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The Lessons
Basho's Spirit
Show Don't Tell

Show Don't Tell - Page 6


The implications for your writing.

By now you should be able to
» recognise the principal characteristics of poetic language,
» distinguish poetic language from academic language
» explain the significance of "Show, Don’t Tell"
» re-draft the language of your writing sensitively, according to good stylistic principles.

We shall now try to apply your learning to redrafting your own poems. Look again at your own writing, bearing in mind the principles you have learned, which I will crudely summarise in the following broad-brush advice:

» Abstractions are dangerous to a poem. Any abstract noun in your poem should be like a flashing red light. Two of them is horribly excessive.
» Use close observation, unusual detail and all the senses to bring the scene vividly to life. The readers should know where and when the poem is set, and feel as though they are present. They should be able to smell it or hear it or feel it.
» Use adjectives sparingly. The haiku is too small for you to describe everything fully. Choose the right detail, and do not otherwise overcrowd it with description.
» It is often good advice for beginning writers to cut the ending. One is apt to sum up, make judgements, draw conclusions, or repeat oneself at the end of a poem. Trust the image. Let the poem speak for itself. Do not sum up for it.
» You have many alternatives to choose from, for each word that you write. It is great to be clever and do unusual things with the language, but do not be flashy. If your reader is marvelling at the words instead of marvelling at the subject, then you are undermining your own poem by showing off, which is not in the spirit of Master Basho.
» You have alternative sequences to choose from too: see if it works better with the first and third lines swapped, or the second line first. You can control the surprises, and the emotional impact of the image.

You can control your language. You have choices.

Haiku poems are very suitable for learning how to take control, because the form is small, shapely, and clearly focused on creating a sense-impression of a (usually) natural scene. May your writing flourish!



If you are leading your class through a re-drafting workshop, there are various ways to organise it. In my experience, I am sorry to say that it is not enough to leave it to the students to advise each other in pairs or small groups. It takes a long long time, with plenty of specific attention to the aims of group-work, for them to develop the skills of evaluative reading and the skills of giving positive but critical feedback. Nevertheless, it is one of our aims that they should develop these skills, so it is worth doing paired and small group re-drafting. Just don’t expect it to work brilliantly from the start. They will need plenty of good examples of how to do it well, which must be provided by you as the teacher, or by a guest poet, if you can get one. And they will need to have it pointed out to them how the feedback is working. Use a mix of whole-class discussion of examples written on the board, or photocopied for all participants, and small group student-led syndicates.

Workshop Procedures

Establish with the class some understandings: the criticism should not be cruel; it should be constructive; and it should not be insistent – the final decision is always with the writer.

But these considerations should not lead the class to bland uncritical praise of everything and everybody. Nobody will learn anything unless the criticism is critical, and praises only the finest elements of the writing. The best and most intelligent students will switch off if there is no "bite" in the sessions. There will be no development, and the writing programme will wither.

There is no need to point out all the faults in students’ writing. Much more important is to fully praise all the virtues. Students must learn to recognise what works and why it works. Examine closely every successful line of poetry and relish all triumphs. But do not necessarily find something to praise in every lame effort! Refer to the principles of this "Show Don’t Tell" lesson to explain why the good writing has an impact, and stay resolutely silent about the duff stuff that is heading in the wrong direction.

Establish a routine of checking with the writer before the discussion of his or her work
» whether the writer has any questions for the readers
» whether the writer is presenting the writing as strong finished work, or vulnerable first draft.

During the first two-thirds of the discussion of the writer’s work the writer should remain silent. The idea is that the writer should hear how readers have understood, or misunderstood, the poem. It is not useful for the writer to spend the time defensively justifying him or herself.

At the end of the discussion of a piece of writing, establish a routine of asking writers if they got what they wanted. This is where you guard against blandness. If the writer did not get any useful feedback, or did not understand what people were saying because they were too polite, or unclear, or felt that the readers were giving lazy responses and not being helpful enough, the writer can demand more. The teacher should encourage writers to demand high standards of feedback from the workshop. Everybody has to see it as an important enquiry. The writing workshop is not just a nice easy chat-session. We are engaged in the serious and energetic pursuit of elusive truths and barely-expressible insights into the world of nature and our emotional response to it. We are using metaphor and imaginative combinations which work in ways we do not understand. The writer has done the work before the workshop. It is the readers who have to concentrate hard and be creative in the workshop. If they are fully engaged in the enquiry, then, of course, it will be far more rewarding and exciting for all concerned, in their switching roles as writers and readers.


As in most forms of education, it is good practice to make the learning conscious and to record it. Students can keep notes on what they learn about creative writing, on what feedback they got on their own poems, on how the work has developed through drafts, on how their reading and cinema-going has fed into their understanding of creative processes, and at the end of a course they can write an evaluative project commentary examining their creative practice and what they have got from it.

Follow-up lessons

You can follow this lesson up with any of a variety of activities developing aspects of the writing-awareness principles:

» A series of writing workshops in which your students learn to make constructive criticisms of each other’s drafts, and to redraft according to the principles they have learned here. It is worth having a clear structure to the workshops,as described more fully in Notes for Teachers above: the writer says what he or she wants from the readers; the writer listens to responses without replying, in order to hear what parts of the writing are not being taken in the right way by readers; the workshoppers check the writing against the Show Don’t Tell principles; the writer says whether he or she has received clear guidance from the readers or not; everyone keeps a notebook showing the development of drafts.

» Workshops on other genres. Apply the same principles of Show Don’t Tell to story-writing and drama or film. Write a piece of film, for example, which shows that someone is in more danger than they think they are in, without using any spoken words. It has to be shown. Or write a dramatic scene for performance showing that one person is more strong-willed than another, or more perceptive than another, without using any spoken words.

» Explore literary stylistics by making pie charts and bar charts of the parts of speech in various short extracts of text. The charts can be computer-generated, of course. Compare, for example, the numbers of abstract nouns and concrete nouns in a leading article in a broadsheet newspaper, and in a passage of good modern poetry. See if it is true that poets avoid the abstract. Compare the numbers of active verbs and passive verbs in different kinds of texts. Compare the numbers of adjectives and adverbs in a passage from a Mills and Boon Romance and a passage from a good modern poem. Is it true that adjectives and adverbs are used more sparingly by disciplined and sophisticated writers? Make charts of the relative incidence of all the parts of speech in different kinds of writing, from tabloid journalism to philosophy, from comics to classics. This would make a good "language" project for some students.

» Do "translation" exercises, to show students that they can take control of their style, get a grip of their language. Here is an example of what I mean: give them the following information and then set them to write two English translations of the Japanese poem, in two different styles. The choices are: plain style; mock "poetic" style; a style that dramatises the importance of the "awakening" as a profound event; and a style that emphasises the painful and lonely qualities of the image.

Kame waruru yoru no kori no nezame kana is a haiku by Basho. In word-for-word literal English it is:

Jar / breaking / night / of / ice / of / waking / kana.

Kana is an emphatic word, with an effect like an exclamation mark.

The scene is a winter’s night, obviously, and a water jar cracking from the expansion of the ice. This has some relationship to waking, but in Japanese grammar it is unclear who is awake, or woken. You could choose to say "I", and you could choose to be awake in the night (lonely and unable to sleep), or suddenly awakened by the cracking of the water-jar. There is plenty of scope!

"Contending…" is by Kito, translated by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, from The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry 1981
"Telescope …" is by Issa, translated by Lucien Stryk, from Of Pen and Ink and Paper Scraps, Lucien Stryk, Swallow Press, 1989
"Swinging homeward…" is by Hirai Sachiko, translated by George Marsh, from My Green Wife, Waning Moon Press, 1997
"On the dewy grass…" is by Dimitar Stefanov, from My Green Wife, Waning Moon Press, 1997
"Wasps nest…" and "Walking at night…" are by Cicely Hill, from The Earth Drawn Inwards, Waning Moon Press, 1997
"Wintry sun …" is by Michael Gunton, from Echoes in the Heart, Waning Moon Press, 1997.
"Walking the snow crust…" is by Anita Virgil.
The lines of "Crow follows crow" are taken from bluegrey by Martin Lucas, Hub Editions, 1994
"Summer’s end nears…" is by George Marsh, from Salting the Air, Waning Moon Press, 1997

Copyright: Please note that you are welcome to photocopy the source poems here for classroom use, but you may not re-publish copyright poems in any form without the express permission of the author or original publisher.

Downloading the Source Material

The poems have been extracted and are available to download as a Microsoft Word document.

If this doesn't work, we have also extracted the poems and placed them on a separate web page which can be printed directly from the page or saved using the 'file' menu. Press here for the web page


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