Writing Strategies if You’re Not Good with Details

This week’s lesson addresses details, and it’s made me think of what kind of strategies might help in dealing with them.   Most of the advice assumes you’re reasonably good at dealing with them and are just forgotting what you said.  I remember one that said you should note things like if your character drank tea at 8:00 every morning.

For the purpose of this, I’m just dealing with the small details of the story.   To right-brained people who are good at seeing the big picture, there are other things that may be details to them but not the rest of the world.  But the small things can start interfering with the other details.

There are two types of small details:

Specific Details. You’re replacing one word with another.  So instead of saying the generic “dog,” you write the more specific “Golden Retriever.”

Added Details.  This is when you add the detail.  So instead of not mentioning the character’s eyes at all, you write “Her eyes were blue chips.”

When writing the first draft:

1.  Do let Specific Details come in naturally as you write.  However, don’t stop to do research to find a specific detail.  I’ve caught myself stopping to look up the name of a tree while I was creating.  Instead, see Item 3.

2. Omit the Added Details.  If you deal better with the big picture, it’s very hard to tell when you’ve done too much until after you do way too much.  It’s best not to let them get in there in the first place.  Otherwise, the Added Details will become a distraction during the revision.

3. If you have a place where you think you might need to add details or need to do research, put in a marker like [RESEARCH].  That’ll give you a chance during the revision to survey the entire story and see if anything should be added.

During the revision:

4. Read the whole novel first so you can get the big picture.  That way, you can judge the [RESEARCH] markers to see if they fit into the big picture of the story.  What may have looked like an important detail in that scene of the story may turn into something you don’t need at all.  And look how much time you just saved because you didn’t stop each time to look it up!

5.  Focus on any Added Details that you might need to insert.  Here, think in terms of what’s unusual, so you don’t end up adding color this or striped that just to get a description in.  Think about the reason for putting that detail in, like it might be highlighting something that’s going to be important in a later scene.

But how do you keep track of the details?  Obviously, it’s important because some details do get included in the story, and we want to make sure the story doesn’t suddenly have a character who goes from short to tall.  This is one I’ve had to think about because the traditional methods often play to the same weak areas that not being detail-oriented fall into.  We often get things like “make a list,” and that can be a challenge.  Mind you, the method below is for personal use, so you’re working with a strength instead of fighting a weakness.  If an agent or editor asks for a list, follow their guidelines.

Try color coding.  Think of a category, such as character descriptions.  We’ll assign it to green.  So you can either have a green sheet of paper or write it in green ink.  Doesn’t matter what order it’s in, only that’s green.  So instead of having to remember where you put the detail (a problem with lists), all you need to remember is that character description is green.  It also means that if you want to do a quick fact check, you just look for green rather than trying to search through a 20-page list.  You can put them any order you want, draw a box around important ones that you might repeat, draw pictures–whatever helps you associate anything with that detail.

What other methods of working with details have you come up with?

2 thoughts on “Writing Strategies if You’re Not Good with Details

  1. bigwords88

    Waaay back when I was writing for a regional paper, I got into the habit of keeping folders with cross-reference sheets in the front, each section separated by a colored piece of plastic. The important details (which required looking up every few days) had post-it notes sticking out from the side of the sheets which were important, and the passages most references were highlighted. It isn’t a foolproof method (especially if more than one person is updating the information), but it is still the best hard copy method I have found.


    1. I used Post-Its to track agent requirements (i.e., 50 pages vs. equery only). Then I could move the Post-Its into like piles and select agents who all wanted the same thing. It greatly simplified submitting.


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