Show, Don’t (Just) Tell

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7 Simple but Effective Tips for More Engaging, Persuasive Writing

Don’t just tell me your brother is talented… show me what he can do, and let me decide whether I’m impressed. To convince your readers, show, don’t just tell them what you want them to know.

There. I’ve just told you something. Pretty boring, huh? Now, let me show you.

My brother is talented.

There’s nothing informative, or engaging, or compelling about this sentence. You have no reason to believe or disbelieve me, and no reason to care. (TELLING is boring and unconvincing.)

My brother modifies sports car engines, competes in ballroom dance tournaments, and analyzes chess algorithms.

“Wow, that guy is talented,” you say to yourself. You didn’t need me to TELL you what you’re supposed to think, because I carefully chose those details. (They SHOW you the range of my brother’s talents.)

(Creative writers, see Short Stories: 10 Tips for Creative Writers, Crisis vs. Conflict, and Developing Ideas for Short Fiction.)

Contents

  1. Choose Specific Details That Show Your Point
  2. Give the Reader a Reason to Feel Your Emotions
  3. Provide Engaging Details That Imply the Main Point
  4. Show with Informative Details and/or  Emotional Language
  5. “Telling” States Facts; “Showing” Invites Deeper Understanding
  6. Showing Prefers the Specific to the General
  7. Sometimes, “Telling” Is Good

1) Choose Specific Details That Show Your Point

You won’t need to write a boring, uninformative and unpersuasive sentence like “Texting while driving is bad” if you can instead SHOW your point, through well-chosen details  (such as statistics, specific examples, or personal stories) that SHOW in a persuasive way.

Let’s consider this point: “This tired child needs a nap.” That’s pretty dry, so let’s try to make it more vivid and persuasive.

No The little girl looked so tired, she clearly needed a nap.
This sentence gets right to the point, but nothing about it engages the imagination or makes the reader want to keep reading.
Mabye The brown-eyed little girl wore a plastic Viking cap, and her mouth was sticky from candy. Standing there in her dress-up clothes, she looked more tired than I had ever seen a child look. But she was so very stubborn, I saw we were headed for a battle.
This version mentions the author’s reaction: this child is tired. It also offers a motive: the author must get her to take a nap. But what does wearing a Viking cap or having brown eyes have to do with being tired? These random details do give the reader something to work with — something to flesh out the bare claim, but the details don’t actually contribute to the main point.
Yes Her sleepy brown eyes hardened into red-rimmed slits. She cocked her plastic Viking helmet aggressively, the horns sticking out only a little more than her curls. One fist clutched a decapitated lollipop, the other a cardboard sword. She leveled the point at my chest. “You mean dragon!” she growled. “You’ll never make me nap!”
Now that I’ve added more battle-related details (the sword, the dragon, the “decapitated lollipop”), the Viking hat makes a little more sense, and we get the idea that we’re about to face an epic temper tantrum. The details provided in this version all SHOW the reader what’s at stake. But the “brown” in “sleepy brown eyes” is just a random detail, and could easily be cut. The important details, however, provide clues that you can assemble, so that you say to yourself, “Wow, that little girl is stubborn, and she sure needs that nap!”

But what if, when you read that version, the message you get is completely different?You might say to yourself, “That horrible girl deserves a spanking,” or “I hope naptime battles don’t crush her creative spunk.” The point is, you are interpreting what the details show, you are building on those details — you are engaging with the examples in a meaningful way.

For a given writing task, if communicating a precise, factual, word-for-word message (such as “the red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only”) is more important than engaging the reader’s emotions, imagination, and/or intellect, then in that case, telling is more efficient than showing.

But showing specific examples can help drive home the message you’ve told. Thus, the title of this page is “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell,” not “Show, Don’t Tell.”

2) Give the Reader a Reason to Feel Your Emotions

If you are writing a set of instructions or a professional e-mail, you don’t want to tease the reader by SHOWING indirectly. To convey complex technical details, TELL (“insert tab A into slot B”) and be done with it.

But if you want to engage the reader’s heart, mind, and imagination, SHOW with vivid details that generate, in your reader, the emotions you want to express. Rather than classify and list all the emotions that YOU felt, use specific details that give the READER a reason to feel those emotions.

No I’ll never forget how I felt after Fido died. I was miserable.
Simply naming the feelings that you experienced (telling your reader what you felt) is not enough to create interest in the reader. Can you find a way to generate, in your reader, the same feelings that you experienced?
Maybe If I live for a thousand years, I’ll never forget how utterly and terribly alone I felt after Fido died. Months and months went by, and it seemed that every little thing reminded me of him. I don’t know whether I am ever going to get over his death.
While the author has added specific details, those details merely assist the telling – they don’t actually give the reader a reason to love Fido,and to suffer along with the writer.
Yes Whenever puppies in the pet store window distracted me from our walk, Fido flattened his scruffy ears, growling. But he always forgave me. As his sight faded, the smell of fresh air and the feel of grass would make him try to caper. Eventually, at the sound of my voice, his tail thumped weakly on the ground. This morning, I filled his water bowl all the way to the top–just the way he likes it–before I remembered.
Reading this last revision (sniff!) always makes me sad.These carefully chosen details help us to understand the relationship between the pet and his owner.

  • We see the dog is jealous of puppies, we see that he grows increasingly weak, and we see the author is still in the habit of caring for this dog.
  • We don’t need to know what color the dog is or how cute his nose is (just as we don’t need to know what the author looks like).

Because the author does not supply a sentence that announces, “I loved Fido and still can’t believe he’s gone,” the reader is left to make that connection. That means the reader has to engage with the author’s details, and becomes more intellectually and emotionally engaged in the story as a result.

3) Encourage the Reader’s Involvement: Show Details that Imply the Main Point

No From the way she behaved in the crowded restaurant, you could tell Sally was attracted to the cute stranger in the black shirt. She tried a few things to get his attention, and eventually she thought she succeeded.
The author wastes no time providing the information, but the story is very thin… nothing interesting seems to be happening.
Yes That stranger had been scanning the room, and this time, Sally thought his eyes flickered in her direction. Wait — was that a half smile? Had he just put his hand on his heart? Or was he just brushing something off of his shirt? That shirt looked soft. Sally smiled.He’s kind of cute,” her roommate giggled.Sally casually looked away, twirling a curl. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, letting her eyes rest on the artwork, the flowers, a random face in the crowd, and found another excuse to laugh. Carefully turning her profile, she crossed her legs like her friends had practiced in middle school. That ought to do it, she thought.
The reader is left to figure out what’s going on, which is more engaging for a story. There is tension, and even a bit of character development.

The original version of Sally’s story tells me a few specific but isolated details — for instance, the color of the stranger’s shirt. But is that detail important? (It’s not.) Without coming right out and saying “Sally was attracted to the man,” the revision shows a series of different details (Sally notices the shirt, then wonders what it feels like) that come together to form a pattern– but the author does not come right out and announce what the pattern means.

Is Sally a sultry temptress at an embassy dinner, or a knobby-kneed waif about to embarrass herself at a high school dance? At this point, we can only imagine — and that keeps us reading.

No Winning is important to me. It doesn’t matter to me what I do, so long as I win. 
Unengaging and unconvincing. This is like saying “I am a hard worker” or “I am a fast learner.” Anyone can make those claims, but without proof they have no persuasive force.
Yes On the shelf in my bedroom is a first-place football trophy, and a first-place chess trophy.  Above my bed on one side is the head of a four-point buck I shot when I was 16, and on the other side is a framed photo of me winning “Junior Chef of the Year.”  Before you ask me to play cards, you should have a full wallet.  If your son wants to play marbles with me, he should know I play for keeps.  If your daughter starts crying while I’m playing house with her, I won’t stop until she looks me in the eye, and admits, “You won!”
Okay, the bit about trying to “win” while “playing house” is a bit extreme — I wouldn’t recommend putting that in a resume, but my point in including it in this example is to demonstrate how well-chosen details can generate an emotional response in the reader that a dry statement cannot.

4) Show with Informative Details and/or Emotional Language

No I like many different sports, from skiing to rock-climbing, but when it comes right down to it, I would have to say that ping-pong is my favorite sport.
Telling (No Details) — Snooze. This kind of writing can help you meet a word count, but it really boils down to “I like ping-pong.” All the rest is filler. There’s nothing in this passage that expresses how the author feels about ping-pong, and nothing that informs or persuades the reader.
Maybe Ping-pong is a really interesting sport. Casual players may find it relaxing, but to get really good, you need manual dexterity, agility and endurance.
Telling (Dry Details) — While the author has added details, those details merely assist the telling – this passage still starts out with “I like ping-pong.” A reader who doesn’t already love ping-pong will have no reason to change his or her mind.
Yes Ping-pong may look like a relaxing pastime, but for experts, winning the game requires manual dexterity, agility, and endurance.
Showing with  Informative Detail — While there’s nothing particularly engaging in this opening, if the rest of the paper demonstrates that, in order to make the transition from “relaxing pastime” to “winning the game,” you need “dexterity,” “agility” and “endurance,” then you see that this sentence isn’t just a random list of stuff to talk about. This opening line isn’t just throat-clearing or filler — it’s a carefully chosen table of contents, mentioning the topic of each of the supporting paragraphs.
Yes He’s drenched in sweat, his knuckles are white, he’s on the other side of the ping-pong table, and I’m about to bring him down.
Showing with Emotional Language — There’s no need for the author of the last sample to write, “I like ping-pong” or “ping-pong is more serious than you think,” because the vivid details allshow these points. The fact that the opponent is sweating means you need endurance. The fact that his knuckles are white suggest he’s nervous. The author’s claim “I’m about to bring him down” suggests that attitude and psychology play a role in ping-pong. This document might not be as technically or factually informative as the “Showing with Detail” paragraph, but if your goal is to convey the idea that ping-pong is worthy of serious attention, then you might motivate your reader to reconsider their opinion of the game.

5) “Telling” states facts or observations. “Showing” invites much deeper understanding.

No All the kids knew that Lucinda was the meanest kid in the third grade. She was prissy and cute, and she thought that meant she could get away with anything. She would always go out of her way to torment me. I wasn’t one of the “cool” kids, and the few kids I knew were just the guys I played chess with during recess — they weren’t really friends. Plus, I was clumsy. So I was a good target. She tormented me so much she made the third grade a living hell.
Okay, we understand the author wants us to think Lucinda is mean, but we don’t actually see her do anything. Does the narrator have a good reason to fear Lucinda, or is the narrator a whiner-baby? There’s not enough information for us to know (or care).
Yes When the recess bell rang, I grabbed my chess set and dashed to freedom, eager to win the daily tournament of outcasts. I didn’t look, but I knew Lucinda was watching, I could feel her curly locks swaying as her head tracked me. Of course, I tripped in the doorway. Tennis shoes and sandals stepped around me as I scrambled after pawns and bishops. And there was Lucinda, waiting for me to notice her. She smiled, lifted her shiny patent-leather shoe, and slowly, carefully ground her heel right on the head of my white queen.
Here, we read a detailed account of Lucinda’s behavior (she has a habit of going “after” the narrator; she waits until she has the narrator’s attention before crushing his queen), and we can judge for ourselves.

Both passages make the same point, but the second does a much better job of engaging the reader.

The second passage focuses in detail on one specific event. Instead of simply calling himself clumsy (as in the first passage), the author shows us one specific occasion when he trips, and the writing brings us down to the ground with him, so that we see what he sees and feel what he feels.

The second passage never comes out and says “I didn’t have any friends,” but the fact that nobody stops to help the narrator makes us gather that the guy is an outcast. We learn quite a bit about the author in just that passage.

Ultimately, there is no need to call Lucinda mean in the second passage, because that concept is conveyed effectively by the surprising detail of the shiny patent-leather shoe crushing the queen. There is no deadwood — it is packed with details, creating a more vivid emotional picture than the first one.

We actually learn something about Lucinda — she is not just being mean, she wants the narrator’s attention, too. Notice that she attacked the queen, of all pieces. Does she consider the chess set to be her competition?

6) Showing Prefers the Specific to the General

No He looked at me in a way that wasn’t exactly threatening, but still made me uncomfortable.
This is just a fancier way of tellingthe reader a feeling by stating something that happened and spelling out exactly what effect it had on you. What, exactly, did this guy do with his eyes, face, and body that made you uncomfortable? Describe his actions, and show your reader exactly what made you uncomfortable.

  • Did he waggle his eyebrows at you in a vaguely sensual manner?
  • Did he stare directly at you while taking a gigantic bite out of a chicken wing, so that bits of cartilage crunched in his mouth as he chewed?
  • Did he keep glancing up at a point just above your head, as if something was about to drop on you, and then laugh when you looked up to see for yourself?
No Clearly, something must be done about this terrible crisis.
The words “clearly” or variations (“nobody can doubt that…” or “as we all know”) are often signs that the writer isn’t entirely sure the point that follows is persuasive enough. (I confess, I use such words myself, so they can’t be all bad… obviously.)Instead of just announcing that a certain thing is “terrible” or “horrendous” or “the most hideous thing you can possibly imagine” and expecting your reader to believe you, a good writer should present evidence (vivid examples) that lead the reader to conclude, on his or her own, that this thing is terrible.

7) Sometimes, “Telling” Is Good

When our goal is simply to inform, not to persuade or engage, TELLING does the job quite well — particularly if it’s part of an overall strategy.

That’s the reason I didn’t call this handout “Show, Don’t Tell” — I called it “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell,” because it’s perfectly acceptable to TELL the minor details that add up to the point you want to SHOW. In fact, it’s necessary to TELL.

For instance, in the opening example, I simply TOLD you that my brother modifies sports engines. I could have SHOWN his interest in cars instead: “His hands are grease-stained, he owns NASCAR posters, and on Saturday afternoons, he’s usually under his car.” But to SHOW you his interest in cars, I had to TELL you details about his hands, how he decorates his house, and what he does with his time.

I carefully chose what details to TELL, expecting those details to add up in a meaningful way that SHOWS you something in an engaging way.

Yes “Our coach is a former champion wrestler, but now he is overpaid, overweight, and over forty.” –Dena Taylor
This example TELLS a string of details, carefully organized for humorous effect — and the speaker’s choice to present the coach this way gives us a glimpse of their relationship.Based on the speaker’s attitude, how do you think the team has been faring so far this season? What relationship does the speaker have with the coach? The combination of details and tone SHOW far more than what any individual detail TELLS.So this is an excellent use of TELLING minor details in order to SHOW a bigger point.
Yes “These are the times that try men’s souls.” –Thomas Paine
In stark contrast to the flowery language in political tracts designed for the nobility, Tom Paine uses stark, plain language to engage the common citizen.Later in the piece, he SHOWS with details exactly why he feels men’s souls are tried, and he persuades his audience what they should do about it. But here, he is TELLING something that the audience already agrees with, so that he can capture their attention and get them to listen to his bigger points.
Yes “I am your father.” — Darth Vader
The bluntness of this statement adds to the dramatic punch as Luke reacts to the news in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
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by Dennis G. Jerz

  • 08 May 2000 — posted in ORR
  • 15 Jun 2000 — minor edits
  • 31 Oct 2002 — added Wood’s comment on inference
  • Apr 2003 — revised, trimmed, added different examples
  • 03 Mar 2004 — corrected Vader quote.
  • 14 Sep 2006 — expanded Fido example; minor tweaking
  • 10 Sep 2010 — tightened writing; added ping-pong example
  • 23 Oct 2010 — added naptime example; ongoing tweaks
  • 30 Mar 2011 — more minor tweaks
  • 06 Apr 2011 — adding “texting” example; adding tail-thumping to Fido example; other minor edits.
  • 26 Jul 2011 — formatting; added ToC; beefed up “telling” section
  • 01 Feb 2012 — added passages about how “showing” can convey different messages to different readers, so it’s appropriate to “tell” when the exact words of a message are important.
  • 10 Feb 2012 — formatting tweaks

 

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119 thoughts on “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell

  1. I love your writing tips, I run sessions on creative writing for the National Health Service in England and I have seacrched hundreds of websites in my time, your blogs are definately the best I have encountered. Thank you very much

  2. Wow this thing is of real help……thanks for posting this…
    My sis sent me the link… keep up the good work

  3. This is great advice, and I use it as a link for my creative writing class. There’s just one itty-bitty issue I have with it. You use the word “lame” in the beginning of this, and while I know this word has found its way into our contemporary venacular, it can still be very offensive to people with disabilities (as its original meaning is “weak-limbed” or “broken”). I never usually comment on things like this, but I hate to see such a good resource start on such a negative note.

    • Thanks for your note, Amanda. I think of that word in the context of “lame duck” — it’s not a word I would apply to people, but that doesn’t exonerate me. I do use the words “blind” and “deaf” metaphorically because they are everywhere in literature, and I do point out to my students the physical bias we see in children’s movies (where a scar, the disfigurement, extra weight, or a large nose is typically a marker of evil). I will revise that word.

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  6. im currently writting short stories and i find this info useful so much so that i couldnt have reached where i am right now without it.thanks a lot

  7. Thanks so much for writing these. I’m part of a ‘write-and-edit’ circle (who despite devoting vast swathes of time to words can’t come up with a better name for ourselves) at school, and I’ve just been given my first work to edit. These posts are like signposts to the things that can be improved, but put into words even a student at 2am can understand. Again, I thank you.

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  9. thanks mr Jerz for your tips, am so impressed to get them.they will help me a lot to write my fiction story.

  10. Like most, I was struggling with what I consider to be the most difficult part of fiction writing: showing vs telling. Your article with so many specific examples gave me really useful perspective. More importantly, it motivates me to make a conscious effort to replace the “telling” in my writing with more imaginative “showing”!

    I could have as well said ” Great tips on showing vs telling” but I hope I am learning to show rather than tell:)

    Thanks, Dennis, for this terrific post!

  11. Writing newbie. I just learned the “show not tell” maxim in a writing class. It made sense to me and these examples are very helpful. Is there ever a style using “showing” examples and then the last paragraph “reflecting in the author’s voice on the theme? I suppose pastor’s do it in sermons but I don’t want to preach. Is there ever a good reason to use that as a style or is it always weaker?

    • In modern fiction, it’s not common to reftect in the author’s voice, but the Series of Unfortunate Events books created a fictional author to do the reflecting, and it was very effective. Your mileage may vary.

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  14. Truly a great lesson on ‘Showing, not Telling’. This is by far the clearest explanation I have found on the internet. The examples provided are nice illustrations of the difference in the two approaches. Thank you so much for this post. I am grateful to people like you who are willing to share their expertise with others. Be blessed!

  15. Mr Jerz, many a short story I have shelved because something went wrong that i couldn’t figure out. Your blog pointed them all out. It’s liberating!

    cheers!

  16. Thank you for sharing! I can now clearly see what my professor meant by “show, don’t tell.”

  17. I kind of like this post. It does do a good job helping people understand the difference between “Show” and “Tell”. But on a personal note I believe many authors think that Show means to overly draw out and add much more description than is needed to make a point. Take your first example of the sleepy child who needs a nap. “She sat in front of the television set, her head sinking slowly down then suddenly jerking up as her mother watched on from the couch.” This is all that needs to be said to give you a good visual of a child that needs a nap, of Showing that a child is sleepy and not Telling. All the extra description of the sleepy brown eyes hardened into red-rimmed slits, viking helmet, sword, decapitated lollipop, and the dialogue which was very clearly added to point out that someone was trying to make her take a nap, was not only unnecessary but actually hurts the point you’re trying to get across and distracts the reader. I don’t see a child that needs a nap, I see a brat who needs a slap and less candy even though the author “told” me her eye’s were sleepy… To turn Telling into Showing you do not need to add all of the extra description that most authors add, you simply need to give a visualization of what you want the reader to know. If every author took an idea as simple as “This child needs a nap” and turned it into what happened in this post, our agents and editors brains are going to explode when they start getting 1500 page manuscripts lol. For the Fido post this is all that’s needed. “Every morning I reach over to feel the pillow where his small soft body used to greet me but all I feel are the dull cold sheets which cover my bed. Then, all over again, I realize Fido’s gone.” Your “good” post for Fido didn’t even show how the man was miserable after Fido died, it just told a touching overly drawnout moment where he was sad about Fido’s death. I don’t know who wrote those, but Show does not mean to add in a bunch of stuff that isn’t necessary and ends up being a distraction. Fido being jealous doesn’t show how the man’s miserable because of his death. The visual of the man feeding the dog and then realizing he’s gone doesn’t either. It’s just a visual of a man getting sad at one moment, and it is very touching, but he doesn’t feed his dead dog everyday. Or at least it doesn’t Show me that he does and is miserable because of it.

  18. To simplify my extremely long post

    To Show does not require a lot of extra descriptive words. You simply need the right descriptive words told in a way which causes the reader to visualize a scene in their own mind. Please don’t go back over all your writing and turn each sentence into a paragraph or entire chapter because you are trying to Show the reader something which you were Telling them before. If you’re original sentence was “The child was tired and needed a nap.” change it to “Her head nodded slowly up and down as she tried to watch her favorite cartoon.” That’s it. Don’t add in a sword or helmet plz lol. You just went from telling us a child was tired and needed a nap, to showing us a child was tired, and we assumed in our mind because we’re brilliant that she needed a nap if that’s where you’re going with it.

    • “Her head nodded slowly up and down as she tried to watch her favorite cartoon.” is not showing. That merely tells us a different aspect on how a child can be tired. Every child is different and the way every child gets tired will be different. It also already tells us ‘she tried to watch’ when you wrote ‘her head nodded slowly up and down.’ You say not to be ‘wordy.’ Wouldn’t it be better to write ‘Her head bobbed’ or something of the sort?

    • Not to mention, you missed the point. Did you see the picture of the girl posted above? Our writing is supposed to paint a picture like that with our own flare. So a tired girl really did have a viking helmet on. You can tell she is tired from the circles under her eyes.

  19. Thanks for your detailed comments, HRKelley.

    “showing us a child was tired, and we assumed in our mind because we’re brilliant that she needed a nap” — While I don’t believe it takes brilliance to make that connection, yes, an author who assumes the reader is intelligent enough to make that connection is keeping the reader foremost in mind, and that’s an improvement over writing that either 1) announces feelings, or 2) uses details for the sake of details.

    The questions you raise, whether the person grieving over the dog feeds it every day or whether this is the first day after his death; whether the child who needs the nap is being bratty or simply playing aggressively; these very questions are only possible because SHOWING presents so many opportunities for the reader to interpret, which means there are more points for the reader to interact with, and the writing accomplishes something other than merely transferring data.

    If I hadn’t announced what I thought the Fido or sleepy child examples were supposed to TELL, you would have gotten “That’s a touching moment” or “That child is misbehaving” out of the examples, and those are perfectly legitimate responses. In order to demonstrate the process, I announced what I was planning to communicate, but I’d rather you engage with my writing and come up with your own meaning, even if that meaning does not map entirely to what I’d intended.

    Your responses to my examples of SHOWING perfectly illustrate the kind of deep reader response that I hope my students will shoot for when they SHOW a smaller number of carefully-selected points, rather than TELL a long list of details.

  20. THANK YOU. For some reason, I have had a bizarre block when it came to “Show Don’t Tell.” In fact, I can explain it well…and when I write a scene I am conscious of it and think I’ve conquered my Achilles Heel (I know, I know – CLICHE) but then I’m told I’ve “told too much.” I think your article and your examples are great models and I plan on using it as a resource when I write the FINAL revision on the demon that has been slapping me around for TEN years. :)
    Feel free to email me if you can….I want to fill you in on more that I don’t want to publish here publicly. THANKS AGAIN

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  22. Thank you so much for this website. I am in the process of writing a personal statement for my residency application. I’ve always hated forcing someone to read a boring paper, and often looked for a way to add flair to my assignments. I don’t just want a personal statement, I want a literary work that is engaging and offers a piece of myself to the reader—after all, these poor guys have to read hundreds of statements. You have taught me many helpful facts; the most important being that a wonderful work is often preceded by gobs and gobs of drafts! Your examples are marvelous. I have been able to go back to my writing and objectively judge its “showing-factor” with much success. I can’t believe something this helpful is free! Keep on doing this, Brother.

  23. Hi! I’m a high school writing skills teacher in Mexico City and I’m constantly searching for ideas to help my kids improve their writing. All of your blog is like a candy store of ideas and advice, not only this wonderful Show vs. Tell section and it’s the best and most useful I’ve found. Absolutely outtasite! (you may guess my
    age by the groovy expression!) Thanks for your generous sharing!

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