Show, Don’t Tell and Nonfiction

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

Those writing fiction are often told, “show, don’t tell.” This little phrase is a reminder that the statement “Kate was mad” is far less powerful than showing us through Kate’s actions that she’s mad. (Slamming a door could be one example, but that’s a cliché. Even better would be to show Kate doing something that Kate as a unique character would do to show anger.)

My question today is: what does “show, don’t tell” have to do with nonfiction writing?

A mink a fink a skating rink Here’s a thought—if Brian P. Cleary’s book A Mink, a Fink, a Skating Rink: What Is a Noun? simply told readers what a noun is, rather than giving examples showing readers what nouns are, the entire text of the book would be: A noun is a word that names a person, animal, place, or thing. Not very compelling, is it?

In a book about a certain period of history, simply telling readers that life was hard isn’t all that credible. Readers need examples and details to help bring that period of time to life so that they Claudette Colvinbetter understand it. I’m currently reading the new National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Early in the book, Phillip Hoose does a great job of describing Jim Crow and giving specific examples that really show readers the injustice of the time period.

Another thing to watch for is adjectives such as amazing or interesting. Rather than telling readers that a certain butterfly’s appearance is amazing, a stronger approach is to show readers, through description and detail, exactly why that butterfly’s appearance is amazing.

Unlike novelists, many nonfiction writers (and picture book authors, for that matter) have the befit of photographs or illustrations. These offer an excellent opportunity to show readers all kinds of things. And in most cases, the writer doesn’t need to provide quite as much explanation when a photo accompanies the text. However, the text (or a good caption) can help to point out details readers might not otherwise notice or provide background information about the photo. A photograph of Michael Jordan making a slam dunk will tell readers plenty about his athleticism. But you’ll need the caption to find out that the photo was taken in the final moments of a playoff game.

When a nonfiction writer follows “show, don’t tell,” readers benefit. The act of showing helps readers better understand the topic, makes the book something other than an extended encyclopedia entry on the topic, and is just plain more fun to read!

One thought on “Show, Don’t Tell and Nonfiction

  1. Kelly Milner Halls

    Carol, I love this post and I couldn't agree with it more. The nonfiction books I love most are written by authors who respect — or better still LOVE the facts they are writing about; writers who use words thoughtfully and with great care. I aspire to the same in every nonfiction book I write. If I hit the mark, the kids let me know. If I don't, the silence will be deafening.

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