Details are always more believable than generalities. They’re more interesting and persuasive too.
Writing that is littered with generalities makes us yawn. But details ignite a reader’s imagination. And once you’ve captured our imagination then you can take us where you will. We will follow.
I learned this principle from my friend and marketing genius, Roy H. Williams:
“The simple truth is that nothing sounds quite so much like the truth as the truth, and most people seem to know the truth when they hear it. The truth is never full of loopholes and generalities. The truth is made of specifics and substantiation; it’s solid. That’s why it’s easy to spot in a world full of paper-thin lies, half-truths, and hype.”
Roy H. Williams, Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads
This principle applies whether you’re writing ads, a blog post, a novel, or a review on Amazon.
Details add life and believability to your writing.
Let me illustrate with a couple of advertising examples.
Example #1: A TV Ad for Chewing Gum
Watch this 60-second ad for chewing gum:
I don’t do origami. The closest I’ve come to that art form is folding a paper airplane.
But it doesn’t matter. The origami reminded me of the little rituals that I share with my two daughters. Very different rituals, but the ad connected me to them anyway. And it set me up for the powerful ending when the father and daughter exchanged the knowing glance.
When you provide details in your writing, you connect your audience with your story in a way generalities never will.
Example #2: A Radio Ad for a Jeweler
This is snippet from a radio ad I wrote several years ago for a well-established jeweler in St. Louis:
You stand in front of a large reinforced-steel door. The security guard checks the photo on your passport before inserting his key card into the security panel.
The door slides open and you are escorted down a long corridor to the last door on the right. You’ve traveled 4,000 miles over two continents to see what is behind that door. For on the other side, lies $60 million dollars of the most exquisite diamonds in the world.
And you’re going home with one of them.
Wouldn’t it be thrilling to buy a diamond this way? Well, this is precisely what Richard Neustaedter goes through when he travels to Antwerp, Belgium to buy diamonds. And now, you can have Mr. Neustaedter personally select a diamond for you when he travels to Antwerp in late September.
Could you picture the scene in your mind? Did you feel a sense of anticipation and excitement? Maybe a bit of mystery? Did it make you wish you were in Antwerp so you could see the big pile of diamonds behind that door?
The difference was in the details. The reinforced-steel door. The security guard. The passport. The $60 million dollars worth of diamonds.
What if the ad used generalities instead? Would it have been as interesting?
If you’d like to own a one-of-a-kind diamond then visit Neustaedter’s Fine Jewelry. Mr. Neustaedter will travel to Antwerp this September and he can select one for you while he’s there.
That’s how most ads for jewelers sound. Bland. Forgettable. How can a writer make the most beautiful jewel God ever made sound boring, blah?
Bonus Tip: the use of the personal pronoun “you” is another way to pull your audience into your writing. It doesn’t matter that no one in the audience has shopped for diamonds in a secure facility in Belgium. They visited Antwerp in their minds.
(By the way, the series of ads that included the one above helped the jeweler grow by 26% in one year at a time when his typical annual growth had been in the low single-digits.)
Seeing the World through a Tiny Picture Frame
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests that we write only as much as we can see “through a one-inch picture frame.” Ignore everything outside of the frame. It’s a practice that forces you to see details.
It’s a discipline that is simple to explain but difficult to practice.
Try this exercise right now. Think back to your first day of high school. I’m sure you could write several pages on the topic, but let’s make this shorter.
Instead, describe the first moment or two right after you woke up that day. See it through the one-inch picture frame.
What did your bedroom look like? Were there posters on your walls? Did you wear PJs? How did you wake up? An alarm clock? Or maybe your Mom. Did you wake slowly or with a start? What was your very first thought? Panic? Excitement? Did you lay out your clothes the night before? Did acne stare back at you from the mirror?
Zero in on the details inside the frame.
Help us see exactly what you see in your mind’s eye. Fill your writing with vivid, specific imagery. We will relate to your story, and it will magically remind us of our own experience. Even if it was very different from yours.
You will capture our imagination.
And we will thank you for it.
Questions: What is your favorite writing tip? How do you make your writing memorable and vivid? Share your tips in the comments below.