Specific Examples

Young writers seem to think that everything is better when it doesn't say anything at all. They like poems that could be anyone, anywhere, feeling anything:
I stand
for time to pass
in blades of grass
that are so small
no one sees
or knows.

Yes, I just made that up. The point is the poem doesn't show anything, nothing is revealed, described, discussed. There isn't anything for a reader to do with this poem.

Or writers will describe themselves or others in a series of ungrounded adjectives: I'm organized, able to meet deadlines, determined, adventurous. Where's the evidence? These generalizations require a reader to take you at your word (well, most writing does, hence the concern with unreliable narrators), but at least if the generalization is backed up by specifics, a reader can invest in the details, imagine the story, care about the people in it. A list of adjectives doesn't tell anyone anything. Details do.

This is the "show, don't tell" message.

I can tell you that I am easily bored at work, that I will invent projects if none are pointed out to me, that in some cases my work has been too easy for me, both in content and the amount of time it was supposed to take. I am efficient, I enjoy challenges, I need to feel valued and valuable. While these details are entertaining, here's a little story that says the same thing.

When I worked in publishing, my job required me to calculate the estimated cost of buying paper, printing, and then warehousing books. Essentially, this meant that I sent out emails to paper people and printers, collected bids, plugged those bids into a program, and reported the results twice a month at a department meeting at which I was told where to have each book printed, where to buy the paper, and where to send it. My work required approximately 1% of my brain power and occupied about 10% of my time. But my job required me to be at the office from 9-5 regardless of how much work there was to do or how quickly I got it done. So I read, napped, and occasionally invented projects. The upper levels of our department's space were occupied with old cardboard boxes. One day, I scrambled up and opened one. Inside were text and art files from books that had been printed by the publisher since the beginning of time. Most of these files had been digitized, many of the books were out of print and the files were no longer needed, and some of the files had been in the boxes so long that we had thought them missing and started new files for the books. For the next few weeks, I made it my project to take down a box every day, sort through it, identify text and art to keep, text and art to digitize, paperwork to be recycled (most of it) and paperwork to be added to current files. I processed some 26 boxes that had been taking up space in our office for 20 years.

Tell your reader a story. Don't tell the reader about a story or what the reader is supposed to get out of the story. When writing, fill the reader's mind with the images you create, with the details you can present. Draw on your memory, your imagination, and try to pass that on to the reader. Be specific. One good story is worth all the adjectives in the world.