Monday, 26 November 2012

Note The Detail

At our writers’ circle meeting this month, our chairman ran a workshop called Showing the Detail. It was a look at how we can use detail to convey more information in our descriptions to the reader, whilst also trying to avoid using cliches. 

It doesn’t matter whether your write fiction or non-fiction - giving your reader a useful amount of detail is important. The reader needs sufficient information to understand and re-create the scene you are describing in their own imagination, however, they don’t need to be overwhelmed with detail that it stops the message behind your writing getting through.

In our workshop, we were given a series of bland sentences to rewrite in a more interesting and detailed way. Here are three that I had a go at:

The man had a bad smell. I rewrote this as: He needed air traffic control to co-ordinate the bluebottles in their stacking formation above his putrid, matted hair. 

Miranda was rich I rewrote as: Miranda stepped out of her Tuesday morning Porsche and realised it needed changing, for the tyres on this one were now dirty and it had lost that new-car freshness since driving it off the forecourt ten minutes ago.

And finally, instead of She cried I came up with: Once the first tear found her chin, others quickly followed to the lowest point of her face, gathering confidence as their numbers swelled, ready for the next leap.

Now, I’m not saying any of those are brilliant, but the extra information the reader has there gives them more to draw upon when recreating the scene in their own imagination.

Detail is useful for travel writing too. I recently marked a student assignment where they had written: We found an Italian parlour on the promenade, which sold the best ice-cream I’ve ever tasted

That’s interesting information, but with a bit more detail, it could prove so much more useful to a reader who might be going to the same destination. Think how much more practical the following is:

Look out for Fuscardi’s on the promenade near the pier, for the best Rum and Raisin ice cream you’ve ever tasted!

Not only does the reader now know the name of the ice cream vendor, but they also have a better clue as to where to find it and  that the Rum and Raisin flavour tasted good!

Next time you sit in a cafe, or somewhere busy, and people watch, make a better note of the detail. It could make your writing more interesting.

Good luck.


  1. Loved the examples you gave Simon. And I'm sure I know that ice-cream parlour...

  2. A few interesting details can make all the difference.

  3. Great point. Just those little bits and pieces added in can be the difference between someone keeping reading or putting the book/mag down.

  4. I think 'show don't tell' can apply equally well in non-fiction, but not when it's done too often. Maybe a bit of description of the kids faces when eating that ice-cream could have conveyed, in a more original way, how good it was, for example. (Providing there's no *real* rum in a rum'n'raisin ... :)) I get a lot of 'best I've ever seen / visited / tasted' type comments from students trying to write about how much they liked something, so it's always worth trying something different and, like you say, noticing the details can enable you to experiment and do so.

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