Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

The Devil is in the Details: Why Specifics Make Writing Better

I celebrated Halloween a few years ago by doing a “ghost tour.” The event wasn’t in Vancouver, where I live and am already on a first-name basis with most of the apparitions. It was in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was delivering a writing workshop.

Louisville is a terrific city for sports, but I could count the ways in which I am not interested in that subject. I wasn’t about to visit Churchill Downs off-season and the Muhammad Ali Center held no lure. I did snap a photo of the 120-ft. tall replica of a Louisville Slugger, but that’s only because I happened to walk by.

What did appeal to my sports-deficient self, however, was a tour of Victorian houses. Did you know that Louisville has the largest collection of such homes of any city in North America?

Following the advice of one of the participants in my workshop, I decided to walk the 13 blocks to the Old Louisville Society and book a ticket for the evening’s Victorian ghost tour.

I had a hard time finding the building — the site of the address was just an enormous park — so I backtracked two blocks to ask the Visitor’s Centre for advice. There, I met a man in a long and sweeping black robe, fastening a hooked nose, complete with a wart, to his otherwise fine looking face. He told me the building was in the center of the park, well off the road, and said he’d see me later. (Cue scary music!)

In the gathering dusk I meandered through piles of autumnal leaves back to the park and finally found the building where I bought a ticket. As our 7 pm our tour began, we wandered through the park, and costumed characters assaulted us with verse about witchcraft or long-dead civic characters.

Eventually, we began touring some of Louisville’s magnificent Victorian houses.  Most of the ones we entered appeared to be B&Bs and they had been lovingly maintained with gleaming leaded glass, 15-foot ceilings and finely finished woodwork. Exquisite!

After the 90-minute tour, I thanked the excellent guide, who said to me, “You know, my husband and I just love Canada….All those flowers!” Because I was confident she was trying to be friendly, in a we-don’t-have-time-to-really-chat kind of way, I simply nodded and smiled. In truth, however, I was taken aback by her comment, because it seemed such a poor descriptor of my country, particularly in winter.

In this anecdote there is a lesson for writers.

The issue? My guide wasn’t specific enough! Communicating effectively is ALL about giving detail. If she’d said, “My husband and I loved the cherry blossoms we saw in Vancouver,” I would have immediately visualized an Akebono cherry (my husband and I own one), pictured a specific tree-lined street here (West 33rd Avenue) and perhaps even imagined a scent. Or if she said, “The rose garden at Rideau Hall in Ottawa is truly spectacular,” I might have recalled a summertime visit my family made to the capital of my country.

Writers (and speakers) are often reluctant to be specific in this way because they fear they will bore their audiences. But know this: Boredom does not come from specifics. Instead, it comes from a LACK of them. In my column today, notice how much detail I gave you. I wanted you to be able to paint a picture in your own mind’s eye of the kind of experience I had in Louisville. I trusted you to skim over the bits that didn’t interest you so you could get to my point, which is this:

If you’re going to be scared of anything related to writing, don’t be scared of detail. Be scared of being vague. Or too general. Or not descriptive enough. As architect Mies van der Rohe put it: God (and, incidentally, the devil) is in the details.

Isn’t that an apt thought as Halloween approaches?

Daphne Gray-Grant

Daphne Gray-Grant

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.
Daphne Gray-Grant
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