Ever heard the phrase the devil is in the details? It derived from the idea that the devil is most dangerous not in the big things, but in the way he sneaks past your defenses in the little things. In common parlance, it’s come to mean that the most difficult, most mysterious, and often most important element of anything you try to do is the details.
You’ll quickly realize how true that is if you ever apply for permanent residency in Canada or the United States. Thanks to all the illegal immigrants in North America, the government now requires a cross-border married couple to fill in mounds of paperwork and divulge minute details of their relationship to prove that it’s genuine before the non-Canadian spouse is allowed to live in Canada. (It’s even worse trying to go the other way into the U.S.)
Months have passed as my American husband and I have collected and labeled 65 pictures of our dates, wedding, reception, and honeymoon, highlighted a year’s worth of phone records, photocopied old boarding passes, and waited for background checks and medical results to clear. Do you remember every time you visited your spouse prior to marriage? And if you do, can you provide documentary evidence to prove that what you’re saying is true? Do you remember the calendar date when your husband or wife met each of your relatives and any close friends?
Unfortunately for writers, the Canadian government isn’t the only entity that wants details—and lots of them. The most important part of any article you write will be the details.
Details Give Credibility
As my dad sagely pointed out one day, the government asks for all these details because they prove that your relationship is genuine. A couple that wasn’t genuine would be able to give generalities but not details. In the same way, the details that you put in every article you write will give you credibility. So what kind of details do you want to include?
Eye-Witness Reports Help People Care
At first I found it insulting that we needed to “prove” that our relationship was genuine. Of course I love my husband, I wouldn’t have married him if I didn’t. But not everyone feels that way about marriage.
When you’re passionate about something, you can’t understand why other people aren’t as fired up as you are about this clearly important issue. You need to help them care, because if they don’t care, they won’t act. Details cut through the clutter we face, and find their way into people’s hearts.
Lisa and I have recently been working on articles about the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and in the process, we talked to two nurses who’d been there. We wanted to cry as we listened to their stories about the nine-year-old boy whose lifeless body ended up in the mass grave because no one claimed him. Or the mother who was too weak from cholera to nurse her starving baby. Or the families who slept on the muddy ground and went hungry so that they could stay by the bedsides of their loves ones.
We learned through the eyes of these two nurses how dehumanizing cholera is as it leaves you covered in your own vomit and diarrhea, helpless to do anything about your condition. Those eye-witness accounts are the ones that motivate an editor to buy your article, a reader to recommend your article to a friend, and everyone to take action.
Statistics Support Your Anecdotal Evidence
As essential as eye-witness reports are, they’re not enough by themselves. Anyone can find a terrible story and claim it’s a big deal. You need to be able to find credible sources that say this is the percentage of North Americans who suffer from this disease, or this is the number of people who’ve died, or this is how much tax-payer money is lost each year. Give people a hard number so that they can’t brush off your story as an exception.
Using All Five Senses Lets Them Live It
Sight is the sense that we rely on the most, so it’s the one we tend to use the most in our articles. How did something look? How big was it? What colour was it? Steal a trick from fiction writers and bring to life all five senses. How did the room smell? What did the medicine taste like? What did the hospital blankets feel like? Then your reader can fully engage and feel like they lived through it. Those articles are going to be the ones that they can’t stop thinking about.
Metaphors Bridge Gaps in Understanding
When I was a kid, if there was something I didn’t understand, my mom would try to explain it by saying, “Well, it’s like . . .” I wouldn’t recommend splattering your page with metaphors and similes, but they can help give new depth to your reader. In one of my earliest articles, “Just Say It,” I was struggling to explain why married couples need to both show love through actions and express love through words.
I needed to use something everyone could relate to: “Speaking and hearing the words will bond you together in a different way than physical expressions because they activate different senses and different centers of your brains. The connection between words of love and actions of love is like the connection between the aroma of food and the flavor of food. When you have a cold, your lasagna still tastes good, but not as good as if you could smell the melted cheese, spicy sauce, and seasoned meat.”
Metaphors come in especially handy if you’re addressing a topic that they have no personal experience with.