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Getting Down To Details

Posted on Sunday, June 28, 2020 at 8:27 PM

Are the articles you publish compelling? Do they engage the reader? Are they really interesting? If not, they may be incorporating insufficient detail.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Demand of your writers, or at least recommend from your writers, stories with sufficient and the right details. Generalities and lacks in specificity destroyed writing, no matter how jaunty the technique.

Plunge Into It George Plimpton in his writing career gained details from immersion. He played percussion with the New York Philharmonic so he could more sensitively write about it. He sparred with Archie Moore. In his classic, Paper Lion, he recounted a try to pro football. And here he is, out on the field, ready for his moment of quarterbacking: "I cleared my throat. 'Set!' I called out, my voice loud and astonishing to hear, as if it belonged to someone shouting into the ear holes of my helmet. 'Sixteen, sixty-five, forth-four, hut one, hut two, hut three, 'and at three the ball slapped back into my palm, and Whitlow's rump bucked up hard as he went for the defense men opposite. The lines cracked together with a yawp and smack of pads and gear. I had the sense of quick, heavy movement, as I turned for the backfield, not a second having passed, I was hit hard from the side, and as I gasped, the ball jarred loose. It sailed away and bounced once, and I stumbled after it, hauling it under me 5 yards back, hearing the rush of feet, and the heavy jarring and wheezing of the blockers fending off the defense, a great roar up from the crowd, and above it, a relief to hear, the shrilling of the referee's whistle."

Detail: Detail brings us close.

Include Quotes

Quotes are an important detail, or can be, or should be.

But writers tends to become too relaxed about the amount of quoting to do and the kind. Too much direct quotation tends to weaken the story, unless it is specifically and carefully designed around the words of others. And soft quotes, those soft on language or information, hold back rather than enhance the value of an article.

An excellent little story in People proves what judicious quoting can do. The subject was the gold miners of Peru. The writer undoubtedly spent considerable time down there, getting the feel of things, observing, interviewing. But when the story appeared, the focus of the piece was on just one gold miner, a fellow named Pereira, one of the oldest of the bunch.

He told the reporter-writer: "Years ago I was a wild guy drinking, smoking a lot and wasting my strength. But no more. I'm a grandfather. I just work and work, say my prayers at night and stay out of trouble. I guess now my only vice is hope."

He told the reporter-writer: "That fist of gold is right here under my feet. If I work hard, I know I'll find the big one. God will reward me. We work like slaves, but every day we pray for the gold and the freedom it will bring."

No need for a lot of quotes from a lot of minors. Pereira becomes the story. His words reveal the philosopher and him.

Sufficient detail. The right detail. There's power in the good quote.

Pulling in the Reader

Connie Fletcher in Chicago magazine writes about "What Cops Know." She listens to the police officers. They tell her, and us:

"In families of drug dealers, it's common to hide drugs in a baby's diaper -- with the baby in it."

"The most time cops have to execute search warrants on dope houses -- before dope can be flushed, thrown out the window, or dissolved in a pan of water -- is 30 seconds."

"We picked up a prostitute the other day. She is 28 years old. She's been on drugs for maybe eight years. She just had a bypass operation. The doctor said to stay off the junk. And she's walking the street to get more drugs. She is faced with death, and she still can't break it. The first thing she'll say to you is 'How do I look? Don't I look good?' And she is dying."

"When you pull over a motorist for speeding, the motorist will always look at the speedometer, even though the car is now at a complete stop."

This is the sort of detail that brings a reader close to a world not otherwise known to him or her. This makes the reader feel like an insider, and isn't that what we strive for in magazine writing: to bring the reader close to whatever subject our publication is developing?

Another Example...

Consider also the human detail, as Time correspondent Jon D. Hull did in the story about the plight of the homeless. He met a former construction worker named George, observed, gained the man's confidence, then wrote:

A smooth bar of soap, wrapped neatly in a white handkerchief and tucked safely in the breast pocket of a faded leather jacket, is all that keeps George from losing himself to the streets. When he wakes each morning from his makeshift bed of newspapers in the subway tunnels of Philadelphia, he heads to the restroom of a nearby bus station or McDonald's and brings an elaborate ritual of washing off the dirt and smells of homelessness, first the hands and forearms, then the face and neck, and finally the fingernails and teeth. Twice a week he takes off his worn Converse high tops and socks and washes his feet in the sink, ignoring the cold stares of well-dressed commuters.

George, 28, is a stocky, round-faced former high school basketball star who once made a living as a construction worker. But after he lost his job over a year ago, his wife kicked him out of the house. For a few weeks he lived on the couches of friends, but the friendships soon wore thin. Since then he has been on the street, starting from scratch and looking for a job. "I got to get my life back," George says after rinsing his face for the fourth time. He begins brushing his teeth with his forefinger. "If I don't stay clean," he mutters, "the world ain't even going to look me in the face. I just couldn't take that."

Details don't come easily, but what a difference they can make.

Reveal Something New

Of course, it's not just any detail. Their writers should be pushed to gather information that the reader is not likely to know. Well-known intelligence gains the reader nothing, and he is likely to react with: "I'm not learning anything new. I expect more from the magazine."

Beth Dickey taught me the new in her "Life in Zero G," an account of the shuttle astronauts for Sky magazine, when she wrote: "Some people grow 1 to 2 inches taller and suffer lower back pain as the spine stretches in space. Half of all astronauts report feeling queasy with a malady NASA calls 'space adaptation syndrome.' Virtually everyone gets a puffy face and a stuffy nose. Blood and other bodily fluids pool in the torso, neck, and head when there is nothing to hold them down. Muscles lose protein and shrink, and the cardiovascular system droops because neither works as hard without gravity. The result is that shuttle fliers feel dizzy and out of shape on coming home, as if they had been bed ridden for days."

It's never like that on Star Trek, I realize, but in real life, well, this is what I expect to learn from a magazine, a publication of import and record, a medium that should go beyond the newspaper and the telecast.

The Editor's Role

A magazine writer should understand the importance of detail. If memory fuzzes, the editor must step in.

"Here's what you need to do," you say. And so forth.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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