Profile image
Story Views

Last Hour:
Last 24 Hours:

The devil is in the details

Thursday, March 2, 2017 2:00
% of readers think this story is Fact. Add your two cents.

One of my first college essay assignments was to describe my bedroom, and I described the heck out of it. I gave almost every item a prominent role, as if I were describing a display of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. The amount of minutia bogged down the writing, and I earned a “B” on the paper. A low “B.”

After complaining about the grade to my mom, I took the time to read the instructor’s comments to try to understand what I did wrong. The answer was simple – I focused on everything, which means nothing stood out to create a clear visual in the eyes of the reader.

Ideally, I should have summarized parts of the room as a whole, and given details when they were interesting enough to create a visual that helps establish a mood, evoke an emotion, provide character insight, or move the story forward. The good news is that writers don’t need to include a lot of details to be effective.

The office was in perfect order except for several manila folders strewn all over the mahogany desk, and Mr. Jenkins’ dead body on the floor.

In this scene, I don’t need more details about the office. I’ve summarized that by using the phrase perfect order. We can all see an office like that in our minds, and they are all different, but we have the general idea. I also debated whether or not to include the word mahogany. In this case, I used it because I didn’t want to give the impression that this was a cheap metal desk like the ones found in millions of cubicles.

The word mahogany also conveys the idea that the office belongs to someone with power. I don’t need to say a large, polished mahogany desk, and I don’t need to tell how many drawers are in the desk. That fact doesn’t matter, unless the top, right-hand drawer contains the gun used to kill Mr. Jenkins, but for this scene, it doesn’t. Readers also don’t need to know the color of a lamp shade, or that the couch was leather.

Summarizing the whole and zeroing in on an item or image that exemplifies or stands out helps create a visual in the readers’ minds.

Her pale clothes and skin were equally wrinkled (summary), an interesting contrast to the polished, six-carat diamond on the third finger of her left hand (specific).

My final tip is to make sure you see the images in your own mind, and that they come through clearly with as little detail as possible. Members of my critique group are great at catching my mistakes by asking questions I can’t always answer. My silence means I’m not sure I’ve seen something clearly enough to determine which details are important, and need to rewrite to evoke the right mood or emotion, give character insight, or move the story forward.

Every writer should be so lucky to have first readers like these. I only wish they had been there when I wrote that college essay.



Mary Horner is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

(C) Copyright

Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!‘s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Flash Fiction Contest. Open Now!

Never Stale! The Muffin provides daily writing tips, inspiration, and news from the bakers of WOW! Women On Writing.


We encourage you to Share our Reports, Analyses, Breaking News and Videos. Simply Click your Favorite Social Media Button and Share.

Report abuse


Your Comments
Question   Razz  Sad   Evil  Exclaim  Smile  Redface  Biggrin  Surprised  Eek   Confused   Cool  LOL   Mad   Twisted  Rolleyes   Wink  Idea  Arrow  Neutral  Cry   Mr. Green

Top Stories
Recent Stories



Top Global


Top Alternative




Email this story
Email this story

If you really want to ban this commenter, please write down the reason:

If you really want to disable all recommended stories, click on OK button. After that, you will be redirect to your options page.