Be Generous with Detail
Posted at Editors Only on Monday, March 31, 2014
Present information that you’ve gathered to stimulate reader interest.
By Peter P. Jacobi
Successful paragraphs/passages/segments/parcels in articles require heavy-duty work. To write them so that potential readers care enough to actually read what you’ve prepared demands prior thought and preparation. It calls for information gathering. It begs for details.
I’ve chosen several excerpts for you to peruse, so to arouse consideration about what, besides good writing, it took to realize them.
Dateline: Moore, Oklahoma
From The New York Times, May 27, 2013, a story by Michael Shear:
“…Mr. Obama took a brief walk through the remains of what once was a thriving suburb south of Oklahoma City. American flags, flapping in the stiff winds of the warm spring day, were among the rubble.
“But the piles also contained reminders of the lives torn apart by winds that topped 200 miles per hour as the twister cut a roughly 20-mile path of destruction through town.
“There were 2012 yearbooks from the Plaza Towers School and a workbook titled ‘Jamal’s Surprise.’ There were several waterlogged encyclopedias and a pink baby doll stroller. In another pile was a purple plastic toy camcorder and a child’s pink parka. Every few feet, crumpled cars blocked the way, and twisted metal littered yards that once had lawns. The only trees remaining had no bark and no leaves.”
The writer spotted particulars in the rubble that made devastation specific, that addressed lives interrupted and possibly lost, that spelled tragedy, that carefully put the President into another consoler-in-chief moment. To pass along such an experience, a reporter must search for the details that travel readily and clearly from a distant scene to the printed page and the reader’s eyes, mind, and heart. Shear did so, not by overplaying his hand as collector of facts but by selecting from his notes sufficient details to frame a circumscribed picture of human grief, one scoped large enough for a far-off reader to grasp and understand what had happened in Moore but not so large as to emotionally overwhelm him or her. The power of details.
A column in National Geographic Traveler, prepared for the June/July 2013 issue by Laura Willard, is a short one about “Kids Go ‘Round the World in Balboa Park.” She recommends:
“1. Jump on a century-old carousel, with original European hand-carved animals, for a five-minute whirl. 2. See how your face changes as you age, and peer through a microscope at real human cells at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center…. 8. Enjoy a free concert from one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion on Sundays.”
Willard’s list of ten activities that a family can enjoy at inviting Balboa Park has been thoughtfully collected and then ever-so-briefly but specifically offered to the magazine’s travel-enthused readers. If San Diego is a possible destination, those readers who choose to go there now have ten things to do while spending time with family (or alone) in that famous preserve. The writing took very little time, I’d guess, but the information took care and time to gather. Without that information, of course, there is no column worth reading. The power of details.
Dateline: Dhaka, Bangaladesh
From USA Today, May 17–19, 2013, a story by Calum MacLeod focused first on 20-year-old Sheuli Akhter, a garment worker:
“Her mother, Ranjana, was found recently sobbing near the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory where her daughter worked, days after the eight-story complex collapsed and killed 1,127 people. Viewing dozens of corpses a day, Ranjana … still hoped her daughter had somehow survived and would join her for the 10-hour bus journey back to their village.
“The victims retrieved daily from the debris were crushed and unrecognizable in the South Asian heat.
“‘I am looking for her body, but they are all decomposed now. It’s getting harder to identify,’ says Ranjama, tears falling from her eyes.”
MacLeod located a mother still seeking but coming to realize that her daughter is among the victims. He used that mother-daughter tragedy as a humanizing detail to get at the message he sought to impart to his readers, which comes in the paragraph that followed:
“The scale of the mismanagement and breadth of the human tragedies in Bangladesh powerfully illustrated to the world in an instant what years of abuse, inhumane conditions and unthinkable danger could not: The workers in Third World countries take enormous risks and desperate measures to earn a living in Bangladeshi-owned companies that produce clothing for Western retailers.
“At the end of this global production line stand millions of American shoppers whose favorite companies and brands … use Bangladesh as a launching pad for the goods consumers crave.”
The human detail tells, shows, and sells the point that the reporter is striving to make: we’re helping to sustain a system that causes the sort of tragedy we’re suddenly sad about, so what are we — individually and collectively — ready to do, if anything, to bring about change? The power of detail.
The New Yorker‘s eminent music critic, Alex Ross, wrote in the June 10, 2013, issue of the magazine about the return-from-injury appearance of conductor James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Here is his opening paragraph:
“At the beginning of the Prelude to Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin,’ an A-major triad, evoking the Holy Grail, swells gently in the violins, oboes, and flutes, with four solo violinists playing silvery harmonics. For the orchestra, it is a scarily exposed moment: the violins must maintain purity of intonation in a high register, while the winds must materialize before the audience’s ears, with no audible splutter of attack. The musicians of the Metropolitan Opera, performing the Prelude at the outset of a concert on May 19th at Carnegie Hall, had no trouble meeting those requirements. But the sonority had an uncommon aura — something of the magical quality that Charles Baudelaire, in his 1861 essay on Wagner, described as a ‘wide diffusion of light,’ an ‘immensity with no other décor but itself.’ Moreover, the chord seemed to be in motion, like a crystal turning in space as light shone through it. Wagner, whose 200th birthday arrived three days later, could not have asked for a lovelier gift, in whatever region of the hereafter he may be found.”
Ross ascribed that moment in performance to conductor Levine, back after a two-year absence. “Perhaps,” he noted, “the musicians would have sounded the same if another conductor had been on the podium, but I doubt that the playing would have had such extreme concentration, such meditative intensity.”
This critic, of course, brings to all his assignments ears attuned to every note, bar, accent, solo responsibility, and ensemble development. That’s an inherent and trained part of talent he contributes to his job of evaluating music, and he can follow through, fortunately, with intelligent writing that makes the case. But look at the knowledge that peeks through, thanks to material he chose to construct his paragraph and what follows: of score, of instrumental capabilities, of Wagner, of “Lohengrin,” of James Levine, of the Met Orchestra. Some of that knowledge has become a given for Ross; he has it at his beck and call. But his research must have included going back to the score and also hunting up historic details about Wagner and “Lohengrin” (the Baudelaire quote, for instance). Ross obviously knew what he needed to prove his argument. The power of detail.
I have at least five more examples that I wanted to use in this month’s column, but I’ve run out of space. Detail is a subject worth recycling. I will again. In the meantime, don’t stint on detail. Be generous. Don’t overwhelm, but be generous. Be wisely selective, but be generous.
Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.