Details in our Writing: How Many?

One of the biggest challenges for me and my students is how much detail to include in our work.  Always we hear the phrase, “show, don’t tell.”  Writing texts stress specifics—details, details, details.  But finding the balance between “show, don’t tell,” and “less is more,” another oft-repeated phrase is tricky.

In the memoir I’m finishing about the guide dog/human partnership, I wrote about the research into dogs’ five, often astounding, senses and talk about my own. Though totally blind and substantially deaf, I’ve learned that the brain’s plasticity and my training have enhanced my other senses. But the details, though pretty delicious, overloaded the members of my writing group, hearing the chapter.

I hypocritically comment, “cut, cut, cut,” in the margins of my students’ papers so it was good to have the same reaction from my peer group.

Orson Scott card and probably a host of other writers talk about every aspect of our writing being autobiographical, the settings, topics, characters, metaphors, and every word we choose. In this way our writing with its specifics out of our cores becomes fresh and important.  But how to judge if we have too many “spare parts,” as Ted Kooser calls them?  I suggest reading aloud, but also reading aloud to others, or having them read aloud to you.  This last especially works.  I wrote an article for a writing journal about it, actually.  Hearing your work in the voice of someone representing your target audience really lets you know, not just the overloaded details, but when the reader is absorbed and engaged, or when she’s just reading words, but has lost interest.  Note: preferably the reader should not be a relative, close friend, or someone biased toward you.

There are probably other ways to check for excessive details. Some suggest using differently-colored markers on your printed pages for action, dialogue, narration.  Then check the balance.

Simply knowing that too much detail is just as bad as too little may be a help. Ah.  The quest for the Goldilocks measure continues.



About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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1 Response to Details in our Writing: How Many?

  1. Reading out loud is such a good exercise in many ways for improving writing, its surprisingly hard to commit and just do it, I dunno feels weird.

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