We’ve all been subjected to that lecture in middle school Language Arts class about the differences between “showing” and “telling” with our writing—about the stylistic separation between providing sensory details around a piece of information and just stating that piece of information outright. In the context of seventh-grade compositions, this amounts to the difference between “I have three brothers and sisters” and “Family dinners are always noisy at my house, because there are four children talking constantly…”
But what does this look like in more sophisticated writing? As we sit down to prepare our business proposals, term papers, college admissions essays, etc., do we have a sense of how to show and not tell?
After all, many term paper theses are practically required to begin with a declaration of intent—“This paper will demonstrate…”—and more than a few admissions essays sport some strong affirmations—“I know that Prestigious University is the best place for me…”
As our writing task increases in complexity, our relationship to the dichotomy of showing and telling must also increase in sophistication. In pieces of writing like those mentioned above, some “telling” is evidently unavoidable. But the strongest and most sophisticated arguments use “telling” to its full advantage by situating it in and around a mass of sensory information, essentially constructing a shell of “showing” with a declaration at its center, a sort of compositional atom with a “telling” nucleus. Still, this might be hard to envisage in the middle of a complicated series of arguments. In my mind, this is because the classic opposition of terms is too reductive; sophisticated writing does much more than simply show and tell. For this reason, I propose new terms for new classes of language: language that is evocative and language that is explicative.
Evocative language engages with our appetites, our predilections, our senses.
Moving beyond simple description, evocative language conjures a scene before us, filling in as many details as possible about the richness and density of the experience being described. In a previous post, I spoke about the need for writers to add spice and flavor to their prose, drawing from an arsenal of luscious, bountiful adjectives to liven (and fatten) up their descriptions. This is precisely what evocative language does: it sets the scene, advancing our narrative or argument while also making it shimmer and swell before us.
Explicative language, on the other hand, gives us vital information quickly and clearly.
It can be technical, as many explanations are, and it can even be elegant. But it is fundamentally different from evocative language in that it exists mainly to get a point across, with little embellishment. We obviously cannot write an admissions essay in the same style as Marcel Proust; while heartbreaking and poetic, our 44-page reflection on the quiet beauty of being admitted to Yale likely won’t make it to that third crucial read. And similarly, our term paper shouldn’t be as florid as the literary works it purports to analyze and critique. But neither of these pieces of writing should sound like a takeout menu or the assembly instructions for a piece of Ikea furniture, either. What makes explicative language forceful is its ability to relay information effectively and directly, with conviction but also with depth. Explicative language still does more than simply say one thing and then another.
Let’s consider the admissions essay.
After a few sentences describing the amazing vibe of the seminar you attended, or the warm feelings of fellowship you felt from the freshmen on your campus visit, you can totally drop an honest declaration, to the tune of “This college is the place for me, because of x, y, and z.” But the same sentence would sound very different if it didn’t have the illustrative language preceding it, helping to set the scene and place your reader in your shoes. Explicative language works best in tandem with evocative language; the interplay of declarations, data, and detail makes writing strong and compelling.
The best way to learn how to strike a balance between these modes of evoking and explaining is to read attentively, considering how different writers accomplish their task.
You will find this balance, at its most intense, in the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper. Here, columnists are under the considerable pressure of relating complex ideas and often technical vocabulary in a very condensed format that must simultaneously make a strong argument and also tell a captivating story. They can only pull that off if their language both explains and evokes, shows and tells. So, read the editorials carefully the next time you have a big writing project to prepare for, and study how the grandmasters and gurus of public opinion assemble their weekly screeds. It will most certainly teach you a lot about the balancing act that we all practice, in language, every day.