The Detail Draft

I've been thinking a lot about details lately.  Because, as we all know, all good writing is full of details–sensory details, the telling detail, details.  And, it has occurred to me that a worthy approach to details is to devote one complete draft to them.

Details are something that can easily added in during a second-to-last run through of your manuscript (the last draft being devoted to grammar and spelling and tinkering with every word).  In my experience, both in my own writing and the work of others, the first few drafts are sketchy, sometimes even outline-ish.  More and more gets added on as we go, and thus the world of the story gets developed and shown to the reader.

The writing becomes fully mounted on the page.

(It is painfully obvious when work is not fully mounted on the page.  I just read a book in which this was the case–I couldn't see the characters because there was no description of them, couldn't envision the room in which the scene was set because no details were given.  And, I didn't believe the character's emotional arc because it went from zero to 90 in one second–no details in between.)

In the story I've been working on, I inadvertently did a detail draft.  As mentioned in my blog post earlier this week, I got inspired to go back through my story and juice it up a bit while reading Jess Walter.  I admired his style, the way he layered on details and decided I better go back and look at what I had done.  Because, as I mentioned, my story felt a bit flat to me.  So I went back through looking for places in which I could make the story better and more alive by adding details.

Here's a couple of examples:


What had previously made
her happy was her life the way it had been, when she and Michael and Molly
lived together in northeast Portland.


What had previously made
her happy was her life the way it had been, when she and Michael and Molly
lived in a northeast Portland bungalow with a door painted red for good luck,
and Nell woke up every morning with a deep sense of the rightness of


Dana fitted the key into the gallery door.


huge cottonwood towered over the entrance to the courtyard off which the
gallery was located.   Pots of
yellow, white, and sky blue flowers flanked the door, which Dana fitted her key

Too many details?

I don't know about you, but I think those details jazz things up considerably.  In truth, I didn't add that many details overall, but the ones I did add made a difference.  And that brings up another point, as a reader (thanks, Don) mentioned in the comment section of the last post–you can do too many details as well.  The idea is to find the details that will bring the scene to life in the reader's mind.  One trick here is to think sensory details–sights (which we all mostly do well), sounds, touch and, especially smell–writers forget to add in smells all the time.

I learned a way to approach the adding of details from a lecture by Sena Jeter Naslund when I was in Louisville in May.  She advocates making your sentences work harder, and one way to do this is randomly point to a sentence in your manuscript and study it.  Can you make it work harder?  Does it need more details?  This is a fine approach for a detail draft, I think.

How do you approach getting the proper amount of detail into your work?  Please leave a comment.

5 Responses to The Detail Draft

  1. Don 06/18/2013 at 21:23 #

    Like most things, every thing must be done in balance and this is true when it comes to details in writing. You need just enough detail to give your readers the feeling that they are there, right along side the characters, and seeing what they are seeing, hearing what they are hearing, smelling what they are smelling, feeling and thinking what they are feeling and thinking!

    Your examples above are are proof of that and show just what a difference a little detail can add to story, bringing it alive and making the reader not just a casual observer, but an actual participant in an exciting adventure…. at least that’s how my literary teach taught me.

    And, oh, and by the way….. your welcomed!

  2. Don 06/18/2013 at 21:27 #

    Damn, I got to check my postings before I post. “…. literary teach taught” instead of “literary teacher”, etc., etc. Oh I am so shameless!

  3. Charlotte Dixon 06/19/2013 at 05:55 #

    I love the idea of making the reader feel that they are off on an exciting adventure.  I'm going to hang onto that one. And I'm glad you think my revisions made the story stronger! Thanks, Don–for all your comments that spark my inspiration!

  4. Sandy 06/19/2013 at 09:33 #

    For me, it boils down to knowing your MC really well and then trying to see (and experience) the world from their POV. This may sound obvious (and cheesy), but one trick I like to use is to close my eyes and be the main character, see and feel the world as they do and build the detail that way.

  5. Charlotte Dixon 06/19/2013 at 09:37 #

    Not cheesy or obvious at all, Sandy, I think we forget to do that.  I do it, too and its a great technique.  Thanks for bringing it up!

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