The Magic is in the Details


Today I want to point out two magnificent posts from the past week that have made me realize something about my own writing, something that I am going to challenge myself to change. Both these writers captured me with the eloquence of their details–details which made the locations and people that they were writing about  come alive in my heart and  my brain.

Ed, over at Salt ‘n Peppah, wrote this stunning descriptive passage on a day when  New York took a positive step toward change by legalizing gay marriage:

“The Stonewall Inn was barely open this early afternoon. “The gays” typically don’t begin bar hopping until much later in the early evening, so the bar was deserted, except for a short little fire plug bartender named typically, Joe. He welcomed us in immediately as if desperate for company on this miserable Saturday afternoon. Folding our dripping umbrellas and leaving them by the front door, I looked around. You could smell the age and the mustiness of this dark and dingy place. A thick painted tin ceiling and dark poster filled walls hugged us as small tables were tossed about a small elevated “stage” hardly protected by a single red velvet rope. Black and white photos of the now famous “Stonewall Riots” were haphazardly placed around on the deep paneled walls of this establishment. Framed newspaper and magazine clippings of history were draped behind the bar. Somehow the light of day made this bar look like me when I wake up in the morning. Raw and exposed. Pale and puffy. Vulnerable yet somehow as cozy as the thick fleece robe I throw on to ward off the early morning chill.”

(Here’s the link to the rest of his post, called “Stonewall“.) Eds post was powerful because of its timeliness, but also because of  the details. He described a place in a way that showed an emotion and brought into focus the world around us. I wish I could do that. Yes, I know that I am good at ideas and issues, but I feel severely lacking in the details.

As usual  when I read Kathy’s post at Reinventing the Invent Horizon, my awe of people who can  write the details so they strengthen the message only grew.  Kathy is a master at  making details come to life to show the truth in the story she shares. Here’s an example from the post called “Close Encounters with Well-Wigged Old Women and other Adventures in Government-Subsidized Housing”:

“Bea, like Evelyn, had obviously, at one time, been a stunningly beautiful woman, a fact betrayed by facial features that shown through despite her age—high cheek bones and big, blue eyes that still twinkled when she smiled.

Bea was one of the few ladies in the group who didn’t wear a wig, and for a woman well into her 90s she had a head of gorgeous, light brown curls.  True her hair was largely gray, but she retained enough of the brown to surprise you, since otherwise she looked so old and borderline antique.

Bea was also one of the ladies who slept most afternoons, waking herself up every few minutes with her own overly-sized snores.

But then again, Bea never stayed more than 30 minutes at a time, as when nicotine called at least twice an hour, she struggled to her feet from the over-stuffed chair, shuffled her pink-slippered feet across the industrial blue carpet, and disappeared into her apartment several doors down, only to reemerge a few minutes later having snuck a cigarette or two, still insisting upon her return that she had had to use the rest room or make a phone call.  Never mind she smelled like smoke over the tic-tac she sucked and the Avon she had sprayed post-puff.”

The magic is in the details.

I am setting myself a writing challenge this week. I am going to focus on the details of whatever stories I write. I’m going to write stories that have details, not just the rants that I seem to be known for. But, I need your help, because as much as I want to do this, I’m also afraid. So here is how you can help, if you would like. Ask me specific questions. Some of you have read me enough to know that I have had a bizarre life, but for some reason I find it trouble to write about the details of that life. I avoid the specifics, and write more about the sweeping philosophies and lessons learned. Maybe, if you ask me specific questions, I’ll be able to focus more on the details.

I know that is my next step to grow as a writer. Can you help?

In order to help me do this, I decided to create an award that I am giving to Ed and Kathy. I’m not very good at creating graphics, so forgive my lame attempt (and if someone is better at it and wants to improve the details of my design please let me know). But here is the first official The Magic is in the Details Award. Congratulations to Ed and Kathy–ignore this as you will.


30 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jgavinallan
    Jun 26, 2011 @ 09:46:39

    I agree—I am a sub. for Ed’s blog and will check out close encounters..and probably will sub. to it.
    Now, my friend…details is something I learned…my mentor(no kidding, I have one) told me when I finish a paragraph or page, just reread it and look at the basic description….”his large hand opened waiting for the check.” ok—your mind sees more than that…example—“his large hand opened, spreading the chubby fingers as if little snakes slithering from their nest.” WOW! I’m proud of that one…”his calloused palm hung in the air waiting for my touch.” Wow! That was good too…lol
    You sound like I am—I see things in my mind, and figure out everyone else does.
    Hope it helps


    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 26, 2011 @ 09:53:04

      It does help Jaye. I get how to do the details, and when I put the effort in I can, but for some reason I just avoid the details that can be so valuable.


  2. Ed Williams
    Jun 26, 2011 @ 10:38:56

    Thank you SO much for pointing out something in my writing that I sometimes take for granted.
    (I’m currently away for a few days with Daryl and have no laptop, so I’m responding on my iphone which drives me CRAZY!)
    Anyway, I appreciate your feedback.
    Now… one thing (of several) that I LOVE about YOUR style is your sense of urgency… PASSION, that you have. It’s wonderful how you grab my emotions and run with them. Sometimes in that race to get to the prize, the details fall to the wayside, but that’s STILL okay!
    Keep learning, continue teaching, and do what you do so well…express your creativity!
    Again, thank you very much for reading and for giving me this recognition.
    (this took me a half hour to type on this little “keyboard.”)


    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 26, 2011 @ 10:56:52

      LOL Ed. Sorry to torture you by making you deal with an iphone keyboard. You are a braver man than I. DON’T RESPOND TO THIS AND ADD TO THE TORTURE! Thanks for your encouraging words. It’s good to know I doing something right. 🙂


    • Tori Nelson
      Jun 26, 2011 @ 15:26:32

      Mr., I believe I am a new fan. Just wonderful! And Kathy, of course, you are a stellar example that one can be brilliant every. single. day.
      I think your graphic turned out pretty awesome, Miss Thang!


  3. the domestic fringe
    Jun 26, 2011 @ 15:40:44

    This is a lesson I need too. Thank you for sharing!


  4. nrhatch
    Jun 26, 2011 @ 17:35:46

    Sorry. I can’t help you. I don’t care for extraneous details . . .

    I prefer writing that is distilled down to the bare essence. Facts and life philosophy interest me. Too many details about what places and people look like make me start skimming across the page looking for substance.


    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 26, 2011 @ 17:39:41

      I get that, but sometimes a few details help paint the picture in rich ways. It is just a matter of finding the balance, like everything in life. 😉 I’d argue that you incorporate details as necessary, which adds to the interest in all of your posts.


    • nrhatch
      Jun 26, 2011 @ 18:06:07

      Let me put it another way . . . I’ve never felt your writing lacked necessary detail. 😀

      I almost never discuss the color clothes people are wearing, whether the carpet is green or pink, or what designer handback they’re carrying. Instead, I tend to focus on “mental” states to set the stage.

      I’m not saying that details are unimportant to everyone. Some people enjoy poetic prose. I’m just not one of them. I feel like I’m wading through the swamp when writers include too much detail about the environment or the actors actions.

      They walked into a bar and smoked a cigarette is enough of stage setting for me. At that point, I want to know why they are there, what they are thinking, and how they are interacting with each other . . . without much embellishment.


      • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
        Jun 26, 2011 @ 18:12:17

        LOL. I definitely know what you mean. Ed and Kathy have this marvelous way of using details as metaphor, which I think is what I admire the most. I am the first to admit that I skim through lengthy descriptions of location and stuff like that on anything I read. I still am going to challenge myself, however, to incorporate a few more specifics. I’ll be interested to see what you think. I’m working on my first more “detail oriented” post now. But don’t worry, i don’t think it will include too many.


  5. Kathryn McCullough
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 06:29:25

    Oh, Lisa! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Sorry I didn’t check my blog yesterday! We had a huge party and were up to our eyebrows in party prep, so I didn’t even discover this till just now. I can’t tell you how honored I am! You are dear!


    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 27, 2011 @ 07:05:56

      No apologies necessary. Parties, friends and family are much more important than words. I hope you had a wonderful time. Hugs!


  6. Kathryn McCullough
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 14:39:16

    I woke up this morning long enough to glance at your post before staggering back to bed–good God, I’m exhausted!

    But, dear Lisa, thank you for the lovely award! Thanks for sharing my post alongside Ed’s (which I am anxious to read, even more so since the vote to legalize gay marriage in New York so thrilled Sara and me!) What a great description Ed wrote!

    Though we can all always improve in our use of detail, you notice this since it’s something I think you already do well. Regardless, I will join you in the challenge to use even more detail this week!

    Thanks again, for the sweet award! I never thought of mysef as someone who used detail well, so this feels extra-special. And sorry once more for being away from the blogosphere when you gave me this great honor!

    Thank you, my friend!



    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 27, 2011 @ 14:49:35


      I don’t think you need to use even more details. You always have that fine balance between using enough details to add clarity to your message without using so many that the reader skims through them. See the comments for Spirit Lights the Way for DETAILS (tee hee) about what I mean.


  7. Taochild
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 17:30:00

    Interesting. I to am not a fan of details in reading, though sometimes it does give flavor to a scene. I think it is a skill to paint a clear picture with only minimal details. one I long for. I find it very difficult to witte specific details, partly because i simply do not think that way. But it would be an interesting challenge… Funny thing is i am reading your posts in reverse right now so it is kind of like watching a movie backwards lol


    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 27, 2011 @ 17:49:17

      .sdrawkcab tsop a daer ot tluciffid eb tsum tI 😀 That was hard. Your detailed sentence at the end is the kind of detail I mean– a description that is clear enough to strengthen a piece of writing. I don’t mean the long, drawn out descriptions of every element of a room. Minimal and select, but still detailed enough to paint a solid picture. :”A room” says nothing, “A dim room with cobwebs dangling from a ceiling and cracks on the walls” says much more.


  8. madelinelaughs
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 17:48:37

    I think your block is gone sweetie 🙂 Yay!!!


  9. sparksinshadow
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 20:25:13

    This isn’t a recommendation, just something I’ve done recently, but I started writing a story on Twitter and discovered just how much I can edit down a much longer “chapter.” With only 140 characters for each one, I’m finding that it exercises both my ‘brevity’ muscle and my ‘using details’ muscle. (Athough a story on Twitter couldn’t possibly work like a real one!) One can’t write for everyone, but after reading how much some of you dislike long passages of details, I realize that what I’m doing may be good and valuable exercise.

    I’m not sure what sort of questions you might welcome, but as another mom, I’d love to hear a story about one of the moments that stand out for you in your quest to understand the changing moods of your daughter. The details could include what you see in her body language, and whether they match, contradict or amplify what she’s saying or doing. And you could try to examine your own body language, too. I like to think of my stories as movies as much as I can, and write down what I see. I hope something in this helps. 🙂


    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 27, 2011 @ 21:23:37

      Thanks Sparks. I’ll have to ponder that question for a while. I’m not sure I can answer it. I like the idea of challenging myself by limiting the lengths of my posts as well though. I do have the tendency to ramble . . . 😉


  10. Barbarann Ayars
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 06:24:45

    Nrhatch has it exactly. Tortuous detail makes you James Michener. a whole memoir rolled right out of me, like some mad woman at the keyboard.120,000wds, bingo, just like that. Writers, especially new ones,get so lost in the show don’t tell thing, so worried about summary writing. The trick is to know when you’ve described with just enough detail so your reader is in the scene you’ve set. Entertain the senses, without overwriting. Strip out every singe word that does not move the sentence forward. Be descriptive and then strip and polish. Give your reader credit and word texture. Nrhatch makes a great point. Find the best words, not the most words to describe a time, a place, a person, a thought, a meal. You see, I’m sure. Like Hatch, when it is crowded with detail, over-described, I, too, start skimming, muttering “I get it already!”

    Checkov said,”Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass!”

    Use the link supplied by nrhatch. It’ s a gooder!


    • Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)
      Jun 28, 2011 @ 08:06:46

      I completely agree with you and Nancy. Check out my new post where I clarify some details about details.


  11. Barbarann Ayars
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 07:08:11

    Go to and read Dancing with the Memoir.There is better clarity there about the struggle with words…which ones, how many of them and what, as writers, we’re giving to the reader.


  12. Trackback: The Balance of the Detail « Woman Wielding Words
  13. Trackback: When Favorite Writers Fade or Stories Go On Too Long « Woman Wielding Words

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