In many ways, as writers, we’re also artists in a visual sense: We paint worlds with our words. Cultivating an eye for telling details can give our writing texture and a sense of place. In Georgia Heard’s lovely guide, Writing Toward Home,” she talks about a little ritual she’s created for herself to develop her eye for detail: Every day, as she takes a walk, she gives herself the chance to look at the world around her with fresh eyes by finding three things she loves. I’ve begun doing this on my morning walks and it’s a lovely way to begin a day.
Visual artists, painters and photographers, ave highly developed eyes: Tiny flowers we see in a painting or the way a photographer uses foreground and background to intensify an image — all this shows an eye for detail. As writers, cultivating this kind of eye is enormously fruitful. Here’s what the classic, Elements of Style, says about the use of detail:
“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers — Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”
William Strunk and E.B. White then cite a passage from My Antonia by Willa Cather (one of my favorite authors!) as an example of sharply seen details:
“While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation; in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet-iron.”
What an eye for detail Willa had! What simple yet lush language! Let’s bring this same painterly skill to our work as we all write on.