How to Write the Body: Show AND Tell

The “body” of your essay refers to everything between the introductory paragraph and the conclusion. This is where the magic happens—where you tell your story, make your point.

You’ve probably heard the maxim “show, don’t tell,” but you may not have thought about what it means.

Showing means verbally illustrating your point. Instead of writing, “I studied hard,” you might write, “I read about joules and newtons until the words went blurry and the x’s seemed to wiggle. Then I did jumping jacks, put my book on top of the piano and kept studying, biting my lip when I got sleepy.”

There’s actually nothing wrong with telling, so long as you also show. Think “show AND tell.”

But how do you do that?

Illustrate Key Points With an Anecdote

In an essay we’ll call “Working in the Philippines,” the author writes,

Working and living in the Philippines was a transformative and eye-opening experience. Having a glimpse into my neighbors' and co-workers' lives, I gained a deeper appreciation for the numerous things in my life from basic necessities to the accessibility of education.

But there’s a problem. The author never shows us the life of a neighbor or co-worker who gave her a deeper appreciation of her own life. This essay would be more effective if the author told us about the time that, say, she helped a neighbor wash clothes in a bathtub and felt a new appreciation for her dorm’s laundry room.

Demonstrate your most important points with a tiny story. Sometimes all you need is a single sentence, so long as you can provide a memorable detail. Speaking of which…

Add Telling Details

Here’s what the second paragraph of "Piano Practice" would look like without specific details:

To my rather naive surprise, however, my piano teacher made me start at square one. I had to learn the basics before I could play anything advanced.

Compare that to what the author actually wrote:

To my rather naïve surprise, however, instead of setting the score for Für Elise on the piano stand before me, my piano teacher handed me a set of Beginner’s Books. I was to read through the Book of Theory, learn to read the basic notes of the treble and bass clefs, and practice, my palm arched as though an imaginary apple were cupped between my fingers, playing one note at a time.

The detail about arching her palms as if cupping an apple makes the author’s practice sessions vivid and memorable.

Focus on the quality, not the quantity, of your details. If you’re describing, say, a person, you don’t need to tell us everything; you just need to tell us one thing we can hang onto: he carried himself as if he had a sunburn and didn’t want his clothes to touch his body. Writers call a fact or observation that gives insight a telling detail.

Strive to make your points vivid with telling details.

Put the Key Moments in Scene, Not Summary

Summary covers a span of time: “That fall, we ran up every hill in Pittsburgh, up heart attack hill, up the steep hill on Negley, up the side of Mt. Washington.”
Scene takes place in a specific point in time: “One day, panting up Mt. Washington, I decided to tease Griggs.”

Summary condenses a series of events: “Gradually, we got faster.”
Scene expands one event: “As I ran up the hill, focusing on Griggs’ stupid stubby calves, I realized we were going fast. ‘Griggs,’ I shouted. ‘Griggs, you oaf. We’re flying!’”

Summary sometimes generalizes or explains a routine: "We would banter for the first fifteen minutes of the run. Then, as we lost our wind, we’d fall silent, grim.”
Scene sometimes shows what happened on the day the routine is broken: “But I never lost my wind that day. I wanted to talk. ‘Griggs,’ I said. ‘Do you wax your calves?’”

Let’s take an example from an actual personal statement:

Family and friends said: “Politics is not for women—you are wasting your time.” The teachers who encouraged my intellectual growth echoed: “You are an intelligent girl but you must realize your limitations; Pakistani women have no future in politics.”

This paragraph would be more powerful if, instead of summarizing what people typically told her, she gave us a scene in which one person spoke to her:

One day my teacher asked me to stay after class. She busied herself with her files as the other students walked out, some of them smirking at me. Finally she took off her glasses, polished them with the hem of her shirt, sighed, and said, “I admire you, I really do, but Pakistani women don’t have have a future in politics.”

In real life, scene and summary sometimes blend together. You don’t have to fret over the taxonomy. The important thing is to anchor important moments to a particular time and place, to expand them, and to make them vivid for us.

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