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Sometimes, when we are writing a narrative, an opinion, or an informational piece, we need to state the obvious. There are many reasons an author may choose to do this. For example, if it is a place where the author wants to move quickly (no exploded moment here), she may “tell rather than show”. Good writing is a balance. When you show your readers instead of tell your readers, you are slowing things down. When you tell, you can speed things up. I like to use The Mysteries of Harris Burdick or calendar pictures to give student writers the opportunity to practice this craft move.
Start with some mentor texts. Read the beginning of Always Inventing: The True Story of Thomas Alva Edison by Frank Murphy. Explain that sometimes authors state the obvious. The year was 1847. The winter was cold and snowy. The place was a little town in Ohio. Here is another example from Brave Clara Barton by Frank Murphy: The Civil War started. It was a war inside the United States – the North against the South.
I love this example from Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli: The kids cheered. Somebody ran for a ball. They were anxious for more. Sometimes, in writing a story you need to describe something. Many times, you will show not tell, using lots of words to get your readers to see pictures in their mind. Other times, it is just okay to tell the reader. Explore when that is appropriate with your writers after you have tried it out in some of your own notebook entries.
I often use the black-and-white paintings in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. They are all wonderful. Choose one to place under a document camera such as “Under the Rug” and then state the obvious. Chart your description for the class. You can also ask your students to help you. Here is my list:
The table is covered with a white cloth.
A big lump is under the rug.
The man held a chair over his head.
The light reflected in the man’s glasses.
My example for students includes several photos from Niagara Falls.
The Hornblower edged closer and closer to the Horseshoe Falls. I was holding onto the rail, water spraying on my face, drenching my hair. I could barely see Ralph taking pictures as water dripped from my lashes and small rivulets ran down my forehead and cheeks. We were somewhat wet for most of our Niagara Falls vacation!
Ask students to write one sentence in their writer’s notebook for several Van Allsburg pictures, working with a partner to state the obvious. Or use calendar pictures. I have a huge collection because the pictures are great to spark topics to write about as well as help students work on the art of description. You could also hang a copy of each drawing from Van Allsburg’s book around the classroom. Give students sentence strips and place their sentences under the drawings. Students can do a “gallery walk” to read the sentences around the room with their partners. Then they can return to their notebooks to write again, if there is time. When they are finished, they can return to a piece of writing and find a place where they can try to do the same thing.
At the end of workshop time, ask several students to share the work they did. Create an anchor chart to think about why an author might use this strategy, “stating the obvious.”
- It’s the BIG idea or aha moment – just tell it!
- It is in a place where the story needs to move quickly (telling, not showing).
- It helps the reader quickly share background (as in the case with Murphy’s stories about Thomas Edison and Clara Barton).
- The writer just wrote a lengthy description about something else – so he follows with a short description next.
- To make something seem small and unimportant on purpose (a character description to show what one character is thinking or feeling about another character).