Verb Pickin’: Showing, Not Telling

OURHOUSE 4019 by Visual Verbs
OURHOUSE 4019 by Visual Verbs (Photo credit: VISUAL.VERBS)

I remember many of the writing teachers I’ve studied under promoting the virtues of “showing” and not “telling”. But what does that mean? They meant that you don’t have to tell your readers that the old woman on the park bench is sad; you can show them:

The old woman on the park bench wept quietly.

Actually, you don’t even have to tell your readers that she’s old:

Wearing a shawl around her shoulders, the woman on the park bench wept quietly, wisps of gray hair escaping the woolen cap, frail bony fingers clutching her handkerchief.

Annie Dillard, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for her work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and author of the incredibly insightful The Writing Life, is famous for her ability to “show” and and “tell”. In her autobiography, An American Childhood (1987), Dillard doesn’t tell the reader that building a road through the Everglades between Tampa and Miami was an arduous job; she shows the reader:

To build the road, men stood sunk in muck to their armpits. They fought off cottonmouth moccasins and six-foot alligators. They slept in boats, wet. They blasted muck with dynamite, cut jungle with machetes; they laid logs, dragged drilling machines, hauled dredges, heaped limestone. The road took fourteen years to build up by the shovelful. -An American Childhood

A well-chosen verb not only heightens the drama of a sentence and makes its meaning clear but also sends a message to the reader that the writer has crafted the sentence carefully, that the idea matters.

The overuse of the linking verb “be” is a common signal that a writer is telling rather than showing. “The old woman is sad.” “The old woman is old.” “Building a road through the Everglades between Tampa and Miami was an arduous job.” It might be surprising when in checking a paragraph or two of your own prose how often you’ve used a form of be as the main verb. An abundance of such examples-say, more than two or three in a paragraph, constitutes a clear “revise” message.

The potential drama and meaning of your prose are weakened or missing altogether when the verbs don’t pull their weight. Sometimes the culprit is one of our other common, garden-variety verbs, such as havemakegodogettake. Because there verbs have so many nuances of meaning, you can often find a more precise one. For example, where you have a selected the verb make, you could probably express yourself more exactly with constituterenderproduceformcompletecompel, or create.

It’s important to note, too, that these alternative to make are not uncommon or esoteric words; they’re certainly a part of a reader’s active vocabulary. Unfortunately, however, the precise vern doesn’t always come to mind when you need it–especially when you’re composing the first draft of something. Rather than stop right there in midsentence or midparagraph to find it, just circle the word you’ve used–or highlight it in someway. Then, during the revision stage, you can take time to think about it again.

For more on this subject, check out Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray.

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