Our minds are powerful visualization tools, and through our stories we have the ability to transport ourselves back into our experiences—and take others along for the journey. To do so, we need a firm grasp on detail and how to harness it in our writing.
Committing your vivid, visceral, tangible, lived stories to the written page, be it online or print, is tricky. You may remember in crisp detail exactly what you did, how it smelled, what it sounded like and how you felt, only to find that your retelling of it falls flat.
While it can feel challenging, intimidating and even tedious to capture all the detail your story demands, I have some tips and tricks to help you produce more evocative writing and realize your vision.
Become Your Audience
We all live intricate lives, rich in individual context and unique motivation, but sharing that can sometimes feel awkward, raw or unnatural. It’s also just as easy to forget we have internalized information that our audience needs, simply because it feels so obvious to us.
When working with outdoorspeople to tell stories, I help pull on loose strings to help unravel the knots and tangles in their writing—areas where key details and important context often hide. My trick? Coming at the story with a fresh perspective.
Because I’m not so close to the story, I see the gaps, leaps and opportunities that inevitably find their way into a first draft and work with you to fill them, bridge them and seize them, respectively.
To do this yourself, you can practice reading and editing your writing through your audience’s eyes, with a neutral lens. Consciously imagine yourself in their shoes as your work through your drafts by setting aside your memories and expectations. Approach with a blank slate and zero assumptions, remembering that they may not know who you are, what you do or why you do it. Unless you manage to capture it explicitly on the page, they don’t know what color lens you view the world through.
Of course, not all audiences are truly neutral and may have their own preconceived notions about you or the content of your stories. To truly become your audience and edit for their perspective, it helps to identify your audience ahead of time and understand what they may or may not already know.
Don’t Delay, for Detail’s Sake
Especially if you’re writing about a specific adventure, time is the enemy of detail. The more of it that passes between you and your experiences, the fuzzier your memories inevitably get.
Some of us are able—even eager—to sit down and start writing the moment we return from an adventure, getting all of our memories and feelings out and on the page before they can fade away. If that sounds familiar, I envy you. Personally, at the end of an adventure, I want nothing more than to sit down with a cold beer, consume a greasy plate of calories and unwind.
To avoid losing the richness and detail that I need for my writing, I rely on a few different techniques to help.
- Outline ahead of time. Before you even step out on an adventure, spend a little time outlining the story you plan to tell. Commit your expectations, ambitions and emotions to memory by writing them down, helping establish them in you mind. This helps you approach your adventure more intentionally and you’ll find that you consciously recognize key moments and highlights as you experience them, giving you a better chance at remembering details later. In short, when you know what you want to write ahead of time, you’ll spend more time hitting your mental “record button” when you’re out there living your experiences.
- Use all of your senses to take in your experiences. When you do hit the mental “record button” during your adventure, take inventory of all of your senses. Make conscious observations with your sight, smell, hearing and touch. Try to absorb the texture of the landscape and how you navigate it. It sounds simple enough in essence—be present in the adventure you’re taking—but, by pausing to really recognize and spend time with your senses, you can more effectively earmark details in your memory.
- Keep a camera close. Whether you’re a talented photographer or an amateur with a smartphone, taking photos is one of the simplest hacks for jogging your memory later. Liberally point your camera at anything you think is worth remembering, and you’ll find the memories come flooding back when you open your slideshow and sit down to start writing. Plus, you’ll be more likely to capture great photos to accompany your writing and visually transport your audience into your narrative.
- Keep an adventure journal. It worked for all the great explorers, and it’ll work for you too. Whether you use good ol’ pen and paper or the voice memos on your phone, take time to record your thoughts, emotions and experiences as you go through them. Make a habit of it, and you may find your story almost writes itself when it’s time to sit down and type.
You can use any combination of these techniques to combat fuzzy memories and lost details in your writing, but I want to recognize that time isn’t all bad. It allows us to reflect and process our experiences, potentially adding new perspectives and meaning to our story.
Identifying the Right Detail for the Story
When choosing the right kind of detail for outdoor writing, it’s important to consider the purpose of your piece and your audience. If you’re writing a trail guide, for example, practical information such as trail distances and difficulty will be more important than descriptive details about the scenery. On the other hand, if you’re writing a personal essay, descriptive details can be used to transport the reader to the scene and give them a sense of being there.
It’s also important to consider what details will be most interesting and engaging for your audience. While it can be tempting to include every detail you’ve collected, it’s important to be selective and choose the details that will be most meaningful to your readers. Avoid including irrelevant or uninteresting details, as they will only detract from the overall impact of your piece.
For example, imagine you’re writing a piece about a hike you took in the mountains. If you include details about the brand of your hiking boots or the specific model of your backpack, it is unlikely that those details will add much to the story and will only serve as a distraction. On the other hand, if you describe the feeling of the rocky terrain under your feet and the sound of the river flowing nearby, it will give your readers a more immersive experience.
Writing with effective detail is as much about what details you include as those you don’t.
Seek Writing Feedback
Of course, one of the easiest ways to find balance in your writing is to seek direct feedback. Whether it’s a friend or family member, or a writing coach like me, getting someone who has distance from the story can be invaluable.
Have them look for areas where they get confused or have questions. Often this arises because detail is missing. Ask them to note areas where they began to lose interest or felt bogged down by detail. You may consider trimming back a little in these cases.
If you’re interested in making sure your stories are rich and balanced for your outdoor blog, article or story, I provide coaching and review services to help make sure your story lives up to your vision.
Reach out today to get started; let’s tell your story.