Show, Don’t Tell:

The Art of Visual Thinking

By Nick Brown

Image courtesy of GIPHY.

Writing is a complex process and takes up so much of our attention that we forget to make reading a pleasurable experience for our readers. Why? Because when we write, our brains do wondrous things, plucking words, constructing sentences, and making meaning.

We don’t have to be great poets to make our writing more enjoyable to read. In fact, we can rely on a piece advice that I often find myself repeating to first-year composition students: “Show, don’t tell.”

This phrase often encourages students to support an assertion with a piece of evidence. We can even find a similar recommendation in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Showing, not telling, is supposed to help your reader figure out not only how you moved from point A to point B, but also how that eventually leads to point Q. However, we often find ourselves confronted with a lot of dense text studded with one-off examples and bankrupt references. We may have made a step in the right direction, but what happens when we take a couple hundred steps and really start to play with the idea of showing?

As a long-time English major, I assure you that I love words of all sorts, but as a visual artist, I know that words alone don’t always work the way that I would like them to. Sometimes an image offers a better response to a question or comment than a word ever could. Our opportunities to compose in pictures may be limited and are often informal, but that doesn’t mean that images can’t help us write more enjoyable, more engaging pieces of prose.

I have a habit when I’m thinking really hard; I look off to the left. I might look like I’m either daydreaming or ignoring you, but I’m actually using mental images to help me cement what it is I understand and what I want to say. When I pick apart the knots of a complex argument I’m trying to make, I don’t just dwell on the words I want to say, but envision how I would appear saying them to an audience.

Painting by Ludolf Bakhuizen.

If I’m using a storm on the open ocean as a metaphor, I imagine the chill and sting of the pelting rain, the cacophonous crash of thunder in the distance, and the rolling of a ship’s deck to help develop my words.

When I use this style of visual thinking, I don’t write from abstractions that may (but likely will not) capture my thoughts in crystal clear prose. I write from living images existing in my mind. I’m not creating a new reality on the page; I’m simply recording what I’m “seeing”. Even if all a writer has are words on a page when finished, images played a significant role in that process.

With all types of writing, my method of visual thinking is idiosyncratic and has developed over time, but this method is not unique. Consider these suggestions:

Image courtesy of the U.K. Geographical Association.

  • Start with an easy image – You may impress other people if you can “see” the entirety of Versailles, but I’d recommend something less daunting. Start with a glass of water on a table, imagining how the sun dances in the liquid the gossamer shadows cast on the firm surface.
  • Keep it entertaining – Although imagining that you are sitting calmly under a grand oak tree in a field, wind rippling through the grass, may lend well to certain types of poetry, figuring out what a hairy monster with two heads and seven arms is more fun. Vary your images and see what happens.
  • Bring in the other senses – Once you’ve managed to wrangle your brain to focus on “seeing”, try to use your other senses to flesh out the vignette. The breeze in our field may carry the scent of fresh cut grass (sorry allergy-sufferers!) and our monster might drip sticky goo as he walks. Seeing is great, but so are hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting.
  • Be kind when you lose the image – We all want to be better, but harsh self-criticism only discourages you from trying again. Nudge yourself back to the task at hand and realize failure is part of creating a new habit.

With some time and effort, it’s possible to train the brain to set images and words as complements to each other, encouraging us to show, not tell, the audience what it is we want them to see.