Want to keep people reading your site? Keep this old journalism adage in mind: “Show, don’t tell.”
Your job as a writer isn’t to force-feed facts so that readers will be sure to Get Your Point. Yesterday was the hottest day I can ever remember. My clothes were sticking to me and my hair was sweaty and I almost came down with heat stroke.
Overkill! Here’s how author Annie Dillard described a rough summer day: “It was hot, so hot that the mirror felt warm.” That is a great detail – and all she had to do was notice it.
Use too many descriptors and your narrative bogs down. The right details show rather than slow the story, turning even a run-of-the-mill topic into a memorable piece of writing.
Bloggers should aim to tell us more, with less. And yep, that can be very difficult at times. When I’m writing, I’m often reminded of a line from that song “Against the Wind”: What to leave in, what to leave out.
Leave in as much as you need to create vivid pictures. Leave out the ordinary stuff.
Suppose your topic is the day you proposed to your sweetheart, or the moment you realized that your current way of living was unsustainable. Forget details like “the sun was shining the day I asked my girlfriend to marry me.” So what? The sun shines a lot of the time. It’s memorable only if, say, you live in Seattle and were just coming off 58 cloudy days in a row.
But if at the moment of your proposal a street musician started playing “Smoke on the Water” on the tuba, you bet I’d put that in. Especially if the guy drowned out your dry-mouthed, “Will you marry me?”
Think back to the day you decided to get smarter about money. As you turned away from the ATM that wouldn’t let you withdraw any cash, you saw a bank poster exhorting you to save for your future. Both the poster and your reaction to it – Future? I can’t even pay my bills in the present! – are nice touches when describing a frugal epiphany.
Carefully chosen details help readers imagine a scene or situation they’ve never personally encountered. They provide color and texture – and an entry point for readers who’ve also heard “Smoke on the Water” played on the tuba. (I actually did hear this once, in Chicago. Cracked me up.)
Incidentally, “details” can also mean “research.” Which blogger do you take more seriously: The one who writes,“The average U.S. college student will graduate with an average debt load of $29,400, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.” Or the one who writes, “Students are taking out a lot of college loans these days.”
The same rule applies to facts as to other descriptors: Put in too many and your blog post will sink under the weight. Use only the most important facts.
Sometimes you’re lucky enough to have details come over and sit on your lap. Broken glass crunching under your feet as you walked to your first day on the new job in a dicey neighborhood. The hissing of the ventilator that kept your mother breathing after a massive stroke. The part-garbage-part-berry odor that let you know a grizzly was very close to the trail you were walking.
Most times, though, you’re going to have to pay attention – to your topic, your surroundings, your life. Annie Dillard noticed a mirror. What will you notice?
Choose the most evocative material you have to connote a scene, a mood, a memory. Liven up those green-vegetable pieces (the ones you do because they’re good for readers) with facts or statistics that provide perspective as well as color.
Remember: Show, don’t tell. A few carefully chosen details let readers draw their own pictures. Too many details slow the narrative. Ordinary details don’t belong in your posts, unless you explain why they were actually extraordinary.
(Donna Freedman’s NMX presentation, “Stop Calling It ‘Content’!,” will take place at 10:30 a.m. Monday, April 13. Donna has 31 years’ worth of professional writing experience, the last eight of them online. This guest post was based on an excerpt from her new online course, Write A Blog People Will Read . Use the coupon code NMX20 to get 20% off the course fee.)