Nov 9, 2012

Why is Writing so Hard?

This is less about me and more, for a moment, about my teacher self.  I have spent the last week having kids on laptops in my room, writing introductory paragraphs on Google Drive and sharing it with me, having to really flesh out that paragraph before I'll let them write the next.

As always, with these assignments, the first round is frustrating.  I had one "paragraph" that came in as a single sentence with two points of view.  One came in with 10 you's written in a 1st person persuasive essay.  And most of them seem to have some idea that their writing needs to be some variety of generic pseudo-philosophical discourse about the nature of man and how it is tied directly to the amount of money in their bank account.

Needless to say, there have been some frustrating days.  And some serious reflection about why these kids just can't seem to write.  They can talk, but the transition from words coming out of mouth to words coming out on hands sometimes feels like the equivalent of asking them to build a bridge that spans the Grand Canyon using only hand tools.

And then I realized it, today, when I was trying to play a bit of catch up on my NaNoWriMo.  I was writing a scene that I had planned earlier, but when I went back and compared what I had written to my notes I furiously scribbled down in a moment of inspiration, I saw it.  More detail.  What I had written took the idea to more depth, more feeling, more specific and it was better.

It is the natural course of a writer to want to start telling a story, talking about an issue, but the writing isn't quality.  We hear show don't tell until we can count those going across our minds instead of sheep when drifting off to the land where stories are made, but it really really really is the difference between quality writing and blah blah blah.  Showing engages the mind, tugs at the heart, and creates what so many readers go from book to book to experience again.

So, I will continue again today, trying to help these students realize that little rule is the essence of writing, and trying to figure out how to get in mine more.

Any hints on how to explain the difference between showing and telling, especially in analytical writing?  Any clues on how you make sure you are showing and not telling? Have you seen the difference in how you feel about your writing when you do show more?


Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I think practice, practice, practice really helps the 'show' become more natural. And of course, that's what second and third drafts are for.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Tell them it's like painting a picture - SHOW. Sorry, best I can come up with.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

The beauty of the first draft is you get telling out of your system. Then comes the showing. I recently reviewed a great book on showing via deep point of view. Using deep point of view makes a huge difference.

Good luck with your project, Tasha!

Anonymous said...

If I knew how to do the correct way every time, I'd be as prolific as John Grisham and Stephen King.

Emily R. King said...

I can so relate to this. I think showing vs. telling is the difference of experiencing a scene and being in a scene. Don't explain what the character thinks/feels, show it in how he/she acts. Usually in my first drafts I tell these things, then in revisions I go back and show them.

Best of luck, Tasha. You're a great teacher to be concerned about how to relay these things to your students!

loverofwords said...

It's hard when the students are not
readers themselves. Does this quote by Chekhov help? Do your students do "warm up" practice--a sentence on the board for everyone to write from and then share?

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

Anonymous said...

Good comments, tough concept. I like Alex's idea of painting a picture or showing them a photograph and put themselves in it or something. I agree with everyone, my first draft is a heck of a lot of telling, now I have to go back and show.

Deana said...

I love what Stina says, the first draft is the telling draft. After that, you get the fun challenge of living in the experience that was just written.

Good luck and just think, you are shaping these kids amazing writers. That is so cool to me:)

Suzanne Furness said...

It's tricky to explain! On a personal level it is something I have got much better at doing so I guess practice is the answer! One thing I try and do is think about body language in scenes.

mooderino said...

I tell people with a flat scene to try and view it like a silent movie and focus on what people are doing, rather than thinking or saying (which can be added back in later). That usually gets them seeing it in the moment.

Moody Writing

Nicole said...

I'll steal an example from an Anton Chekov quote I once heard: "Don't TELL me the moon is shining; SHOW me the glint of light on broken glass.”

I think we can say "tell vs. show" all we want, but until people actually know how to show - what does it mean, what tools can they use, how do they incorporate the 5 senses - it doesn't fully sink in.

Good luck. It's a valiant fight! :)

JeffO said...

"I tell people with a flat scene to try and view it like a silent movie and focus on what people are doing, rather than thinking or saying"

THAT is a really interesting way to look at it.

Maria said...

I'd agree the first draft is the 'telling' draft, and definitely everything after that should be showing us.

I'd also add use the senses, they are often overlooked but often a smell, or sound, or how something feels is the brushstroke we need to make it real.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I get frustrated too, trying to get quality writing from my students. Of course, there are many students who take my instruction to heart and try to apply it.

But there are so many more who slap down whatever comes to their head -- no matter what POV, verb tense, and no matter how many sentences start with the same words. (So, Then, or I)

I show them what a paragraph looks like and reteach them what it means to indent. (They were taught before, but it doesn't stick.) And then they'll still center all the text or set up the page with hanging indents. When I ask for more detail, they stick descriptive words right into the middle of a sentence -- without changing any other words -- so that it no longer makes a sentence.

I wish I knew the perfect lesson, explanation, (or carrot and stick) to get them to just *think* more about what they are writing.

Lisa Regan said...

For me it always helps me to have a list of examples. Like: "John felt scared" vs. "John's heart thundered in his chest. He wiped his sweaty palms on his shirt." Maybe give them the examples (i.e. John felt scared. Dora was angry. Bob was so bored.) and then make THEM write the "showing" sentence instead. That way they SEE it at work and get hands on practice and if you give them the starting sentence (the telling one) they have somewhere to start from. And they get practice.

Lisa Regan said...

Also, to add to that, you could go through it with them: Bobby was so bored. Ask them what kinds of things do people do when they feel bored? Or Dora was angry: what do people do when they are angry? How do they look? How do their voices sound? How can you tell by looking at a person that they're angry or bored or scared? Make them come up with the examples. I think if you start with simple emotions that kids can relate to, it will be an easier concept to grasp. Then you can move on to more abstract things like describing the "glint of light on broken glass". Then you can show them pictures like of a dirty city street and say how does this look? Abandoned? Desolate? Why? What are the details in the photo that make the picture look that way? That way they get used to picking out things they can see (and thus show) that evoke certain feelings.