March 17, 2008

Details matter in writing. One of the first, best suggestions is to over-report what you see, hear, smell and touch. When you go to a scene, walk into a room, visit a store, meet an interview subject, write down all the detail you can – not because you’re going to use it all, but because such reporting will produce the telling detail that will pull the reader inside the picture you’re drawing.

Perhaps because your Write Stuff correspondent has driven southern highways and byways for 56 days and 8500 miles, I was struck by the detail in Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the tale of a family road trip that does not end well. The family’s grandmother is a bug for detail:

…they left Atlanta at eight forty-five with the mileage on the car at 55890…she pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled. The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone to sleep.

O’Connor conjures images of the family road trips so familiar to her readers, the details creating the sense of a tranquil rite of passage that will be grotesquely shattered at the end of the story.

Barry Paddock used that same sense of detail in his look at a Colombian writer who wrote a Spanish-language narrative nonfiction book based on his experiences working at an upscale Chelsea grocery:

Chelsea Garden of Eden shoppers who have struggled to choose between the store’s 38 varieties of balsamic vinegar, or floundered before the 48 feet of shelf space given over exclusively to olive oils, may not have been shopping in anonymity after all.

The detail – the 38 varieties of balsamic vinegar, the 48 feet of shelf space for olive oils – makes the reader realize what kind of “foodie” customer the store attracts. How, Write Stuff wondered, had Barry approached the story and found that kind of detail? Here’s his answer:

“I knew capturing the nutty uniqueness of Garden of Eden would be key to this piece. I made a special trip to the store just to walk anonymously through it filling my notebook. Going back to my notebook now I see that they sell fresh tuscan cabbage and baby oak lettuce, which are displayed nestled in straw baskets, for $11.99 a pound. I counted the balsamic vinegars and measured the olive oil shelf space during this visit. As I wrote I plucked the details from my notebook I felt would serve the piece.” (my emphasis added)

While we cherish the image of Barry measuring the olive oil shelf space, we cherish even more the passion for detail that separates good from ordinary writing. As Barry noted, he didn’t use all the details he put into his notebook, just the ones he felt would serve the story. The gathering of details, and the careful selection of which details to use, is a critical lesson in the art of writing.

Claudia Cruz used details to introduce readers of The Huffington Post to a young Ohio delegate in the Democratic presidential race:

At a coffee shop in Columbus, Ohio, a young man ordered a Mystical Mind mango smoothie. Clad in a long black wool overcoat, mint green collared shirt and white tie, he introduced himself with a nervous laugh.

“I’ve never been interviewed before,” said Shekar Jayaraman, 21, a delegate for Hillary Clinton in Ohio. “I wasn’t sure how to prepare.”

Born to immigrants from India, Jayaraman spoke like an old political professional about his interest in civil rights and his desire to be a public servant. A senior at The Ohio State University in Columbus, who double majored in political science and international studies, he commuted two hours home to Cincinnati on weekends to campaign for delegate, a task he said he took seriously.

The details of how Jayaraman dressed sets you up for the interview with an earnest young person who took the trouble to campaign to be a delegate. The enduring lesson: Details matter.

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