You know that famous phrase, “the Devil is in the details?” Or its corollary (which I think actually came first), “God is in the details?” We all know the wisdom of these phrases when it comes to things like contracts—whether for health insurance or a car loan or pest control or a movie deal for our manuscript (well, we only HOPE to know it about the movie deal, but we can imagine). Buyer beware! Check those details with a magnifying glass before you sign on the dotted line.
But it's not only in areas where we need to be wary that details are important. It's also in areas that we want to be great, beautiful, and fulfilling in our personal lives, like love, food, travel and reading—and writing. Just as the real worth of a contract is shaped, and possibly hidden, in its details, the real worth of our writing shines through the details we include. When you think of the books that have meant the most to you, I'm willing to bet the ones that come to mind are the ones that evoke the clearest, most visceral impressions of characters, feelings, action and settings. How do those authors do that? Through well-rendered details.
Compare these two sentences:
1. Tiny beads of moisture slicked Julia's skin, and larger drops fell intermittently from the trees to the sodden carpet of leaves beneath her feet.
2. Julia stood under the still-dripping trees after the rain, getting wet.
Number one is taken from the prologue of Leave the Grave Green by Deborah Crombie. Number two makes the same factual statement, without the embellishment. In Crombie's rendering of this sentence—tiny beads of moisture slicking Julia's skin, the falling drops being larger and intermittent, the sodden carpet of leaves—what a difference these details make in painting the picture and making it visceral. I especially like the work the active verb, “slicked” does in combination with those “tiny beads of moisture.” I have an impression of how Julia probably feels standing there, because I'm there with her.
When I look at the use of details in this context, I begin to appreciate anew the rewriting my old professor in a novel-writing group required of us. "Take that sentence and re-render it, using detail that comes from the character's emotion," he would exhort us, and we would sigh in frustration because we thought the sentence was doing it's job of getting the reader from point A to point B just fine. But then we would do it and get excited because he was right. Just looking at the difference between the examples above makes that clear to me. (And that part about making the detail relate to the character is essential,whether it's coming from her emotions or is external but clearly affects her in that moment.)
If this kind of attention to detail didn't come naturally to you as you wrote your first draft, it represents an important level of revision. When I revise to add detail, I only hope to have the insight and patience needed to do it well: awareness of where sentences can be made richer through more detail without slowing the pace inappropriately, and a willingness to apply myself in all those spots. Pace is an important consideration with this topic—we need to be aware of that, too. Even in the fastest-paced genre novels, though, deftly-used, telling details are what make the difference between a good story and a great one.