It’s All in the Details

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When I was a journalism student at Carleton University, the big media outlets would come around once a year to conduct job interviews. A famous interviewer tactic was to ask the interviewee to look out the window and name five ideas for news stories. One student made a study of the view outside the building before his interview and went in with five weighty, hot-button ideas all prepared. Sure enough, the interviewing editor asked him to look out the window, but when the student turned away from him to look, the editor asked “What am I wearing?“ The student had been too busy rehearsing the story ideas inside his head to notice what the editor was wearing and had no answer.

Writing isn’t about what you’re feeling or even what you’re thinking. It’s about what you see (and smell, and taste, and hear). If you’re just starting out, or are between story ideas, make a point of writing one descriptive paragraph a day: describe a house or a garden that fascinates you, describe a fabulous (or a terrible) meal, or a bar-by-bar description of a piece of music. Forget about why you think the subject is interesting, or how it makes you feel; let the details do the talking and keep your description concrete. Keep your paragraphs in a notebook. You never know when they’ll come in handy.