In 9th Grade, I handed in my Pride and Prejudice paper with broccoli stuck to it.
As if this made it better, I circled the green smear with ballpoint pen and scribbled, “Mrs. Carpenter — sorry about the broccoli.”
When I make presentation slides for a speech, I type plain text rather than find a nice graphic template.
Instead of putting out real napkins when we have dinner guests, I set the table with folded paper towels. (They’re brown, 7th Generation unbleached paper towels, so they pass for artisanal. Is what I tell myself.)
And so, I always knew better than to answer any job ad that called for someone “detail oriented.”
Because I’m not.
OR AM I?
It’s true, I’m not neat. I’m too lazy for nice flourishes. If “detail oriented” means you always have a well-divided binder with every paper in the right section and not just all jammed into the front pocket, I bow out.
But when it comes to writing, I am a details fanatic.
And yes, I realize exactly how geeky that sounds.
Like the time at Promax, which is a convention for people in TV promos, when the keynote speaker chuckled and said, “Those of you who know me know what an absolute nut I am for continuous flow.” Continuous flow is when they squeeze the show credits into the bottom of your TV screen and go right into the next show without a commercial break. It’s a weird thing to get fetish-y about.
And so are concrete, original details. Except that…
They’re the best tool any writing teacher ever taught me.
I love them like teenagers love selfies.
Like old people love free packets of oyster crackers.
Like my downstairs neighbor loves to drag her squeaky fucking folding chair along the floor at 7:15 am.
See that? Details. I’d never say I’m on it like white on rice. I’d say I’m on it like dog pee on fresh New York snow.
Original details turn clichéd into compelling.
They give your sentences shape, so we want to read them.
They allow us to picture your idea like it’s a movie. (Or better yet, a TV show. Because TV is now better than movies.)
Vague descriptions are squishy and soupy. If our mind had fingers, vague would slip right through.
Details are hard, solid, chunky. They’re mental finger food. Our brain stops and picks them up, like meatballs on a toothpick.
I was lost and unhappy — physically, mentally, and spiritually burned out from my job.
Every day on the subway to work, I cried behind my Kindle. I needed a nap by the time I’d logged into my office computer. My password, which required a combo of uppercase, lowercase, numbers and characters, was Want2f*ckingQuit.
Right? See the difference?
Longer, but better and concrete and picture-able and copycat-proof.
Copycats hate details. It’s one thing to steal a vague idea. But personal details like crying behind a Kindle? You’ve got to be shameless to steal those.
Your audience, though? They love details.
- Soggy toilet paper on the floor.
- Your airplane seat-mate’s nose wheeze.
- The sour-milk smell of Suzy Nussbaum’s Welcome Back Kotter lunchbox in 2nd grade.
Happy details are good too. The clang of the Grand Szechuan delivery guy chaining his bike below your window, just before the doorman buzzes you up to say “food’s here.” (That’s the happiest detail I can think of. Spring flowers bore me.)
If you want to be memorable, dish the specifics.
The more solid, sensory, concrete and particular, the better.
The stuff we can picture. That’s what that sticks with us. (Like broccoli on homework.)
People who barely know me ask if I’ve had my Citarella watermelon chunks yet today because they read this.
They ask me if my dad is wearing his rubbers.
The answers to those questions, at this very minute, are not yet and God help me, yes.
Details make your writing stand out from the vast, choppy ocean of blah.
(Where most writing drowns, decomposes, and gets nibbled by tiny fish.)
They connect with your audience.
They make you and your stories memorable, which makes you a star.
Best of all, they sell.
I don’t write enough to tell you to be consistent.
Or concisely enough to tell you to keep it brief.
But this advice I feel qualified to give:
Give us the specifics.
You may not be “detail-oriented,” but you can still be a details nut on the page.
Even there’s broccoli stuck to it.
What’s the best writing tip you ever got?
Or, give me a detail from your day today. Just one little thing you saw.
TELL ME IN THE COMMENTS.