Somewhat accidentally, the theme for the Angles topics of this semester has been debates between writers about writing, media and the digital age.
From the ethics of ChatGPT to paying for news subscriptions to the value of print media in a digital landscape, Mirror writers have labored over topics on the minds of many in the English and journalism fields.
It’s fitting to close the semester with something that almost everyone in an English or journalism major has an opinion on: writing style.
How to write well and the proper form and style are some of the principal concerns of English and journalism classes, but style is one of the most subjective aspects of writing.
Most writing instructors harp on the importance of details in descriptive writing. The more specific details, the better.
At the same time, too many details might bog down the overall message and make the story unnecessarily lengthy or worse, flowery.
Opinions on the matter differ and, to some extent, it comes down to personal preference.
Writing can be successful with numerous and generous details and it can be successful with certain aspects left up to the reader’s imagination.
Yes, the devil’s in the details
Details bring a piece of writing to life, no matter the style or subject.
For example, I could say “I’m writing an article in the coffee shop.” It’s not wrong by any means, but “article” and “coffee shop” are unspecific. While they are facts and get the point across, adding detail allows a story to bloom from a seed-like statement:
“Sitting on a couch that swallows me into its cushions, I write an article for the school’s newspaper, The Mirror, about the importance of detail in writing.
“The room isn’t usually this quiet, but in the lull of the afternoon — the sun beating down through a long wall of windows, the wind just a gentle breeze on the other side — the only voices in the coffee shop on campus are the baristas quietly gossiping about their inconsiderate roommates. With a deep breath, I begin writing my third paragraph.”
Miraculously, a boring statement becomes an enticing story. Using only broad strokes, a writer may miss a much bigger part of the story nestled within.
In this example, description is brought out through the senses. Selling coffee, seeing the light come through the windows and the coffee shop, hearing the wind, the gossip and the quiet, and feeling a cold breath of air are ways to connect to a reader through details of the senses. It’s essential that those details are brought to the forefront.
Often, writing doesn’t get recognized as art unless it’s in the form of poetry or fiction writing, but non-fiction and academic writing are art too. Fictional movies are art in the same way that documentaries are art, and both require detail to captivate viewers. Good writing keeps the reader captive, hypnotized to the page or screen. Writing is a beautiful form of art.
But art is rarely broad, and avoiding details is detrimental. Think of paintings, the intricacies of each brush stroke and each color, each with its own depth on the canvas.
Or think of sculptures, with sculptors precisely chipping away to get the exact form or angle they want.
Or think of movies, where the small details in the background are used to give viewers context to the time, place and story.
Writing must be like this too, or a writer is limiting readers’ perspectives of a much broader story.
In the fashion industry, a silhouette is described as the shape clothing takes as it hangs on one’s body. A similar definition can be applied to writing. Writing takes on distinct silhouettes depending on the type of description used. For example, novels have similar silhouettes as movies but very different silhouettes from legal documents.
However, not every detail is built to work in the same way, and thus shouldn’t be used in the same way, either. For a lab report, a writer should not describe how the chatter of squirrels can be heard outside the lab or that they were listening to classical music as they were pipetting a solution into a centrifuge tube.
This concept may seem obvious, but silhouettes are tricky, and finding the perfect mix of statement and detail to create the desired silhouette only comes with practice.
Ultimately, if you want to capture a reader’s attention and hypnotize them to the page, you have to include the right details. Without detail, writing may appear choppy or rushed. By taking the time to slow down and capture a moment through its specific description — what it sounds, looks, tastes, smells and feels like — a more creative and expansive world opens up in readers’ minds, creating an emotional and visceral story that avid readers can only describe as “good writing.”
No, details are the devil
I have always been told details are important when writing fictional stories, especially in my creative writing class, but I don’t care for them very much.
I do not need paragraphs of description to make a story come alive.
Our brains can fill in the gaps for things that are neither there nor fully explained, so if I am reading and know the general characteristics of a character — such as age, pronouns and personality — or the setting, I can visualize the story however I want.
As an English major, I know I should enjoy the small details in texts.
I have become better at appreciating the well-written passages in the novels and excerpts I am required to read for classes, but the excessive descriptive details are not always necessary, especially in books I read for fun.
My favorite genre is realistic fiction thrillers. I enjoy these types of books because they focus on the plot and action of the story. They rarely have paragraphs of details on what the characters look like, what colors their clothes are or what the food tastes like. The only details or descriptions the writer includes are necessary to the plot.
In novels with more detail, I tend to skip around. Once I am on the third sentence of a place or character description, I skim until I find the storyline again.
For example, if I know the story takes place in New York City, I don’t need two paragraphs describing the colors, size and texture of the view. I know what New York City looks like. Please go back to the storyline.
I also enjoy reading historical fiction, which I understand needs more details to set the time period. This amount of detail is acceptable in my opinion because it adds an important element to the story.
But if I am reading a story about a kidnapping or an innocent person on trial, the story should focus more on what’s happening and less on how the events look.
I love letting my imagination take control, imagining the characters exactly how I want, although it is a huge letdown when a book is turned into a movie and the actors are not who you imagined in your head.
Details are good when they add to the story, but if you add too many, it quickly becomes too much.
As fantasy author Jane Lebak said, “sometimes one plus one equals zero. Two is bad. Give the reader one thing to concentrate on. Pick the better of the two.”
Visual details in a story can sometimes be necessary for historical context or the plot, but there is no need for a paragraph explaining the character’s outfit or what a room looks like in a thriller novel. I just need the necessary details, and my imagination will fill in the gaps. All I want is a good story.