Showing, telling, and slipping things in

Every year when it comes time for the high school seniors in my classes to compose college entrance and scholarship application essays I encourage them to show more than they tell.  Which is a fine rule to follow when writing anything other than pure reportage.

I tell them that instead of saying outright “I am the president of the student council” it will come off as much more subtle, not to mention humble, if they try this:  “As president of the student council I’ve learned to consider things from several perspectives and to deal with matters that affect more than just me.”

In the second statement the student cleverly conveys that she has learned from experience to be tolerant and less self-centered.  But she stealthily slipped in what she really wanted her reader to know … that she was the president of the student council.

Lest you think that I encourage my students to practice trickery let me remind you that good writing constantly requires clever manipulation.  And such slipping in of things that you want the reader to “get” without slapping them in the face with them is usually the best way to go.

Here’s a good example.  In Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen’s account of living in Kenya in her youth, she recalls the death of a very close friend there many years before.  Now old and near the end of her life she wants her readers to know that she believes in the existence of an afterlife and that she will see her friend again soon.  But she was a good enough writer, an excellent one in fact, to know that simply stating those two beliefs would fall short of conveying their importance.

Near the end she, having never returned to Africa, reads from a letter she received from someone there who tells of a strange occurrence at the grave of her friend:

“The Masai have reported to the district commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on his grave. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood or lain on the grave for a long time. After you went away, the ground around the grave was leveled out into a sort of terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions. From there, they have a view over the plain, and the cattle and the game on it.”

“Denys will like that,” Miss Dinesen says, remembering their long-ago relationship. “I must remember to tell him.”

What a perfect way for her to show what she could have more easily, but much less effectively, told.


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