I Never Knew I Was Bad With Details

Yup, it’s true.  Right-brained people are big picture thinkers and tend to be horrible with details.  But until I learned that, I actually thought I was detail-oriented, enough that I put it on resumes!

Throughout my life, I’ve been prone to sloppy mistakes — the kind that drive the details people crazy.  This was particularly true in the army, where attention to detail should be the army motto (it’s “This We’ll Defend”).  There’s nothing like missing that a document had the wrong year on it and a boss accusing me of lying about it.

So I overcompensated, to the point where I took a DISC test and was labeled a perfectionist, and I’m not one.  I don’t have trouble letting my work go once it’s done, which is a common perfectionist trait.  Nor do I endlessly revise sentences, trying to make them perfect.  But I would go back over everything as soon as I wrote it and fix the typos and omitted words.  I’d recheck work many times over, and still miss typos that had other people berating me.

Then my job changed.  I’d been running the audio visual support for a senior manager’s conference room.  It required a tremendous amount of attention to detail because if I made a mistake, it would have the scrutiny of an unhappy senior manager.  No one wanted to be around her when she was unhappy.  When it happened, all I could do was nod my head numbly, walk out the room, and search for a way to tighten the control again.

But when that job ended, it was like a tidal wave washed over me and carried away all the debris from efforts to control the details.  Overnight — and it was really overnight –the control was gone, and I couldn’t do it again if I tried.  But with it came an immense relief.

But now I’m having different troubles with details.  I got a critique back on my first two chapters, and a lot of the comments were on elements that are details to me.  It’s not a matter of tracking them — it’s just that I’m very sloppy with them, and I don’t see them as easily as someone who deals better with them.

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to work with details?  I need some help before they drive me crazy!

11 thoughts on “I Never Knew I Was Bad With Details

  1. I think you are getting too hung up on the term. “details.” This isn’t the same as getting the year right on a report–it is filling in spaces. There no wrong and right choices, really. By getting worked up over the thing you can’t do, you get it your own way.

    Try rephrasing the question. Do you like checking off lists? Make a list of items you want to put in separate from the story. I’ve done that myself–for a scene, I sometimes make a list of 10 or so important things I want to put in. Or you could look at it as targets to hit (“I have to get in 12 sensory details.”) I’ve heard the rule of thumb “all 5 senses every 2 pages.”. Formulaic? Sure. But if it helps, use it. And readers won’t notice the formula, just the information.

    But the important thing is to stop thinking of it as details that must be exact, and more to think of it as a coversational topic. Take out the stressing part.

    Hope this helps!


    1. Great feedback, Jennifer. I agree with you. Try conceptualizing it differently and as Jennifer stated, ask a different question. It’s all about finding ways to maximize your strengths, which will in turn help you find ways to cope with the areas in which you are less strong. I can tell from your posts one of your strengths is persistence. That will take you far in any endeavor, especially writing. Use that persistence to stay strong and keep trying new ways to accomplish your goals.


    2. Typos was a basic example, but there’s plenty more areas where not relating well to them has created headaches. I’ve had the impression I define them differently that details people, or people who are reasonably good at them. An example is someone using a spreadsheet to track details so they can refer to it. I can’t even get to the point where I can’t figure out what to put down (also a problem with world building). I even have trouble with research because I can’t figure out what I need to research beyond broad subjects. I’ll end up buying a book to research a name of a tree for the name of a street, and spending a great deal of effort for a detail I think everyone else thinks is important — but is insignificant and has only one reference in the entire story.

      I have been trying to address some of the problem by connecting the details from the big picture — but I still end up not doing enough.


  2. Prue

    I agree. By using the umbrella-term ‘details’, you’re grouping together things that may require different skills or abilities to deal with them.

    Details of a character’s appearance matter, and need to be consistent throughout the book. I write those details on an index card and check that I’ve got it right any time I make referece to the character. That’s about not relying on my memory; and not being casual about what I write.

    That’s very different from typos. My spelling isn’t too bad but if I feel under the weather, my typing errors increase a lot. So I type more slowly (or not at all!). And I don’t rely on spell-check because it doesn’t pick all typos up.

    I think it’s being aware of how we work, where we’re likely to make mistakes and what sort of mistakes. They we can do something about minimising them.

    I try to get the details right on the first draft, but if the muse strikes and the ideas are flowing, I’ll be typing all-out which means mistakes creep in. I can pick most of them up but as I found out this week, when I got my story back from beta-readers, I don’t pick up all the mistakes. I guess that’s why we use beta-readers.
    And even then, I found a typo or two that four of us had missed 😀

    I do the best I can and leave it at that. Even in conventionally published books which have been proof-read and edited, mistakes and errors still get through into print.
    4 mistakes in 100,000 words is about 0.004 percent error rate — it’s late, check the math, I could be wrong 🙂

    It doesn’t have to be perfect, it only has to be good enough.


    1. To some degree, they all do look alike to me. I’m good at seeing patterns (a right brain trait), and there’s a very consistent pattern across the board for what I have problems with (except the typos). I’ve learned through a lot of spinning wheels that I have to look for the pattern or I’ll just fix symptoms. One pattern is they really don’t mean much to me, so I can end up with continuity errors because the errors actually make sense to me. Or I do too little or too much for the same reason. Even tracking them on a spreadsheet would make me nuts because they all look so much alike, and I would not be able to tell what should and shouldn’t go on it. The result is that I get overwhelmed very fast and the spreadsheet ends up unused. So far, I’ve been trying to pick up details with a top down approach, but I still ended up with too little, and I’m honestly not sure how much to add without going overboard. That particular pattern is still very elusive.


      1. Prue

        I’m with you on spreadsheets! Nice idea but in practice it means putting in a lot of effort for something which may never work well for me. I’ve tried — maybe not hard enough, but there are only so many hours in the day.

        This maybe looking at things simplistically but from what you’ve said above, if the errors make sense to you then they should also make sense to the reader — provided you include all the information necessary.

        It’s difficult for me to grasp just what sorts of details we’re talking about here. You mention continuity errors. I’d include something like the following which I came across in a book the other day. At the beginning of the chapter a character picks up a mug of tea and then, a few pages along, puts down a mug of coffee. That stopped me in my tracks because it just didn’t make sense – unless it’s been changed by magic. In this case it was straight description, no magic involved.

        A continuity error I made in my novel was to have a character go from Marrakech to Ouazazate across the Atlas mountains on a camel in 2 hours. I made that journey by car some years ago but couldn’t remember how long it took. So I checked the distance. Then checked how fast a camel walks. A camel could not walk that distance in that time.

        For me a big problem is that I know what should be there in the story – all the details are in my head. Some of those details just don’t get down onto paper so the reader is left with confusing gaps. I find it difficult to separate what I know from what I see on paper – which is where beta readers come in. They can tell me where those gaps are, and where things don’t add up.


  3. I agree with the rest. It depends on which details. For me, it’s typos.

    Sometimes I edit for my friends and typos jump out at me. It’s like that guy on the Sixth Sense, who says, “I see dead people”, well, I see typos. BUT, only in other people’s work. Not in my own.

    I think that’s the way with lots of writers. We don’t see our own typos because our brains fill in the blanks.


  4. Oh boy do I feel your pain. I test very slightly more right brain than left brain, and I have a job that’s all about details (taking care of premies). It’s like I can manage at work – more-or-less – but once I leave the hospital, I’m so big picture it’s a wonder I don’t walk into walls. Hang in there. There’s some good advice in your previous comments. All I can offer is sympathy.


  5. You’ve gotten some great ideas! Another thing I do is have a friend read almost everything I write — blog posts to article submissions to book chapters. She faithfully reads them, partly because she just loves to be able to say she was the first one to read it and partly because she’s agreed to read for flow and silly mistakes (like typing “to” instead of “the”). She’s caught all kinds of things that I roll my eyes about and think “How could I have missed that?”


  6. I feel you pain. I have had my share of “stupid” mistakes and I can’t fathom how I “did that” or “didn’t catch that?”

    When I make them now I am not as hard on myself because I realize we use different parts of our brain for writing. The creative side is not suppose to be the editor. The editor side of us just doesn’t see our own mistakes as easily as it sees the mistakes of others. Beats me why. Maybe there’s a specialist out there that knows why, but whatever, don’t beat yourself up over it. There’s a learning curve and you are bound to get better and if not, hire a copy editor to over your work.


  7. @Prue That’s why I think I’m defining the details differently — it’s anything that’s not big picture, which covers a whole lot more territory. Everyone else is thinking hair color, eye color, what time a character drinks tea, how a character holds his hat. I’m adding to the list world building, backstory, foreshadowing, description, maybe the inciting incident. I know other people don’t consider those details, but it was an important realization to me in solving problems that they were slipping through the cracks because they were details to me. The continuity errors were world building issues where I referred to the gods in different ways that did confuse people, but I still look it, and it makes sense to me. It may be that I need to add more detail, but it’s hard for me to figure out how much. I can easily go too little on what I need to add, and way too much on what shouldn’t be in there. I often end up feeling like I’m expending a lot of effort to keep them tamed when I should be spending it on other things.


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