Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Good Writing is All in the Details

by Lucinda S McDowell @LucindaSMcDowel

Just because you write non-fiction doesn’t mean you can’t be a good storyteller.

In fact, I heartily advocate using all the elements of fiction in your writing. This is often called “narrative non-fiction” and employs good storytelling in order to offer an important takeaway.

While strong characterization, dialogue, and context are important, the key is in the details. Details are what help a writer to heed the advice of “Show, don’t tell.”

What does this mean to a writer?

“It means learning how to use descriptive details to give your story a sense of time and place and an emotional tone that will help readers feel what is going on the story as you relate it,” says writing expert Biff Barnes.

The key is to be specific.

For instance, compare these two sentences:
  1. I walked to my truck that morning and drove to work.
  2. The sun had barely made an appearance and it was in that in-between time of faint light peeking through the darkness that I wearily shuffled out to my beat-up red pickup truck, wondering yet again if those worn tires would get me to work before the shift bell rang.

Both sentences get me to my truck and off to work.

But which one tells you more of the story? Obviously, #2 with many more details:
  • It’s barely morning – crack o’dawn.
  • I’m tired and not all that eager to go.
  • My vehicle is an old truck with worn tires.
  • I do shift work and can’t afford to be late.

We communicate more clearly when we use the right words – not just “I walked to my truck,” but “I wearily shuffled.”  Descriptive words. That’s why developing a wide vocabulary is important!

Don’t just tell about the beautiful evening by the shore. Help your readers experience it the way you did—involve their senses. Is it warm? Is there a breeze? Can you hear waves lapping on the shore? What music comes from the nearby restaurant? And why do the smells make you suddenly hungry for fish and chips?

But in order to provide details in your non-fiction story you must be a person who chooses to notice.

To be attentive to life. To slow down long enough to observe the details of what and who surround you. And then to filter those details through your own mind so that you can portray them realistically, empathetically or critically to others, depending on what you are communicating.

This week a friend of mine died of cancer. Now, if I were writing about some of the spiritual and practical lessons I learned while walking with her through this process, I might utilize the narrative non-fiction format of storytelling. I would present dialogue, scenery, and characterization, to help make you feel that you are there with me in the hospital as I visit her. So that you totally understand my frustration when I say or do the wrong thing. My despair at not being able to comfort her grieving family. And by my giving details, you the reader will take away some of the very lessons I learned in this real life experience. But perhaps you will learn it better through story than through a bulleted how-to article.

But there’s no way I can be the kind of writer who offers this to my reader unless I am the kind of person who assimilates life through noticing. Taking time to filter and process. That’s why good writers are deliberate and focus on others. That’s why we choose to relish the moments and to listen and to look deeper.

I cannot be a writer of details if I am always on the run.

Our readers don’t want us to tell them how to feel something or even what to feel. They want us to help them experience the situation so vividly that the lesson or emotion is naturally awakened within them.

Author Cec Murphey says that we “show” (not tell) when we present a picture to our readers.  “Good writing draws a picture for us and pulls us into the scene. Good writing is subtle. I can insert one simple detail and it conveys more than a paragraph of telling statements.”

Learn how to develop details in your writing. Take a walk and be especially attentive to all around you. Jot down what every sense experienced. Watch people and practice describing them with precision, not just what they’re wearing, but their demeanor or attitude.  

You will not only become a better storyteller, but perhaps a kinder person as well.

“Our life story is multilayered and filled with wonder;
our task is to stop our activity long enough to notice the details.”

– Vinita Hampton Wright
"I cannot be a writer of details if I'm always on the run." @LucindaSMcDowel (Click to Tweet)

Good #Writing is All in the Details - via @LucindaSMcDowel on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Lucinda Secrest McDowell, M.T.S., is the author of 11 books, contributing author to 25 books, and has published in more than 50 magazines. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Furman University, she studied at the Wheaton Graduate School of Communication and served as Communications Specialist for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (Thailand) and Editor for Billy Graham’s International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists (Netherlands). A member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association (AWSA), she has received “Writer of the Year” awards from both Mt. Hermon and Blue Ridge Writers Conferences. Cindy speaks internationally through her ministry “Encouraging Words” and co-directs the New England Christian Writers Retreat. Known for her ability to convey deep truth in practical and winsome ways, she writes from “Sunnyside” cottage in New England. Visit her online at www.EncouragingWords.net 


  1. Thank you, Cindy. I am in the middle of writing my non-fiction book. I have testimonies sprinkled through it. I will utilize your ideas.

  2. Congratulations Cherrilyn. What is your book called and do you already have a publisher?

  3. SO sorry about your friend. Excellent post - nonfiction reads so much better when the story is vivid and present.