- Tue, May 15 2007
- Filed under: Writing
When I was working for Reuters covering the July 1997 coup in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the airport was dismantled by a procession of people, each more desperate than the last. First, retreating royalists soldiers cleaned out the XO Cognac at the duty free. Then the victorious troops moved in, raiding the safes and taking the computers, the lines of connected waiting-room chairs and air conditioners, strapping them atop tanks. What remained when I arrived was the roof, the bullet-pocked walls, and a carpet of broken glass and scattered tourist photos still taped to trampled visa applications. Children and a few parents from the village by the airport arrived late in the day to take what little was left – wiring from behind the walls, light fixtures, scraps of paper. In the men’s room, two teenage boys ripped the door from its hinges and wrenched the urinals from the wall. A young boy walked across the glass shards with two paddles, one red and one green, which were used to direct aircraft to their stopping points. He saw me and shrugged. I tried to explain how to use the paddles in my halting Khmer. I waved them over my shoulders and then crossed them in the command for a full stop. He seized them, laughing and waving them in all directions, making criss-crossing lines and collision courses. “Barang!” he screamed, laughing, and ran away with the paddles. Foreigner.
I’m remembering that day with you through telling details, like the trampled tourist photos. The trampled photos packed an entire, complex story into a single image, so they were worth sharing. So did the stolen cognac, the loot-laden tanks and the boy, waving his paddles. At least that’s the idea. I could have simply told you the airport was looted, but I wanted to show you the scene. I wanted to convey the telling details. They are what makes life interesting and stories alive.
The power of the telling detail is that it does what good writing is meant to do - it transports us to a place, a time, a person’s mind. It shows us what that moment felt like to live, and what it meant.
This week, I want to blog about writing. Because no matter how great our talents as marketers, we will always need the gift of good writing.
The best writing advice I have ever been given is old and oft-cited, but it is also dead on: show, don’t tell. Do it with a telling detail. Don’t just talk about your programs in abstract language. Force yourself to define the small story elements that stick in the mind. Strip your prose of tired adjectives. Banish the passive voice. Yank the reader out of her bored, tuned-out state with a startling image she can’t forget.
Do you have an image like that? A sentence, a story? Send it to me here, in a comment. Inspire others with your talent.
I leave you with these words, from a book on writing fiction - but they surely apply to writing about our work. They say it better than I can.
Specific, definite, concrete, particular details - these are the life of fiction. Details (as every good liar knows) are the stuff of persuasiveness… John Gardner in The Art of Fiction speaks of details as “proofs,” rather like those in a geometric theorem or statistical argument. A detail should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched… [and] the detail must matter.” —Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A guide to Narrative Craft.