Everyone knows that is Rule #1 of creative writing that you should show, not tell. Let the facts speak for themselves. Avoid narrative ‘exposition’. Show things happening in front of your reader’s eyes. Great advice.
Except for academics.
One of the most common problems I face reading other academic historians is that I cannot easily find the point of what they are saying. And when I write, I find it hard to articulate the point of my own writing. Telling – as anyone who has tried to write an article abstract knows – is a lot harder than the ‘show don’t tell’ purists might have you believe, and when you are writing to convey – or reading to comprehend – an intellectual argument, telling is what you need.
Most of the time.
What would it mean for historians to do less telling and more showing? Think about how this changes the relationship between reader and writer. The problems of comprehension that all readers go through with academic work start from the assumption that the author is trying to tell the reader something, and the reader is struggling to understand it.
Too often, the reader is made to feel this failure as a personal one: they are too stupid to understand these clever ideas. And the writer is also made to feel like they have failed. They didn’t tell enough. On the other hand, when this works seamlessly, we enjoy the ideal of the communion of minds, the elation of finding out new and important truths.
Make your writing intellectual, and it is on the grounds of the intellect that you succeed or fail.
Consider, on the other hand, what it means to write for entertainment. This is how Bob Peterson put it in a 2006 lecture:
Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two… Don’t give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer. Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with a sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves.
David Simon, the creator of the TV show The Wire, expressed a similar idea, describing how audiences wanted to be thrown into a world that was just outside their understanding, separated from them by the slight barrier of the shared culture and language of people they would not normally meet.
I am not trying to say that ‘entertaining’ writing is better than ‘intellectual’ writing. In drawing attention to their differences, I want to encourage you to experiment. Could you use the techniques of showing that Peterson and Simon suggest, as well as the academic techniques that are taught in university history departments?
- Read a selection of abstracts from journals that are relevant to your interests. What makes for good telling?
- Take your favourite one, and write an imaginative piece – it does not have to be factually accurate – in which you try to show the point of the abstract.
- To make this even better as a group activity, share your pieces, and then dtry to guess what the arguments from the original abstracts were.
- Read a short piece of creative nonfiction or a short story. (The examples in a book like The New Journalism would work well). Does the story make an argument? How would you summarise this argument?
- Write an abstract for the story as if it were an academic article.
- Take a piece of writing you have done, and highlight the points where you tell the reader what your piece means.
- Take them out.
- Reread the piece. Freewrite for 10 minutes about what information you would have to show in order to convey your point in a different way.
 The quotation appears in John Yorke, Into the Woods, p.113.
 Also in Yorke, Into the Woods a few pages later.