer's observations apply as well to statistics. Too often, students are eager to "tell" the reader their conclusions, completely skipping the duty to "show" their reader how one reached a given conclusion statistically. For example, a learner may be tempted to conclude that a "strong correlation exists between x and y." This statement "tells" the reader that x and y are somehow related. However, the student is failing to "show" how x and y are related, as in a "strong correlation exists between x and y (r = .99; p < .01)" [note the statistically descriptive parenthetical extension to the sentence].

Good writing is good thinking, and while "telling" a story has its place, being able to "show" a reader the basis for one's reasoning is fundamental to good scholarship.

Source: Spitzer, M (2012, September 26), Teaching Students to Show, Not Tell, Chronicle of Higher Education.

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