The world is full of details. A writer’s job is to decide which ones matter and to give the audience a reason to care. You do that by telling stories, not by bombarding readers with facts.
Almost daily, I hear the host of a show or podcast ask a guest, “Can you put that into context for us?”
What the host wants is for the guest to humanize the topic, to talk about how it impacts real life.
A lot of people fire off details, which sound impressive to them. Business people love to ramble on about the specs of their products and services. Politicians love to discuss policies and toss around statistics. But readers don’t want naked facts and bare details.
People want to know how products and services will help them. They want to know how government policies affect everyday life and how intense those effects will be.
Provide Colorful Context
Writers deal with a lot of details. Part of the art of writing is being selective with them and showing how and why the ones we select are relevant. You do that by asking certain questions of the information you’re working with.
- Who cares, or should care, about it? Who is affected by it?
- Why do they care? How are they affected?
- What has, or will, change because of it?
- How does a piece of information reshape or reinforce the topic?
Say you have an assignment to write about a Gallup poll. The findings show 50% of Americans are angry about a hike in gas prices. Half of the country is mad–holy sh**?! That’s a lot of people. That definitely sounds like a story, right?
Well, that depends on what you decide to tell us.
If you dig into that Gallup report and shoot out statistic after statistic like you’re a professor, it’s bye-bye reader. People have better things to do than absorb a bunch of vague facts.
But, if you use that first fact–half of America is mad– to build a story that showcases people behind those angry masks, we’re likely to stick around a while. Tell us about aging people, like our parents, who have to choose between medication and fuel. Tell us the story of the mama that had to switch from licensed daycare to leaving the baby with alcoholic auntie Sue.
The more human elements you provide, the more colorful and engaging your story becomes. As far as all that information from Gallup, use those facts and figures sparingly to provide support and lead readers through your writing.
What Naked Facts Reveal
When all you have to offer people is specs, numbers and other naked facts, you’re telling them that:
- You have details, but really don’t know what you’re talking about.
- Like the mad scientist, you’re so enthralled with the details you’ve lost touch with the common person.
- You’re a lazy, boring and/or inexperienced writer.
Facts Murder Fiction Too
In fiction, when you give too much bland description, which is just naked facts, and you fail to add colorful context, you’ll also kill your story.
Author George Saunders published an article in The Guardian called “What writers really do when they write.” In it, he discussed how and why he revised his work to add specificity.
He started with “Bob was an asshole,” a plain, boring bare- bone detail about the guy.
Then, he decided it was better to show Bob’s behavior, and wrote, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista…”
But still, Saunders knew more context would offer the readers a sharper picture and a more engaging read. So, he revealed what drove asshole Bob’s behavior, and he settled on “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife, who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,”
“I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame,” Saunders wrote.
Don’t Kill Your Stories
Whether you’re dealing with non-fiction or fiction, facts and details are just bones. Context, particularly human elements, is the juicy meat that’ll whet readers’ appetites.
If you plan to put something into a story and nobody has a reason to care, no one will be affected and nothing will change, it’s not worth adding.
I know you may think it’s an interesting little tidbit. But it’s not; it’s clutter. Cut it out and carry on.