As journalists, we live by the rule of “show, don’t tell.” As science writers, we depend on strong scenes, characters, and narratives—the tools of fiction, in other words—to draw the reader into stories they might otherwise find intimidatingly complicated. Exposition, we’re often told, is a necessary evil.
Narrative techniques are powerful, and journalism is certainly better for them. But they’re not the only tools journalists have, as Phillip Lopate reminds us in his collection To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Lopate, the editor of the well-known anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, argues that while essayists and other nonfiction writers should certainly show, they shouldn’t skimp on telling.
To Lopate, telling doesn’t mean lecturing. He describes telling as “thinking on the page” — following one’s curiosity through the material, and taking readers along for the ride. That sort of intellectual journey, he says, is the defining characteristic and greatest strength of the essay form, and without a guide a reader can easily be reduced to “groping in a dark tunnel.”
In the service of good telling, Lopate’s collection considers several knotty issues in nonfiction writing. Most relevant to journalists, perhaps, is his chapter on the construction of first-person narrators as characters: In spite of the personal essay’s reputation for narcissism, he says, effective narrators must have some distance from themselves—a distance that necessarily shrinks the ego. Lopate also analyzes the telling techniques used in several famous essays, and looks at the future of essay writing in the age of Facebook. (Prognosis: Not as bad as you think.)
For journalists and science writers of all kinds, To Show and to Tell is a useful, nuanced corrective to conventional wisdom. Storytelling is about telling, after all, and we storytellers can and should make our telling as interesting as our showing.