Let Me See What You’re Working With
Department of English
Any writer who has ever read Peanuts knows that “It was a dark and stormy night,” Snoopy’s standard intro to his future bestsellers, is a little joke on the part of Charles Schulz. That line is designed to make the reader laugh because it is so vague, and Snoopy, while a dog, granted, is so serious. But Snoopy has only told his readers that the night was dark and stormy. He hasn’t shown them. What good writers strive to do is show the quality of the dark and the intensity of the storm. And while learning to “show, don’t tell” is one of the most important lessons for a creative writer to learn, it is also applicable to academic writing.
Incoming freshmen at East Carolina have typically been taught the five paragraph essay in their high school English classes. Most of them understand the basics: introduction with a thesis statement, three body paragraphs with topic sentences, and a conclusion that restates the thesis. They can write, for the most part, what a high school teacher is looking for. What they lack is the ability to think beyond the five paragraphs. Unfortunately for them, what most college professors want is for the student to think for him or herself; the job is now to leave the formula behind and get creative.
The word creative is one of the main problems when students are learning how to write papers for college. The connotation is that anything creative cannot possible be academic; students automatically think novel or short story or, God forbid, poetry. I teach my students that all writing and, in fact, all academic work, should be creative. As teachers, we are asking our students to come up with new ideas, new ways of looking at old topics; we are asking them to theorize and then back up their theories. The ability to find something new to say and then prove it is nothing if not creative.
Sometime in the first three weeks of my freshman composition classes, I facilitate a lesson called “show, don’t tell.” Although any piece of descriptive writing will work, I take a paragraph from a popular novel, and I strip all of the descriptive words out of it. One of my favorites is the following passage from Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption:
To get to Solitary Wing, you were led down twenty-three steps to a basement level where the only sound was the drip of water. The only light was supplied by a series of dangling sixty-watt bulbs. The cells were keg-shaped, like those wallsafes rich people sometimes hide behind a picture. Like a safe, the round doorways were hinged, and solid instead of barred. You get ventilation from above, but no light except for your own sixty-watt bulb, which was turned off from a master-switch promptly at eight p.m., an hour before lights out in the rest of the prison. The wire wasn't in a wire mesh cage or anything like that. The feeling was that if you wanted to exist down there in the dark, you were welcome to it. Not many did... but after eight, of course, you had no choice. You had a bunk bolted to the wall and a can with no toilet seat. You had three ways to spend your time: sitting, shitting, or sleeping. Big choice. Twenty days could get to seem like a year. Thirty days could seem like two, and forty days like ten. Sometimes you could hear rats in the ventilation system. In a situation like that, subdivisions of terrible tend to get lost. (67,68)
The stripped down version is as follows:
To get to Solitary Wing, you were led down some steps to the basement. There was very little light. The cells were small and there were no bars to see through. There was ventilation from above. Each cell had its own bulb, and lights were turned out at 8:00. There was a bunk and a toilet with no seat. Time went slowly there. Sometimes you could hear rats. It was terrible.
At the beginning of the lesson, I put the altered version of the quote on the screen. As I read the paragraph to the class, I demonstrate what different types of steps might sound like. Am I stepping on wood stairs? Concrete? Metal? Do I have shoes on? Slippers? And what of my jailers? I encourage the students to visualize what the steps to solitary would feel like, sound like, what the air would smell and taste like, and what they would hear as they were lead down to the cell. Then I ask the students to add details to the paragraph to show. They have between ten and fifteen minutes to do so.
Once the time is up, I put students into groups, typically groups of four or less. My students are told from day one that all writing done in class or for class may be read by anyone else in the class at any time, so they understand that they need to be willing to share what they write. This creates a sense of community and trust in the classroom. Each group passes the revised paragraphs around, reading each one and commenting on it in writing. When all of the paragraphs are read, I ask the groups to choose the best revised paragraph. The winners of each group read their revisions aloud.
While each group winner reads, the rest of the class jots down the details that stand out the most from each revision. At the end of the readings, I write the distinctive details on the board. I have had rats claws scurrying through the metal air shafts, red-eyed rats that nip at the prisoner’s feet in the night, mattresses with all manner of stains, mattresses that housed the rats, and really, really nasty toilets.
While the results are often funny and sometimes a bit disturbing, the end result is always the same. We end up with as many different solitary cells as there are students. My students realize that if they don’t show the reader what they want the reader to “see,” the reader will invent the details for herself. They learn that revision does not equal proofreading or editing. Revision takes time, effort, and imagination. Revision is a creative process.
From that moment on, all I have to do is write “show” in the margins of students’ essays to let them know they need to add detail to show or prove. Detail might be descriptive as in the narrative essay or evaluation essay, or it might be quotes or paraphrases from a source to back up the student’s point as in any research based essay. Regardless, this one lesson cuts down on the length of comments I have to make on students’ papers, and it reminds them of a specific, fun exercise to reinforce the lesson.
This lesson can be adapted to fit any curriculum. Think about the type of writing you would like your students to turn in to you. You probably have an example of a “good” piece of writing. Whether this example is from a scholarly journal, trade journal, lab report, newspaper, or is a student paper, it is possible to take a section and create your own “show, don’t tell” exercise. Choose a paragraph or section from the example of good writing. This section must be able to stand on its own. In other words, when you present the “stripped down” version of the text to your students, it must first make sense by itself, and second be obvious that details or back up information are missing. Ask them to revise the paragraph or section so that the information is supported adequately. Depending on the type of writing you require, this could be done in class off the top of their heads, or you could have your students research the section’s topic online (either in class or at home) and revise with the researched details. This should lead not only to a good discussion about what you expect in their writing and what adequate support really means, but also to a good discussion about the topic itself. Which student got the most convincing supporting evidence and why was it convincing? Was the information available on the general Internet sufficient? Why or why not? Be sure to leave yourself enough time to discuss the ideas that come up.
Later in the semester, I use the same exercise to introduce and reinforce the idea of audience. Students often, and sometimes rightly so, feel that they are writing only “for the teacher,” and that the writing has no value outside of the classroom setting. In essence, many college students only write to one “audience” in their entire college career. I try to make their writing meaningful outside of the classroom. In order to do this, they must understand the concept of writing for a specific audience. At the beginning of the class period, we discuss possible audiences. I ask the students to be as specific as possible. We usually go from “old people” and “teenagers” to “retired military officers” and “high school freshmen females.” After we have a nice variety of specific audiences on the board, I ask the students to choose one of the audiences and revise the original paragraph for that audience. What would the audience want to know? Why would they need that information? How can the writer make the information relevant to her audience?
Again, the results are often funny. “Like, ohmigod! The, like, mattress, was, like, so totally gross!” But the students get the point. A good writer knows his or her audience, knows how to get that audience hooked, and knows how to relay information to that audience in a manner that they will understand.
Within any discipline, there are a number of possible audiences. Using the same stripped down section from before, you can have your students brainstorm about who they might be writing to, and then how they would revise the section to address that specific audience’s needs. If you teach art, are the students addressing the information to graphic designers working for a GIS mapping company? Are they addressing it to high school art teachers? If you teach psychology, are your students writing to an audience of professionals in the field, or are they writing to parents of patients? The language and information used as supporting evidence changes with the audience, and it is important that students understand this.
This lesson works on many levels, not the least of which is getting the students in a college classroom to work together as writers. When students begin to see that their writing comes from them, that it is their own creative product, they begin to take ownership of it. They become invested in helping their classmates become better writers. Revision becomes something more than fixing commas and spelling errors. They enjoy comparing their own solitary cells to Stephen King’s. And while Snoopy may not be a writer, his creator certainly shows us what that little beagle is working with.
King, Stephen. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Different Seasons. New York: Signet, 1983.
Schulz, Charles. Peanuts.