Do sweat the small stuff

Find the telling detail to bring your message to life

There are two kinds of details: realistic and telling.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL Use telling details to reveal character, illustrate larger values and support the meaning of the story.

“If someone is bald, that’s realistic detail,” writes narrative nonfiction author Lauren Kessler. “If someone chooses to deal with baldness by getting $3,000 hair implants, that’s a status detail. It is a particular that offers insight into character.”

We want more of the latter and less of the former. Your details should, as Donald M. Murray writes in Writing to Deadline,“support the action and meaning of the story.”

Outer details reveal inner character.

For Full Court Press, Kessler’s book about women’s college sports, she noted the head coach’s hands:

“Her nails were perfectly shaped and always — even when she was dressed in sweats and her size 11 Nikes — professionally manicured. That’s status detail. It reflects a choice she made and offers insight into the care she took to preserve her femininity in the masculine world of sports. It is a small detail that illuminates larger values.”

In An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin reveals inner character through outward appearance:

“His skin was mottled red, sanded to a shine by one too many chemical peels.”

And a Harper’s Magazine profile turns mobster John Gotti’s hair into a psychiatric evaluation:

“Each bluish-gray streak was brushed back and up to make the entire head of hair perfect, arranged, untouchable — a head of stone, suggestive of control and power. He could butt your face with it. … The hair shows it all. Gotti is making myth of himself. He presents himself to jury and press as a human become statue, looming in stature, a temple god south of Rome somewhere.”

How can you find the details that will illuminate your subject?

Find meaningful specifics.

Here are three ways to find telling details:

1. Be there. Hang up the phone, back away from the keyboard and go to the scene to observe. You won’t come up with good description if you never leave your desk.

“I learn by going where I have to go,” wrote American poet Theodore Roethke.


  • Interview subject matter experts in their natural habitat.
  • Take a field trip.
  • Go on more tours and demonstrations.

“Place can provoke new information, funny stories, and great dialogue,” suggests Jeff Klinkenberg, author of Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators and other narrative nonfiction books about Florida. “The way people talk, and what they talk about, is influenced by their surroundings. They may whisper in church, shout on the basketball court, talk nonsense after a couple of tall boys. Or they may chat about something remarkable they’ve just seen, something important.

“When you interview somebody at home, ask for a tour. Every picture, every book, every piece of furniture, can tell a story.”

2. Tune into your five senses. “The question is not what you look at, but what you see,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in an 1851 journal.

And don’t just see, counsels Kevin McGrath, assistant metro editor/nights at The Wichita Eagle: Capture “not just sights but sounds, smells, actions, reactions, interactions, bits of conversation, facial expressions, posture, clothing and the state it’s in (crisply pressed, badly wrinkled, sweaty, dirty, raggedy, shirttails hanging out etc.), how things look in relation to their surroundings, etc.”

As you observe, look for all kinds of color.

“Does a clock on the wall of a high-powered executive tick-tock relentlessly, like a metronome for his pressure-packed career?” prompts David A. Fryxell, former editor of Writer’s Digest. “Do the floors of the manufacturing magnate’s office tremble with the distant pulse of the factory floor? Does the home smell of freshly baked bread, the production plant of ozone, the farm of recently spread manure?”

3. Take more notes than you use. You can always toss out whatever doesn’t make it into your piece. Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative nonfiction journalist John McPhee, for instance, might take 10,000 pages of notes for a single book.

And don’t just write down what your subject says, Fryxell suggests. Note his looks and mannerisms too.

“Do his eyebrows twitch like frenzied caterpillars when he talks?” he prompts. “What’s he wearing? Anything sticking out of his shirt pocket?”

These details will help you reveal character, illustrate larger values and support the meaning of the story.

  • Paint Pictures In Your Readers’ Minds

    Make their brains light up

    Think of description as virtual reality:

    Paint Pictures In Your Readers’ Heads: Make their brains light up

    • Describe a scent, and your readers’ primary olfactory cortexes light up.
    • Describe texture, and you activate their sensory cortexes.
    • Describe kicking, and not only do you stimulate their motor cortexes, but you stimulate the part of the motor cortex responsible for leg action.

    But write abstractly — aka, the way we usually do in business communications — and readers’ brains remain dark.

    Want to stimulate some brain activity around, say, your CEO’s latest strategy or that brilliant Whatzit you’ll be releasing later this month? Description is the answer.

    At Master the Art of the Storyteller — our two-day hands-on creative-writing master class on July 25-26 in Portland — you’ll learn to make your readers’ brains light up with description. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Dig up descriptive details: Try WBHA, the most overlooked reporting tool there is.
    • Tune in to sensory information: Use our travel writer’s tip for going beyond visual description.
    • Communicate, don’t decorate: Use this tip to avoid stimulating readers’ gag reflexes instead of their cerebral cortexes.

Sources: David A. Fryxell, “The Observation Occupation,” Writer’s Digest, October 1997

Lauren Kessler, “The Search for Meaning,” Writer’s Digest, April 1998

Jeff Klinkenberg, “Writing About Place: The Boundaries of a Story,” St. Petersburg Times, January 1995

Kevin McGrath, “Scene-setting moments,” WriterL

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