Authorology Lab: Details!

by Dan Elasky


One of the old rules of writing is “show, don’t tell.” We writers bandy this about like one of the Ten Commandments.

But if you advise a child writer to show, not tell, they are likely to give you a perplexed look. To them, “show” involves a physical demonstration:

“I’ll show you how to use the app.”

“The YouTube video showed kids at the soccer camp.”

In my private writing class for home schoolers, I find that for the most part, the kids, ranging in age from eight to twelve, enter the class thinking of writing as just “telling.” Vividness is not an especially sought-after quality.

Before I do anything else with the class—before spelling, grammar, or anything else—I want to impress upon them the importance of details.

First, I make a bunch of bookmarks:


I hand them out to the children, and put a big  DETAILS! sign up on the wall.

“Details,” I say. “That’s one of the most important qualities of good writing. Without details, a piece of writing is lifeless as a dead bug. ”

Then I hand out a paragraph like this one:

The Elephant Tamer

Last summer we went on a very interesting vacation out West. We had a lot of adventures and a couple of close calls. Things turned out all right in the end, though.

The high point of our trip was when we met an old man named Mr. Roarshock. He used to be an elephant tamer in a circus until something happened and they fired him. The view from his house was incredible.

Then we left and had nothing but trouble all the way back home. As I said, though, things turned out all right in the end.

I ask, Does anyone want to comment on this paragraph? Does it have a lot of good details?

The kids are ready to pounce. In the swing of things now, they note how boring or dry it is, how it lacks details. Actually, there is only one detail in the whole thing: the fact that Mr. Roarshock used to be an elephant tamer. But he was fired and the reader is left wondering why.

I deliver a short lecture:  Details are things that make writing come alive for readers, things that let them see something, hear or smell it, or let them imagine how it feels. We also use details to give readers a clear picture of what happened (or is going to happen), why it happened, and what people say or said.

In “The Elephant Tamer,” details could be things like

–visit to an Indian tribe: describe

–stopped at Gateway Arch in St. Louis and could see for miles at the top

–went for a ride on a riverboat, liked watching the paddlewheel churning up the water

–visited the Cowboy Museum in Cody, Wyoming

–what Mr. Roarshock was like, and why he was fired

–in Iowa, Mom forgot purse in restaurant; we had to go back and fortunately, it was still there

–Old Faithful, describe the eruption

–Bears begging for food along line of stopped cars waiting to get into Yellowstone National Park

–visit to Grand Canyon, maybe dizziness looking over the edge

–exactly what the “troubles all the way home” were

The discussion ends with a look at several well-written paragraphs. We go through and point what the details do.

Then an assignment: Write a paragraph or two about anything, but make sure you fill it with details. Let the readers see. The paragraphs I get are always much more lively than the last ones they gave me.

As I noted in my previous post on the blog,  “So Bad It’s Good Helpful,” I frequently find that an obviously bad example of a writing topic helps kids get engaged. They’re not intimidated by such bad writing; they find it fun to pick apart. And then they’re in a good frame of mind to write something good.

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