Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Friday, January 20, 2012

Describing a dog to young readers

I recently tweeted this:

"Good thing I told a little girl the title of the MS I'm revising. She didn't know what an Irish Setter is!....Makes mental note to be sure and describe the dog in enough detail so kids (the book's audience) can "see" that kind of dog in their minds."

My friend and fellow author, Jennifer Gre
enleaf, happened to be on Twitter at the time. She replied:

“Ah yes, the fine line between the show and tell issues writers regularly face. Glad you're staying aware!!!”

After I read that, I was glad she noticed that my dilemma was a whole “show, don’t tell” type of thing. Writers are told “show, don’t tell” even though there are times when it is perfectly fine to tell instead of show. (We don’t really need to go through the motions of a character making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, do we? Unless he is pausing after each stroke of the knife to tell somebody off or dancing a jig after applying first the peanut butter and then again after applying the jelly. Then that’s different!)

In my case, I merely “told” my readers that a dog was an Irish Setter. I did not “show” it was an Irish Setter.

Actually, this is what I wrote:

“He sat up in bed and turned to look in the direction the whining came from. He took one look at what sat there and blinked, turning all the way around in his bed to get a better view of what he saw. There on his floor, sitting quite still, was an Irish Setter.”

I made the mistake of assuming that, since the Irish Setter is a popular breed of dog, anybody reading that (including a child, who is the audience this book is written for) would be able to perfectly picture an Irish Setter down to the last detail.


One thing a writer should never do is NEVER ASSUME.

I was reminded of this rule when I had shared that information with a 7-year-old girl who was visiting with my daughter one day. She was told the story’s title and I noticed the look of confusion on her face. I asked her if she knew what an Irish Setter was and she said no. Of course, I was surprised. It’s not like she lived in Africa and never saw this breed of dog, or something. But, the truth was that she didn’t know what an Irish Setter looks like. And that was a big wake-up call for me.

Not everyone knows what an Irish Setter looks like. Especially a child raised in Africa!

So why not describe it? Describe what this type of dog looks like in enough detail so that a child who has never seen such a dog before would be able to “see” it in their mind.

So I changed what I wrote to this:

"Jesse sat up in bed and turned to look in the direction the whining came from. He took one look at what he saw then blinked in surprise, turning all the way around in his bed to get a better look at it. The dog had red fur, with some of the fur fluffing out on his chest in a “V” shape. It also had an oval head, black nose and dark eyes. It look just like the pictures of an Irish Setter he’d seen in books at the library. The dog appeared to be young, but not a puppy, and it sat there on his floor with its tongue hanging out of its mouth."

Well, it’s not perfect, but I think it’s better. I actually studied several pictures of Irish Setters in order to work on describing it accurately, and even found one of an Irish Setter that looked exactly like the dog as I “saw” it in my own mind.
Still, I’m not done with that just yet. I’m planning to run that description by some of my daughter’s friends and see how they respond to it. If it “works” and helps them to get a good idea of what the dog looks like. And if not, then I’ll tweak it some more until I get it right.

I am just glad I even ran that by the little girl in the first place. It has reminded me to be a bit more detailed when it comes to something that may not be so popular after all. And that running things by potential readers is actually a good thing!

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  • At 12:02 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Good point! Its always wonderful to stay in touch with other kids besides your own (because our own kids know every breed of cat and dog practically and sometimes know more than us right?) Thats a good thing to remember, a description for a specific breed or a specific type of anything, is necessary especially with kids books.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • At 8:08 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Love this! (and, thank you for the mention) When I first started writing, it frustrated me much when others in the industry would say, "no, Jenn. Show, don't tell," and they'd never broach the subject of *how* to do that. It wasn't until years later that I *really* understood what that meant. I can see here you have a grasp on it, and I love that!!!

  • At 9:16 AM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    Nancy, you're not kidding! My kids have books about dog breeds -- in fact, Jen has a book on "Dogs 101" of 101 different dog breeds. So, yeah, they know dogs. LOL I feel it is important to connect with other kids about these books, because it helps me to gauge their reactions, feelings and opinions about a current story. They are my betas! LOL Thank you for commenting. :)

  • At 9:18 AM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    You're welcome, Jenn! Glad you liked the post and thank you for bringing this up on Twitter. It took me a long time to figure out what "show, don't tell" meant. I actually talk about this in one of the Revisions books! The examples I have included here are a good example of "show, don't tell." Describing the dog and indicating the breed is a better way of helping someone to see what a dog looks like rather than just telling them, "It's an Irish Setter." Appreciate the comment!


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