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Good stories use detail

Stories built on important or interesting themes supported by small but revealing detail are more complete because they give the reader more to grab on to.

Observation is the key to finding detail.

It said something about the man, about the job, about the world. It was a telling detail that opened up a window into this man’s life.

Before he was a best-selling crime novelist, author Michael Connelly was a police reporter at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Los Angeles Times.

In his 2004 book, Crime Beat, Connelly describes spending a week observing a homicide squad and learning “the single most important thing I ever saw as a crime writer.”

On the final day, as he sat in the squad supervisor’s office going over last-minute details before returning to the newspaper to write his story, Connelly observed the detective remove his glasses to rub his eyes.

“When he dropped the glasses on his desk,” writes Connelly, “I noticed that the earpiece had a deep groove cut into it. It was like spying a diamond in the sand, for I knew exactly how that groove had gotten there.” At murder scenes he’d seen the sergeant approach the victim’s body and take his glasses off, always hooking them in his mouth.

“I knew that when he hooked his glasses in his mouth, his teeth clenched so tightly on them that they cut into the hard plastic of the earpiece. It said something about the man, about the job, about the world. It was a telling detail that opened up a window into this man’s life. It said all that needed to be said about his dedication, motivation, and relationship to his job.”

Connelly says he instinctively knew that whether it was a crime story for a newspaper or a novel about a detective, “My life as a writer had to be about the pursuit of the telling detail.”

Using detail in a story is similar to presenting other facts. A good story is built not just on facts, but on “the right facts,” information that sheds light on “the truth about the facts.” Good stories reflect good choices or, as former news director and Poynter faculty member Scott Libin says, “selection rather than compression.”

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel formerly co-chaired the committee.

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