I refute it thus! “Writing should always show, never tell”

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” — Ecclesiastes 9:11

Among the many tired banalities that get trotted out about art and aesthetics, this is one of my least favorite. I used the Bible, but you can find many powerful, elegant examples of artists and authors telling instead of showing, across different mediums and genres. For example, Shakespeare goes around telling instead of showing constantly. Yes, I get the genesis of the advice, but like so much of what’s out there, it’s become more destructive than the problems it was originally meant to avoid.

(I hope this is the first in a series of I refute it thus!)


  1. It’s a piece of advice that must come from theater, like a lot of the worst writing advice. At least in theater it would make some kind of sense. But you can’t actually “show” in text.

    It’s funny how, once upon a time, “tell, don’t show” was sort of the rule in painting, which is also of course impossible. The Modernist backlash was pretty strong; postmodernism notwithstanding, I still got a talking-to from an art teacher at Bard in the 90s when I offered a narrative justification for a choice I’d made. I wonder if we’ll see a similar reaction to “show, don’t tell” someday.

  2. Maybe started in theater, but it flourishes because of video, I think. A lot of people presuppose that film is the ideal art which all other forms must emulate. To be cranky about it, this goes with a deadening of the imagination.

  3. do you know robert alter’s ecclesiastes (qohelet)?

    he translates the vanity of vanities line as ‘”Merest breath,” said Qohelet, “Merest breath. All is mere breath.”‘ self-recommending.

  4. Members of my writer’s group demand that I always show, never tell, when writing. maintain that there are appropriate places to do both, and it’s a matter for the author to determine. Some points need to be covered (in fiction), but are not important enough to waste words on. “She graduated from Brown University in 1992” is important to the story, but need not be painted for the reader, for example. Do you agree?

    1. I think so! I really think that writers have to remain alive to the particular context, although I should add that I’m not much of a creative writer.

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