Better Writing With Bart: Details, details, details …

By Bart Pfankuch

Bart Pfankuch

I hopped into a pickup the other day to take a ride with a man who has suddenly become a grass-roots activist in the fight to block a proposed gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

We weren’t in the truck long before I asked about his hat – a standard baseball cap, well-worn and a bit crusty with stitching on the front that said, “Vietnam veteran.” As a reporter, I knew that such a clear, prominent detail could be a proverbial gold mine of information.

Just by asking about the cap, I opened a window into this man’s life. He told of being drafted from Ohio and serving from 1971-72 in Quang Tri in maintenance support. He told of being exposed to agent orange, getting prostate cancer as a result, and being treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. He told of retiring from the Army after 20 years, mentioned jobs he held since, shared his passion for horses, explained his move to the Black Hills and said he was 72 years old.

Look back on that paragraph and you’ll see how many concrete, potentially telling and useful details arose from that one question about a man’s hat.

If facts and figures are the frame of a news story, then details are the art that reside within. Proper use of details makes readers see people, places and things in their heads. They heighten understanding, create specificity and can add life, emotion or humor to a piece. They display the uniqueness, unusualness and sometimes hilarity of life and all its glorious characters. They can take an article from interesting to unforgettable.

A few of my favorites over the years include the retired shrimper in Florida who was so antsy for action that his shuffling feet wore two spots in the linoleum beneath his chair in his fish shop; the lawmaker who was so respected and feared that she lit a cigarette in the smoke-free capitol right in front of a security guard; the sleepy Southern town where a local bank building’s four-sided clock displayed four different incorrect times; and the rural school principal who shot and skinned dozens of squirrels and rabbits to fry during the school’s heritage days celebration.

Without even knowing what those stories are about, you can feel the descriptive power of those details. Here are some basics on getting and using vibrant details in your reporting and writing, including the 3-part detail test.

  1. The reporter must see the detail, confirm its meaning (usually by asking the source directly), then write down an accurate, engaging description of the detail while still with the person, place or thing being described.
  2. The writer then must then decide if the detail makes sense and advances the main topic of the story.
  3. If so, the detail must then be skillfully placed in the copy and its meaning made crystal clear to the reader.

Getting descriptive details requires a keen eye and a willingness to ask probing questions, sometimes with a dash of discomfort for the reporter and for the source. Patience is required during an interview to notice details and ask about them. Writers must focus on the non-obvious, think deeply, listen closely and be curious but not confrontational.

Details placed at the start or end of a sentence have major impact. Details can work in attributions to strengthen meaning or drive home a point. They are great in leads and kickers to set the stage or wrap up a piece. They can be delivered between dashes or occasionally in parentheses to really give them punch.

But be careful. A wrongly recorded or misstated detail can lead to a correction. A misplaced detail can muddy rather than clarify a point. Details not fully explained can lead to misunderstandings or misimpressions and mislead the reader. Oddly placed or clunkily described details can cause readers to wonder about the meaning and stop reading. For the reader, several details in a row can become burdensome.

The best test to check for effectiveness of details is to read the story aloud to someone and see if the listener notices the detail, understands what it means, and feels as if it strengthens the story. Ask them, “What came into your head bubble when you heard that detail?”

At that point, depending on their response, the detail can stay in the piece, it can be moved around or be beefed up, and sometimes it must be jettisoned from the story if it isn’t working as intended.

The biggest piece of advice I have in getting and using great details is the same for any journalistic technique: just give it a shot. You can’t get great details without trying to get them, and you can’t use them effectively without practice. Believe me, it is worth the effort.

Bart Pfankuch is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, an independent, non-profit public-service news agency online at sdnewswatch.org. He can be reached by email at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.