I’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
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…