What is “interesting detail” and how do I use it?

From LitWiki

Compare these two sentences:

  1. In the olden days, monks had to copy manuscripts by hand.
  2. Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450, monks had to copy manuscripts by hand.

Detail makes writing more interesting by creating images for your readers — showing instead of telling — and supports, or proves, your assertions. Whenever you can use details — concrete evidence, a colorful adjective, facts, anecdotes, a metaphor or simile — that fits within the context of your prose, chances are it will enliven any writing. Do not, however, do something like:

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, monks in monasteries had to laboriously copy long, boring manuscripts again and again with only a feather pen with very very little food or sleep.

Too much of anything becomes fatiguing. Like giving a lover a poem everyday, soon those poems lose their meaning; too much detail often becomes a curse by making your sentence redundant, wordy, and awkward.

Use detail sparingly like you would salt on your fries. A well-placed adjective or adverb, a fact or particular, or a simile or metaphor, can energize a dull sentence and turn the mundane into the interesting. Compare:

  1. Most cats dislike baths.
  2. Most cats avoid tepid water with open claws.

The second sentence shows what the first tells; it lets the reader see the frightened and resistant cat. “Open claws” suggests many more images and meanings than the drab descriptor “dislike.” The second sentence took more effort to construct, but that effort produced a sentence much more interesting and suggestive than the first. Tip: When concerned with detail, remember to show, don’t tell. Appeal to the reader’s senses and imagination — don’t sound like a technical manual explaining quantum physics to computer programmers. Try using a thesaurus and improving your vocabulary, but remember to look up synonyms before using them; see “word choice.”

Detail is not only interesting, but lends much needed support and development to your essay. When a you make a supposition, such as providing an interpretation of a poetical passage, you must use specific evidence from the poem (primary source) or a published critic’s interpretation of the poem (secondary source). This support or evidence helps make your interpretation tenable. Always favor the primary source over the secondary if possible. Compare these two examples:

Through Herrick’s use of colorful imagery and personification, the reader detects a sense of urgency and duty for the virgins to go forth and marry while time is still at hand and love is bountiful, thus creating the overall idea of carpe diem.

While this example would be an excellent thesis statement, it contains no support for its supposition because it does not cite specific evidence from the poem. Compare to:

The first stanza of the poem opens to the personification of the flowers as the virgins:
     Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
     Old Time is still a flying:
     And this same flower that smiles today,
     To morrow will be dying. (ll. 1-4)
The rosebuds correspond to the virgins in that they are beautiful and delicate, yet they have not reached their full potential and maturity by becoming full bloomed roses. Time is also personified as, “Old Time,” which suggests a genial greybeard more than a grim reaper (Rollin 83). Time is still “a flying” suggests a comical image more than ominous but still one of urgency (Rollin 83). The image of the smiling flower indicates innocence and freshness but it only “smiles today, To morrow [it] will be dying.” A grim and abrupt end comes to the smiling flower as so will to the virgins if they do not marry in their youth.

This latter shows what the former tells by using examples from both the primary text, a secondary source by the critic Rollins, and the writer’s own interpretations. The second example supports with detail the idea of the first example. For the correct citation method, see MLA.

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