Talking Points and Assignment Desk

1. Solid, painstaking, reporting is the foundation of Hull's series. She is especially adept at collecting details that capture the essence of her characters. Consider one such example, her evocative description of police officer Lisa Bishop:

In uniform she was petite and muscular, like a beautiful action figure doll, with piercing green eyes and size 4 steel-toe boots. She kept her hair back in a French braid. Even under a streetlight, her skin seemed carved in pearl.
First, consider the effect of the writing. What image does the description evoke? What impression about Officer Bishop's appearance and personality does it leave?

Now, discuss the causes. List the details that Hull employs. How do you think she collected each of them -- through observation, interviewing, in different settings? Consider the language she uses to render those details. What if she had said Bishop was 5 feet tall and weighed 98 pounds?

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

  • 2002 Winners

  • 2001 Winners

  • 2000 Winners

  • 1999 Winners

  • 1998 Winners

  • 2. Good writers use the five senses -- sight, sound, touch, taste and smell -- to collect details, but also invest them with their intelligence and imagination. Anne Hull begins Part Two of her series "Metal to Bone" with a sensual description of the project apartment where the teenage suspect's grandmother lives:  "Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon."  Like poetry, this 13-word sentence is precise, economical and rich with implication. How might editing some of the details affect it? What if Hull had written it this way: "Mary Robinson's apartment smelled like sweat, furniture polish, and bacon." Would the impact be as strong?

    3. For her devotion to detail, Hull credits Tom Wolfe, who helped school a generation of non-fiction writers with his informative discussion of the techniques of realism found in "The New Journalism," the 1973 anthology he edited with E.W. Johnson.

    One key device, Wolfe says, "is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving towards children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people's status in life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern of behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be. The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature."

    Examine Hull's story for other examples of status details. Consider how status details reveal things about yourself, your friends, your sources.

    Assignment Desk: Exercises in Gathering and Using Detail

    1. Collect a variety of revealing details about a subject in your latest story.  Follow Don Murray's advice: "use all your senses -- sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch -- to pack your notebook, and your memory, with specifics you may need when writing." To the five senses, add a few more: sense of place, sense of people, sense of drama, sense of time.

    2. Write a one-paragraph description of your subject, combining physical description and your assessment of her character the way Hull does with Carl Williams.

    3. In Best Newspaper Writing 1995, Gerald Carbone of The Providence Journal says he writes "Sight," "Sound," and "Smell" in his notebook and jots down his sensory impressions, often in prose that he places directly into his story, such as this description of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in winter:

    Below the treeline, the White Mountains in winter are a vision of heaven. Deep snow gives them the texture of whipping cream. Boulders become soft pillows. Sounds are muted by the snow. Wind in the frosted pines is a whisper, a caress.
    Try the technique on your next story.

    Further Resources

    "Columnist goes to the mat with telling details" by Bob Kerr, Providence Journal
    "Make like a squirrel, and store those telling details away" by Karen Lee Ziner, Providence Journal
    "Imbibe the details, let the story flow" by Amanda Milkovits, Providence Journal
    "When telling a story of loss, details matter" by Margaret Reist, Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star
    "Details, details and, while you're at it, some more details, please" Bob Baker interviews Rick Meyer of the Los Angeles Times

    • Profile picture for user chipscan

      Chip Scanlan

      Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and coached journalists worldwide. He spent two decades as an award-winning journalist for the Providence Journal, St.


    Related News

    Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon