Last night, I stumbled across an article in the New York Times called "Capitalism and 'Culturecide.'" While it covers a sensitive topic, it also provides a great example of how the show-don't-tell rule (which we discussed in yesterday's post) applies to writing nonfiction.
The article's author, Ai Weiwei, is implied to be Chinese (though the article doesn't specifically state it) and lives in Berlin, Germany. Near the beginning of the article, he describes finding out that a casino employee had filed a lawsuit against him (Ai) for "call[ing] [the employee] a Nazi and a racist without any factual basis."
Based on that statement alone, what do you think the original encounter between these two men was like? What words might you use to describe it?
If Ai were writing fiction, he might be able to stop there. Based on the details he's given (such as the lawsuit and the words Nazi and racist), we readers can figure out for ourselves that the encounter was likely unpleasant and emotionally charged. He's shown us those things, not told us.
But because Ai is writing nonfiction, the show-don't-tell rule works a bit differently. It's more like this:
Show. Don't just tell.
In nonfiction, at least when you're writing for a Western audience, readers expect writers to both clearly state their arguments and provide facts to support them. The clearly stated argument is the tell part of the equation; the supporting facts are the show part.
Despite the poor example set by many public figures and politicians, it's not enough to just make a statement (tell). If you want readers to take your work seriously, you have to back up your arguments with accurate, factual information (show).
This is exactly what Ai does. He provides these details about the encounter with the casino employee:
Ai attempts to redeem his casino chips at the cashier's window.
The clerk at the window doesn't move when he sees Ai and slowly and distinctly tells him to say "please."
Ai (surprised): "And what happens if I don't?"
Clerk: "You're in Europe, you know. You should learn some manners."
Ai (irritated): "Fine, but you're not a person who can teach me manners."
Clerk (leans forward and looks straight at Ai): "Don't forget that I'm feeding you!"
Ai (sensing strong resentment and disdain from the clerk): "That's a Nazi attitude and a racist comment."
Ai leaves the window and handles the situation with the casino manager, who apologizes for the incident.
Ai thinks the situation is over until, almost a year later, he hears about the lawsuit.
Ai then uses this experience, along with others, as supporting evidence for his main argument: that many people today use cultural differences as a cover for prejudice. (It's a thought-provoking article, so I recommend reading the whole thing.)
In other words, Ai doesn't just tell us that people like that clerk "[cloak their] ethnic prejudice as a question of culture." He shows us how it happens. And that's what makes his argument compelling. The evidence makes it much harder for even nonsympathetic readers to dismiss his thesis out of hand. It might even persuade some of them to change their minds.
Remember, all nonfiction writing is persuasive writing. Even if you're just writing an informative article, you're ultimately trying to convince the readers that what you're writing is true. So make sure you don't just tell the audience something--show them why they should believe you.
P.S. Have you joined the Story Engineer Facebook group yet? If not, join now to meet more writers like you.