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It's All in the Details

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 at 6:48 PM

Apply reflection, concentration, and observation to make your point.

By Peter Jacobi

Back problems slowed me down for a few months. I'm better. Part of my catch-up has been to go through newspapers and magazines and not-so-important mail.

What I've been reading led me to this topic: how good writers and their editors use detail to make a point. But first, to expand: (1) Though you may be editing and/or writing for a compact newsletter, give your copy space. (2) Give it a clear sense of direction. (3) Then, use details that convince.

For you to accomplish that successfully, apply reflection, concentration, and observation. Think carefully about what you're trying to do. Focus sharply on the task at hand, with the full power of your mind. And observe, really observe!

Copy That Transports Readers

Sometimes, the right details come at you easily, courtesy -- perhaps -- of a source you are exploring during the information-gathering process. Adam Skolnick, in preparing his expansive coverage of "To the South Pole, and Beyond" for the New York Times, about the two adventurers who completed their journeys across Antarctica, found in one of those adventurers, the American Colin O'Brady, a man inclined to use the right details. Here was the man who came in first, a man of words who could describe what he had experienced most likely better than anyone else, having himself observed what he saw and heard and felt during the incredibly arduous journey, having concentrated afterward on what was in his bag of memories, and having then considered how best to share with others his adventure through the most direct and clear and powerful details and language at his disposal about what he had undergone.

"When it's blue sky," he recalled, "and you're on the polar plateau, you can feel so small. It's just endless, and you're like this tiny little speck. You can look 360 degrees, there's nothing. There's no tree, no building. You are the only tiny little thing out there in this endless sea of light. So that makes you feel small. But then when it's whiteout, it's the opposite: It's super myopic, insular. All I can see is my compass a couple of inches away from my nose, and the contrast of those two things is so stark, but what is ever-present is that you are just a product of your own thoughts, your own mind."

Making a point. Through detail, O'Brady has transported us to Antarctica, to his side: reflection, concentration resulting from observation, and, yes, detail verbally expressed move us as readers from where we are to where O'Brady has been.

Copy with Nerve and Verve

Detail can come simply as listings. I received mail from the Library of America, urging me to purchase a two-volume collection (2,126 pages) of Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches & Essays. The sales pitch tells me this "is the most comprehensive collection ever published: nearly three hundred stories, sketches, burlesques, tall tales, hoaxes, speeches, and satires. "

And a bit later in the promotional copy, I'm reminded: "As a riverboat pilot, Confederate irregular, silver miner, frontier journalist, and publisher, Twain witnessed the tragicomic beginning of the Civil War in Missouri, the frenzied opening of the West, and the feverish corruption, avarice, and ambition of the Reconstruction era. He wrote about political bosses, jumping frogs, robber barons, cats, women's suffrage, temperance, petrified men, the bicycle, the Franco-Prussian War, the telephone, the income tax, the insanity defense, injudicious swearing, and the advisability of political candidates, preemptively telling the worst about themselves before others got around to it."

Making a point. If I were in the market for more Twain, I'd buy. The details remind me of his eccentricities and his close involvement with life as it was in those earlier American decades. Indirectly, the mailing reminded me of how smoothly Twain used detail to give his copy nerve and verve.

Copy with a Sense of Purpose

Let us move to the AARP Bulletin, which comes right out with what's to come on a front page devoted entirely to a title and deck. The title: "90 Ways to Add Healthy Years to Your Life." The deck: "Proven Ways to + Slash your disease risk +Boost your brain power +Spark your energy + Right-size your weight -- Feel years younger. Page 10." Here's a surefire lead-in before the story even begins. And I'm sure page 10 became the issue's most gone-to destination.

"Someday you're going to go to Alaska," Stephen Drucker promises. This warns me to start his Travel + Leisure article, "Under a Cold Spell." "You can say you hate the cold, but you'll still go. There are puffins, whales, otters, bears, glaciers, and fjords in many places around the world, but eventually you'll give in because only Alaska feels like Alaska: vast, empty, disconnected, and, as you start to realize during your 10th hour in the air to Anchorage, farther away than you'd imagined. It's the end of the line, and not in a Key West kind of way. "

Recalling a cruise experience to Alaska, Drucker quotes his expedition leader who told him, "Alaska isn't a reserve, it's wild." The trip, writes Drucker, proved "wild" as descriptively right. "Wild" is "not quite the same as the pure, still majesty of Antarctica, which fills you with peace," he explains. "Wild is a charge in the air.... It's watching everything trying to eat everything else, while keeping a respectful distance from the things that want to eat you," etc.

Drucker wants you to accept the invitation to be adventurous by visiting a place he argues is unlike all others in the world. His language is suggestive and beckoning, inviting if also a bit threatening. He convinced me to fulfill a wish that at my age I'm unlikely to. Actually, I've been to Alaska but without Drucker's wider exposure. I just engaged in the sights during limited hours on a trip designed around a writing/editing workshop.

But, while there, I felt what Drucker tells his readers and have always wanted to return. Somehow, life got in my path, and -- being a month short of 89 as I write -- I'm increasingly doubtful that trekking and dogsledding and kayaking through the wilderness are for me to accomplish. How I love the article's details and sense of purpose, though. It got my mind to Alaska, if not the physical rest of me.

Copy That Makes a Point

For my final example this month, I return to the New York Times, its Arts and Entertainment section, and an article by Michael Cooper: "La Traviata Opens a New Era at the Metropolitan Opera." The piece is about a change in the company's musical management from conductor James Levine, fired for sexual misconduct, to conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Writer Cooper observed that change firsthand during a rehearsal of Verdi's popular opera. Moments of action expressed in his words gave proof of change: "The soprano, Diana Damrau, playing the heroine, Violetta, had just hurled her champagne glass across the rehearsal room as she sang the defiantly joyful aria, 'Sempre libera.' The glass landed, midphrase, with a crash. Mr. Nézet-Séguin brought the rehearsal to an immediate halt, objecting to the intrusive clatter. 'The explosion is in the music,' he said.

"Glass throwing is hardly rare in 'Traviata' stagings -- the Met's last production also had its Violetta hurl one against a wall -- but Mr. Nézet-Séguin said he was dismayed by how much noise there was on the Met's stage these days, in what that could distract from the music.

"After a short discussion with the director, Michael Mayer, a compromise was reached. Rather than chucking the glass in the middle of a line, Ms. Damrau would wait until the end of the measure so that the sound would not fight the music. And Mr. Nézet-Séguin had one more request that Ms. Damrau throw the glass upstage, preventing stray shards from threatening the players in the pit.

"It was a small but telling moment: Mr. Nézet-Séguin was taking musical responsibility for the Met."

Keen observation resulting with the telling details, a telling anecdote, thereby making a point: be aware of such matters. Small ones, and the right ones, can be huge in importance.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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