Get the Name of the Dog

2009-05-12I’ve started editing one of my novels again and have pulled out my editing bible to help me get back into the right headspace. It’s an unassuming but brilliant little book called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. I suggest everyone buy themselves a copy (I get no money for that advertisement). One editing tool I particularly like was conjured the other day during a conversation with my fiance. It happened after he’d read a review I did of Kathryn Apel’s delightful debut picture book, This is the Mud!, and went something like this:

Andrew: He he he

Me: *frown* What are you laughing at? (I can tell he’s laughing at me, rather than at something wonderfully witty I’ve written)

Andrew: You said ‘beef cow’ in your review

Me: And…

Andrew: Why wouldn’t you just say cow?

Me: Because it wasn’t just a cow. It was a beef cow.

Andrew: You’re so clever, intelligent, witty and wonderful. No wonder I’m marrying you (or something to that effect)

Anyway, the point is that I included that detail because if I’d just said ‘cow’, people would have automatically imagined a black and white dairy cow. When writing is unspecific, people’s minds automatically generate stereotypical and uninteresting landscapes. Small details are an immediate way to conjure vivid images, helping the viewer to feel as if they’re standing knee deep in mud in that paddock with a looming great beef cow. The writing tool this conversation reminded me of in Clark’s book is:

Get the Name of the Dog: dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses

The name comes from a journalism office, where the editors would remind their reporters not to return to the office without “the name of the dog” – not because they would necessarily use the detail in the story, but as a reminder to keep their eyes and ears open. Clark also says that “when details of character and setting appeal to the senses, they create an experience for the reader that leads to understanding”, and gives a range of fascinating examples highlighting just that.

All this sounds simple enough, but I still find non-specific nouns lurking in my prose, even on the third read through: flowers and coffee and women that should be tulips and espresso and spinsters. Small details that immediately change the way a sentence rings. Words that give a clear image and conjure a mood the reader can’t mistake. When you say that your protagonist kicked a can, do you want us to see an indifferent nudge with the foot, or a moody thrashing? As a reader, I get annoyed when there isn’t enough detail – my mind automatically fills in the void, and if I’ve gone in the wrong direction, I get frustrated when (a few lines on) they reveal what was actually meant.

Specific, simple, sensory details – quiet but vivid writing – is some of my favourite prose to read. Now back to editing my novel in an attempt to achieve just that…


12 Responses to “Get the Name of the Dog”

  1. 1 Jenn August 19, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I’m really loving reading the process of your writing Kath. I’m another who hates misleading lack of detail!

    I’m so glad you’re living your dream, I can’t wait to see your book on the shelves.

  2. 2 Lynn Priestley August 19, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Fantastic post. I was writing this afternoon and experienced this very thing. Honing in on detail brings the story alive. It’s like reading a pop -up book. The details, when there, spring forth and smack you right in the face. I remember in Year of the Edit with Kim, she covered this point. Never write about a tree. Write about a Eucalyptus or a Willow or Oak. Never just a tree.

    “All this sounds simple enough, but I still find non-specific nouns lurking in my prose, even on the third read through: flowers and coffee and women that should be tulips and espresso and spinsters.”

    How beautifully put. I have no doubt you will achieve all this and more…

  3. 3 Michael August 19, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Stangely enough the story I’ve just finished writing all started with just the name of a dog.

  4. 4 katswhiskers August 19, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    You’re so clever! Truly. You have such an expressive way of stringing words together to construct explicit logic – yet it reads… beautifully.

    As to that other thing… Andrew, Andrew, Andrew – it WAS a beef cow.

    Beef cows are beautiful!

  5. 5 Karen August 19, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I bought this book on your recommendation (in a previous post somewhere) and love it. I’m actually putting it into practise right now. I will be extra vigilant in my mission to replace any non-specific nouns. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. 6 chrisbongers August 19, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    Love it, Kath. You’re improving the writing world, one post at a time.

  7. 7 Katherine Battersby August 19, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Jenn, thanks for stopping by and for your lovely words.

    Lynn, again you make me smile with your analogies. I’ll have to do YoE one year – I keep hearing so many good things.

    Michael, thank goodness you got the name of the dog. Otherwise, I wonder if the story would have loped off and snuffled the ear of another muse?

    Kat, I’m glad you found this! I knew you’d appreciate me going in to bat for your very special beef cow.

    Karen, so glad you’re enjoying the book. I love that he practices what he preaches in his writing: each tool is explained perfectly – so clear and crisp!

    Chris, just another day in the life of the not-so-super-writer

    [I love that everyone writes such interesting comments – it’s impossible not to reply to them all]

  8. 8 Sheryl Gwyther August 19, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    What an inspiring blog, Kath – I’m going to keep an eye out for that book, for sure.
    I’ll be so glad when all this PI stuff is put to bed once and for all – or should I say dumped in the deep blue sea with a lump of concrete tied around its ankles.
    Then I can meet my friends (hint hint) for coffee again! And write some real stories with dogs and birds and octopuses and all. Sigh!

  9. 9 Katherine Battersby August 20, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Sheryl, we can’t wait for it all to be over so we can see you again, too! And yes, it must be consuming all your creative writing time…

    CYA soon, which will be a ball, and then you can have a true break on a fabulous overseas holiday!

  10. 10 Lynn Priestley August 20, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Just got my CYA map and time table – very exciting!!!!!

  11. 11 Karen Tyrrell August 20, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Kath, Great blog!I want to buy/borrow that Editing Book now. Might come in handy when I’m editing my Crime Novel, Sayonara.

  12. 12 Katherine Battersby August 21, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    So glad you’re still coming, Lynn! I was worried, with your approaching move and all…

    Karen, I highly recommend it. Much of it you will know already, but it’s a wonderful concise reminder of all the things that make writing sing.

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About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

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