Matt Ortile of Catapult Recommends...

As an editor of creative nonfiction, I’d like to vouch for the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Many of the authors I publish in Catapult are often first-time writers of personal essays. Their drafts come in heavy with summaries of events—outcomes already decided, lessons already learned. All this telling is boring. It’s devoid of drama and tension, like reading the synopsis on Wikipedia. 

Essay writers must place readers in the scene with the speaker. Let us borrow your eyes: Rather than write, “I loved her bathroom,” describe the marble tile, the fragrant hinoki bath mat, the fancy conditioner that would cost you a week of groceries. Let details speak for themselves; allow readers their own impressions of a story’s scenes and settings, its characters and their choices.

Telling is helpful, of course. An essay composed purely of scenes will still need explanation to put the story and its details into historical and social contexts. So perhaps the adage should be edited to: “Tell less, show more.” Give us dialogue, actions. Let characters in your narrative, besides you, speak. Don’t tell the reader your brother was being an asshole; show the reader your brother being an asshole. 

Matt Ortile, managing editor, Catapult