Hold the cream and sugar, please, but not the details

Personally, the very title of this session drew me in immediately. Rob Kaiser, director of the multimedia journalism program at Canisius College, led “The Undertaker Takes His Coffee Black (And Drives a Hearse With 71,000 Miles on it)” this morning. The relevancy of the title didn’t occur to me until Kaiser let the standing-room only crowd in on an anecdote, which told us to ask the weird questions. Why? Because that’s how great details are birthed in a story.

Kaiser reminded all attendees that journalists are the eyes on the world and that readers must rely on journalists to bring history to life because, after all, we are the first drafters of history. But history is oftentimes associated with dusty, creaky language, and cobwebbed tales of bygone days that have no life or soul about them. Kaiser turned this notion completely around. Journalists must instead enliven language, make history seem immediate and the abstract concrete. Evoking emotion is absolutely essential, because there is no point to reading something that lacks in care, vivacity or attention to detail. But, as Kaiser explained, details are tricky because not all of them are needed in a situation, and overpowering readers with too much detail completely loses the impact details should have on the them. Instead, picking and choosing the right detail at the right moment in time is essential, and it takes time and practice to achieve this level of confidence in writing stories with detail.

Kaiser compared a journalist’s use of details to looking through a cinematic lens. What do you see? What do you zoom in on? What do you zoom out on? What is the big picture? Then, how do the details in the picture support and enhance that picture? Every story a journalist writes should consider these questions and apply them, to decide what details are appropriate story and what we should do in order to pen a story with the right amount of details and using them appropriately.

Kaiser made a lot of great points throughout the session, some of which I have highlighted here:

  • It’s important to show, not tell.
  • One detail isn’t as necessarily as good as another detail: consider the context.
  • The best details haunt us because they turn the natural order of things on its head.
  • Journalists conjure up the regathered and we bring them back to life through writing.
  • Don’t ladle details together in one sentence or paragraph.
  • Details should be relevant and serve the story uniquely.
  • A good detail is efficient, describing a lot in a little.
  • Look at fresh, unique angles when it comes to detail writing.
-Ashley Fahey
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