March 24, 2003

Attention to detail stands at the center of the best writing. Details connect readers with the physical world. Details are the fingerprints of prose, the particulars that distinguish one person, one day, one event, from another.

“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on one point it is on this: The surest way to arouse and hold the reader is to be specific, definite, and concrete,” say William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in “Elements of Style,” the writer’s bible.  “The greatest writers,” the authors argue, “…are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.”

How do I use this BNW Brown Bag?

I. The Power of Detail
An introduction.

II. Metal to Bone, Day One
Anne Hull’s award-winning story.

III. Talking Points & Assignment Desk
How to learn from BNW winners’ work, with a group or on your own.

IV. Feedback
How do you collect and use detail in your stories?

Download the PDF:
The Power of Detail

Buy the book:
BNW books at the Poynter Bookstore.

ASNE Writing Awards

  • 2003 Winners

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  • 2001 Winners

  • 2000 Winners

  • 1999 Winners

  • 1998 Winners

  • Every year, the winners of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Awards illustrate that point with stories that derive their power from the accumulation of specific, concrete and factual details. Over the past quarter-century, Best Newspaper Writing has spotlighted the way award-winning journalists gather and employ detail.

    Writing with details demands reporting for detail. Details show the reporter hard at work, observing, sensing, questioning, noting. But details must be relevant and used judiciously. Like a strong spice, they can overpower a story or mire it in minutiae.

    To mark the 25th anniversary of the Best Newspaper Writing (BNW) series this year, Poynter Online each month will profile past winners and provide a brownbag loaded with ways for you to put the books’ lessons to work.

    In this BNW Brown Bag, you’ll hear American Society of Newspaper Editors Writing Award winners discuss the role of detail in their stories.

    You can also read an award-winning story, discuss it with colleagues and tackle some provocative questions and practical exercises designed to boost your own abilities to collect and include details in your stories.

     BNW Winners on Detail

    “Details can help explain the sum of a person.”

    Anne Hull, St. Petersburg Times
    Best Newspaper Writing 1994, Non-Deadline Writing


    “The voice of a story has to ring true, and the authority is in the details. J. Anthony Lukas talked about using telling detail tellingly, not just using it for the sake of throwing it in to show how clever you are or that you did your homework, but to put it in places where it’s going to enhance your story… When a reader sits down to read something, he wants to feel like he’s in good hands, that the disembodied voice talking to him is an authority. And what gives you authority or credibility is well-used detail.”

    Gerald Carbone, The Providence Journal
    Best Newspaper Writing 1995, Non-Deadline Writing


    “I have one trick I use in describing people. I ask the person a question that I don’t really care about. And while the person is giving me the answer, I’m writing down what he looks like. People get nervous if they’re not saying anything and you’re writing stuff down.”

    Cynthia Gorney, The Washington Post
    Best Newspaper Writing 1980, Features.


    “You ask the questions: What was it like? What did it feel like? Take the reader where he cannot go. You, the reporter, go in and bring back information. What is it like in those woods? What is it like on that island? What is it like in that person’s dreams? And you do that by accumulating every bit of meaningful detail and using it where it seems appropriate. It’s what you leave out sometimes that is as important as what you put in.”

    Carol McCabe, The Providence Journal
    Best Newspaper Writing 1980, News


    “I tell people to always be looking. I know that sounds a little absurd, but you just keep your eyes open, soak in how something smells or tastes or sounds. You have to go into the story with your eyes open, looking into the corners. Oftentimes, you can read a person’s whole economic story, their loves and their dislikes, by what they’ve got parked in their driveway. Cars are not just a conveyance. They’re part of our character and our personality. So is the music that’s playing when you walk in the door, or the show on the television, or the paintings on the wall, or the clothes a person wears. You have to be making these notes. They’re not necessarily something you write down in your notebook; they’re things that you catalog in your head. I’m talking about things that register, really register, that might make the reader say, ‘OK, I can see him now,’ or, ‘I can see her now.'”

    Rick Bragg, The New York Times
    Best Newspaper Writing 1996, Non-Deadline Writing


    “I guess it gets back to being a police reporter and working for this editor. His name was Dick Thomas, and he was an assistant city editor. You would send in a story and he would call back and say, ‘Are you sure this was Southwest Portland?’ ‘Are you sure it was a one-way street?’ ‘Are you sure the cop had a revolver and not a pistol?’ It was beaten into you. You didn’t want him to call, and when he called, you’d better have the answer.

    Working under that system for so many years, I learned to ask all the questions and to really look at the details. At first, it was just a matter of having the details for my story. As I got more into feature writing, I realized that the details were like little bombs going off. They could do so many things in a story and say so much in a way that I, as a writer, could not. I want the reader to do a lot of the work for themselves and I want to tap into what’s inside their memories, in their histories, and find things that will help them tell the story for themselves.”

    Tom Hallman, Jr., The Oregonian
    Best Newspaper Writing 1997, Non-Deadline Writing


    “When I sit down to write a story, I want people to see the story, I want people to feel what I feel, hear what I hear, taste what I taste, smell what I smell. So those are kind of the basic Writing 101 things that I’m using. The colors, the smell, the marked-up pages of his Bible… Oftentimes, when I’m in these situations interviewing people, I have a finite amount of time. As they’re speaking and the tape recorder is rolling, I’m writing down these details all the time. It’s like, what am I struck by? Her kitchen is perfectly clean. It’s black and white. A little girl sitting in her high chair, but she’s not eating her Cheerios, all the things that are happening around me…”

    DeNeen L. Brown, The Washington Post
    Best Newspaper Writing 1999, Non-Deadline Writing


    >> Next: Anne Hull’s story from Best Newspaper Writing 1994

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    Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
    Chip Scanlan

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