Need more detail, please!
September 26, 2020 4:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm a writer for an organization whose editor is a real stickler for detail - his comments on my writing are always "Need to beef up here", "This is a little weak", and "Add some things here to make it a bit longer." I know that means adding more detail, but I don't know how to do that. I think I write too fast. What writing exercises can I do to strengthen this lack of detail? ADHD diagnosed, too.
posted by adverb to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sounds like your editor would like you to present more supporting evidence, so the reader can see how you arrive at your assertions and come along for the journey. Do you not have access to further details, either by elaborating on your own thought processes, or by consulting with relevant subject matter experts?
posted by mumkin at 6:17 PM on September 26, 2020 [1 favorite]


I think elaborating on my own thought processes is my problem. :)
posted by adverb at 6:46 PM on September 26, 2020


Two things make writing fuller for the target audience, not you the writer:
1. What your editor is actually saying is that you're making cognitive leaps, that which may seem perfectly clear to you but ... He thinks that a bit more explication will make it clearer to the target audience.
2. Having a relatively complete back story. What generated this information. It doesn't have to be written out, but having it in you, the writer's mind, makes a world of difference in how your ideas come across to others.
posted by ptm at 7:08 PM on September 26, 2020 [2 favorites]


One exercise that can help is to actually read out loud and talk about what you've written out loud. Imagine you're explaining whatever you've written to your Dad or some other non-expert person. Read your work out loud (or at least by enunciating the words in your head rather than scanning it like you normally read things). Where might you want to stop and explain things to your dad -- to add an aside with a bit more explanation or background or to put something in context? What would you say to him? Those are also places where you could probably use more detail in your actual work.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:23 PM on September 26, 2020 [2 favorites]


I don't know what kind of time constraints you're working under, but if you have the time:

- let the piece sit for a day or more so you have time to forget at least a few of the assumptions you worked into the piece

- read it like a grader with zero contextual knowledge who takes a point off every time they're not clear about something.

- if you're doing this exercise-style: think about every noun in each sentence. What does our zero-context reader know about the noun? What knowledge are you expecting them to bring in? If you say "The President", is the reader supposed to know of which country? Are you expecting the reader to be aware, for the purpose of understanding the piece, that said president is facing re-election, or that they have violated particular norms, or that they have X number of kids? If so, spell it out.

(If this part is difficult for you, think about how to spell out the steps to doing something on your computer to someone who has never used one before. You can't say "move the cursor" or even "use the mouse to move the cursor" without explaining what a cursor is, what a mouse is, and what "using the mouse" actually involves. Tell a user like that how to download and install a program. (What's a program?))

- For every point you're making, think about what reaction you want the reader to have. Does the zero-context reader (who is also probably reading your piece with only part of their attention and is maybe in a rush) have enough meaningful text to grab onto to catch your point and react the way you want? Is the point a blink-and-you-miss kind of thing, so you have to expand on it some if only to make sure the reader actually notices it? Is the point one that's really important, but you wouldn't know it judging by how little you have to say about it? Is the point one that could be interpreted in multiple ways, so you need to spell out the one you mean? Is the point one that doesn't necessarily follow unless the reader provides the missing steps on their own, so our zero-context reader will be stuck?

Finally, maybe you can ask the editor to beef up their own comments, at least once, so you understand exactly what they're thinking. Those are extremely high-context comments, and therefore, as is evident by this question, not very helpful to the low-context reader. Weak how? Weakness can mean multiple things - which one applies here? What kinds of things are missing? Is it really "a little" weak or a lot weak? What does that mean?
posted by trig at 7:35 PM on September 26, 2020 [2 favorites]


Also, take a step back and think about what the reader might be expecting to learn from the piece.

For example, here's a post on the Blue right now:

post title: Bilbies in Sturt National Park

me:
What's "Bilbies?"
What's "Sturt", or "Sturt National Park"? Any chance it's a typo?
Why is this front-page material?
Should I click this?

post text: Bilbies have been released into NSW’s Sturt National Park, 100 years after being declared extinct. Video.

me:
What are Bilbies? (Some kind of animal? Probably not a bacterium or fungus or ...)

NSW - hey, I know that one! Now I have the minimal contextual knowledge needed to understand "Sturt National Park", but:

What's this park like?
Is it important?
Why are the bilbies being released there specifically?
Will they be released elsewhere too?
Who is doing the releasing?
What made all this possible?
Is there any controversy about this?
Are people happy about this?
What are the odds of this population surviving and thriving? What would contribute to or impede that?
How will this affect other parts of the local ecosystem?
Where did these bilbies come from if they were extinct?
Were they correctly declared extinct?
What caused the extinction?
Is there any cuteness factor?

I have the contextual knowledge to understand that "release into the wild after supposed extinction" is a big deal, but should you take that for granted? And how big of a deal is it, relatively speaking?

Video: I know what that is! My expectation is a David Attenborough-type exploration of bilbies. Or maybe one of those "heartwarming background music with context-free shots of bilbies and/or rescuers in action." Or maybe it's a news clip. Am I right? Should the post be shaping my expectations in any way? Also, would it be relevant for me to know what kind of site this video is on, whether it's the auto-playing sort, how long it is, etc.? (Maybe, maybe not - those are authorial decisions, but they should be consciously made.)

I'll read the article or watch the video with the expectation of learning the answers to my questions. Additional detail - about the park, about bilbies, about the people involved, and possibly about the history of what happened 100 years ago - would also be welcome, especially in these coronavirus times where it might be nice to be brought into another part of the world in a vivid way.
posted by trig at 8:04 PM on September 26, 2020 [4 favorites]


One thing that helps me when I feel I am making leaps in my writing is to, after the fact, make an outline out of what I have already written. If, under point (b), I only have supporting fact (i), maybe I need to dig deeper and see if I can find another relevant fact or idea or two that can help strengthen point (b).
posted by Night_owl at 8:04 PM on September 26, 2020 [2 favorites]


I edit a lot of my colleagues' proposals and reports, and the feedback I have for them most often re: detail is: don't make the reader connect the dots, because they won't. You have to connect the dots for them, and show them how you got from point A to B to C to the conclusion. Some people worry that this insults the reader's intelligence, but it's actually doing them a favor, especially in a professional context. You're minimizing their cognitive burden, while also doing yourself a favor by increasing the chances they'll reach the conclusion you want them to, whether that's absorbing information or making a decision.

It can be helpful to start with assuming your audience knows less than nothing about the topic, and writing an "Explain Like I'm 5" version first. Sometimes this means including a couple introductory lines of context your audience may know but may not be thinking about when they're reading your piece. I've also coached a direct report who was more analytically-minded to think of it as a mathematical proof: A is true because these reasons, B is true because those reasons, and so therefore C, because of how these reasons and those reasons connect.

Start like that, then go back to make it flow better and remove some of the details that truly are too glaringly obvious. It's awkward at first, but once you get into the habit it gets more natural.

I personally imagine the most demanding colleague I know reading it, and grilling me on where I got my info from and how I reached my conclusion, and writing in a way that will minimize questions from him. :)
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:15 AM on September 27, 2020 [8 favorites]


I do the same - I tend to compress my writing to be concise. What works for me is t read out loud what I have written. It helps me realize what is too terse.
posted by rtimmel at 7:28 PM on September 27, 2020


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