By Susan Orlean
(This article originally appeared in Medium on November 5, 2021. I wanted to repost it here because Susan Orlean has been a tremendous teacher for me in my writing career. If you want to know how to craft compelling nonfiction, read her work!)
It’s stating the obvious to say that details are everything, but I’ll go ahead and state it: Details really are everything. People read to get the big picture, but what they really savor is the detail that pops off the page, that lodges itself in their minds as they’re reading. It’s the difference between a story that’s just fine and a story that’s terrific.
Details often are part of descriptions. I think a lot about descriptions and how to make them work, and more than that, how to make them memorable. A good example is describing a character in a piece. I used to feel obliged to provide a lot of description of people I was writing about — a sort of catalog of specifics from head to toe.
Then it occurred to me that I wasn’t giving testimony in a legal proceeding, and that descriptions didn’t need to be exhaustively comprehensive. I began to feel that anything specific about a person that was generally true, or statistically likely, didn’t need to be mentioned. For example: Many, many people have brown hair. I don’t have the statistics to back me up, but I have a feeling that brown hair is the default fact of hair among human beings. Therefore, I figured, unless I had something interesting and particular to say about a character’s brown hair, it didn’t need to be mentioned. Readers would fill in whatever I left out. In fact, I happen to think a lot of the pleasure of reading is filling in those absent details, rather than being bombarded by an endless and often tedious list.
Some years ago, I thought I’d lost my notes for a story. My deadline loomed. In the midst of my utter blackout panic, I decided to write down everything I could remember in hopes of reconstructing what I’d lost. The list I created was all the pungent, surprising bits that had stuck in my mind, rather than the obvious; it was as if my mind had skipped over the drudgery and lingered on what made the experience distinct.
As it happened, I found my notes in the end (knock on wood), but it was a great lesson: The interesting details are the ones you remember effortlessly, because they’re the ones that impress themselves in your memory. This is NOT a suggestion to write strictly from memory. (Not at all!) What I’m suggesting is that you already have the capacity to sort out the great details from the dull stuff if you let yourself do it. Maybe… start your story with your notebook closed, and tap out a few descriptions without consulting it. Then you can open the notebook and confirm the details with your notes. Or — my favorite technique — tell the story out loud to a friend and listen to what naturally bubbles up in the telling. If you’re a writer, you ought to be a good storyteller, with instincts for what makes a listener perk up. Pay attention to what you tell your listener, and you’ll be able to translate that to the page.
This all assumes one essential behavior: Namely, that you pay very close attention when you’re collecting information for a story. Worry less about your notes and more about absorbing the experience — really absorbing it, so you know it deeply. The art of noticing is the bedrock; the craft is taking what you’ve noticed and arranging it well on the page. Start with your eyes open, and you’re more than halfway there.