Say it with THINGS

Every book of writing advice will say, at some point, “show don’t tell”. The rubbing of time has smoothed over that advice until we can barely feel the shape of the letters, like an epitaph in a church worn to smoothness by centuries of feet.

“Show don’t tell” means talk in THINGS, not ideas. Things we can touch, see, smell, hear, and taste. We are animals first, minds second: we remember things best when they engage our senses. “Make it concrete”: make it something I can touch. This advice applies to absolutely everything you write: your blog posts, your company description, your bio, your books.

Try this example. Whittard is a British tea and coffee company with an established reputation. They do offer a wide range of “frippery” coffees (with novelty flavourings and so on) but their main marketing image is one of quality, longevity, and Britishness. Imagine you’re Whittard, trying to write the company description for the side of the coffee bag. You could tell us how old the company is, how long you’ve been running, how you maintain the strictest quality checks… or you could do what this unsung genius of a copywriter did:


In 1886 young Walter Whittard opened a small shop in London, full of gleaming tea caddies and brass weighing scales, known for its unique blends of tea and rich with the smell of roasting coffee…

It’s as atmospheric as the opening of a BBC period drama. You can see and smell the shop; you have a sense of the historic setting; you can feel the story excitement of a young man’s new venture… all within 35 words.

As a writer, I know exactly how much careful craft and thought went into those 35 words, to select just the right details that would do everything at once. I imagine the writer sitting with a selection of photographs, trying to choose between the clopping carts, the packing crates from India, the shouting excitement of the tea auctions, and eventually deciding on just these two: tea caddies; weighing scales. And now for the adjectives. How do you describe an antique tea caddy in one word? Inlaid, carved, engraved, wooden, tin, finely wrought… I imagine an earlier, more loosely written version that described “gleaming brass weighing scales” and then the moment the writer realises that “brass” already gleams, in our imagination. Give “gleaming” to the tea caddies, which sets us up to imagine the brass as equally shining. Now everything in the shop is just the right period and just the right polished spick-and-span, which also says quality…

When you say it with things, it’s all about choosing the right details: as few as possible, as rich as possible, as strong as possible. I could tell you this is called synedoche (a part stands for the whole), but I’d rather show you how gleaming tea caddies and brass weighing scales evoke an entire nineteenth-century shop. I could tell you I want your book to be excellent, but I’d rather show you your published book, dog-eared with use and ring-stained with coffee, the one that’s always propped open on the desk. I’d rather show you the five new copies I bought, because I keep pushing my copy into my friends’ hands, saying “You have to read this!”

It’s your turn, now, to say it with things. Start with your company’s bio, your newest product, or your own bio. Brainstorm all the things you could offer people to look at, feel, listen to, smell, taste. Do Google-image searches for inspiration. Fill a page with all the possible things, like a crazy heaped-to-the-rafters junk shop. And then begin your careful selection. What two things will create just feeling you want? You can tell me in the comments.

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