Show, Don't Tell: Strategies for Improving Student Writing

Your students have just handed in a creative writing assignment, and you can’t help but notice that they have delivered a basic chronological overview of the plot.  You're disappointed in the lack of detailed description that allows you to experience and visualize the story.  

So, you might be wondering, how do you teach your students to replace a basic summary of events with detailed, sensory writing that draws the reader into the story?  

To put it simply, you teach them how to show, not tell.  

The strategy of showing vs. telling isn't one that comes naturally to all writers, but it is one that can be taught.  

Below is a breakdown of how I help students show rather than tell in their own writing:

1. Start with a Quote Analysis 

I typically introduce this strategy to student by having them examine a quote by Anton Chekhov that encapsulates the spirit of the showing vs. telling strategy.  

"Don't tell me the moon is shining. 

Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov  

This quote will pique their interest before you even introduce the strategy.  Ask students to explain the meaning of the quote and how it might relate to writing.  I also like to circle back to this quote at the end of the lesson to see if it holds more significance after students have an understanding of showing vs. telling. 

2. Examine the Difference Between Showing and Telling 

For students to wrap their heads around the showing vs. telling strategy, you'll want to explicitly make the difference between these them very clear.  They will need to see it in action in order to emulate it in their own writing. 

Below are the definitions that I provide to students: 


When you show the reader what is happening or how a character feels, you are allowing them to engage their own imagination. You are painting a picture with your words to allow the reader to connect with the story. They will almost be able to smell, taste, touch, see, and hear what the characters are experiencing.


When you are only telling the reader what is happening, what a character is doing, or how they are feeling, it does not fully allow your reader to feel truly connected and engaged with the events and characters in the story. 

Once students have a grasp on the difference between the writing strategies, you'll want to follow up with lots of examples of this strategy in action.   This easily allows them to see the power of the strategy and they will naturally begin to apply it to their own writing.  Here is an example you can share with your students: 

Telling: She was scared of the dog.

Showing: When she saw the dog approaching, her knees buckled, her plum cheeks turned ghost white, and her hands clutched the metal railing so tightly that she practically needed the jaws of life to pry them off.

You might consider having students close their eyes as you read sentences to them and ask them to visualize your words.  This will further  illustrate the power of showing in engaging the reader.

3. Model the Process with your Students

Another powerful way to drive the message home is by modelling the process for your students by writing a basic ‘telling’ sentence on the board and working your way through improving it.

I would highly recommend doing this without preparation by starting with a simple sentence and letting students observe the challenges you encounter as you are working to improve it. Let them see you taking time to reflect, making mistakes, and changing your mind as you go along, etc. It’s important for them to witness the very real, very human struggle that often accompanies the creative writing process. Demonstrating this in real time without preparation will give students permission to be imperfect themselves! 

You could even have each student contribute a basic ‘telling’ sentence on a small slip of paper. After collecting them, you would then pick one out of the hat and model the process of making it a ‘showing’ sentence to the class.

4. Share Specific Strategies for Students to Use

Help students improve this skill by sharing some specific strategies that they can use to improve showing in their writing.  Below are three they can use: 

Examining the 5 Senses: 
Before students begin the writing process, have them complete a graphic organizer that includes a space for each of the 5 senses.  Have them consider their topic and the events of their story and how they can improve setting, character, or plot descriptions by bringing in more imagery. 

Not all senses work for all stories, but have them consider each.  What sights might they encounter?  What textures and sensations might they be experiencing? What sounds are they hearing? Are there are any taste or smell elements that make sense to include? This is a great way to start off on the right foot, so students are entering the writing process with showing already at the forefront. 

Using Figurative Language
Teach students how they can use figurative language like metaphor, simile, personification, or onomatopoeia to improve their descriptions and showing in their writing.  For example, you might say “A white blanket covered our town while we slept,” rather than simply saying, "It snowed last night." 

Using dialogue, interior monologue, body language, and actions
Teach students how they can relay information about character traits by avoiding stating them directly using the character's words, body language, and actions.  Instead of saying that is a character is untrustworthy, for example, you could show it in an action they take (stealing something - telling a secret) or in something they say.   A writer can reveal a lot about a character in this way.  As another example, instead of saying that a character is insecure, a writer could demonstrate that she is, based on an interior monologue, her body language, or through a conversation with another character.  Teach students to give credit to their reader that they will be able to infer character traits without having to be told directly.

4. Give Scaffolded Opportunities for Practice 

Learning something new can be intimidating for the best of us, and it’s no different for students. It's important that you scaffold by easing students into independence with practicing this strategy. Just like it’s ideal to get a child used to riding their bike with training wheels before unleashing them to do it on their own, it’s a good idea to ease students into the showing vs. telling strategy before taking off their proverbial training wheels. Introduce the concept, provide plenty of examples and work for them to practice with before cutting them loose to try it independently.  

Use the activities below to ease students into writing using the showing strategy: 

Examining pre-written sentences

Have students examine short pre-written examples. This takes the pressure off, but still allows them to examine the difference between the two strategies.   I do this by adding a fun spin where the correct answers reveal a mystery word.

Partner Practice

Once students have a solid grasp on the concept and have examined some sentences of showing in action, they’ll be ready to practice with a partner. A simple but effective way to do this is by having one person write a basic ‘telling’ sentence, which the other person has to improve upon by making it a ‘showing’ sentence. 

Exploring Other Authors 

Have students pick a book off the shelf and find sentences or paragraphs that show and sentences that tell.  Then, have them rewrite each of those sentences so that they do the opposite. Grab this free activity here. 

Scripted Sensory Sketch

One of my favorite ways to have students practice showing vs. telling in their writing is with a scripted sensory sketch assignment like the one I use hereStudents will secretly be given a visual photo prompt.  They complete a 5 senses assignment to gather words to describe the photo, and proceed to write a paragraph using the showing strategy. When they are done the paragraph, they give it to their partner to draw what was described in writing.  In the end, they can compare their drawing to the original image.  It’s a fun way for students to immerse themselves in the showing vs. telling strategy, and refine their skills based on how someone else visualized their description.

I hope these suggestions help give your students the confidence to implement this strategy in their own writing.    

Find all the resources you need to teach this strategy in digital and print format here.

Looking for more materials to improve student writing?  The bloggers of The Secondary English Coffee Shop have you covered! 

Descriptive Writing Mini-Unit by The Daring English Teacher 

Writing Lessons: Word Choice by Room 213 

Indirect an Direct Characterization (Show, Don't Tell) by Secondary Sara

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