Descriptive Essays In the Real World

Image: Still Life With Champagne Glass by Severin Roesen (American, 1816-1872)/Artvee

Practically a decade before I wrote the words you’re reading now, I wrote a series of op-eds for HYPEBEAST. I had pitched a few that didn’t make the cut, my favorite of which was entitled, “God is in the Details.” I wanted to cover how typography could make people think differently.

The idea was interesting, and I got the green light to move forward. It was also ironic; in my lack of experience, during the research process, I selected details (examples, stats, etc.) that did not relate to the publication or readers. 

In any case, I still look back and give myself credit. Even though I couldn’t make that particular piece live up to its potential, I was definitely onto something with my curiosity with details.

All Writing Is Descriptive Essays

Image: Christ In The House Of Mary And Martha (1643) by Bartholomeus van Bassen (Dutch, 1590–1652)/Artvee

Descriptive essays shouldn’t be divided from all other writing. All writing can be descriptive; the writer is pointing something specific out to the reader. It could be as simple as, “Check out the second plate on the shelf, in the room with the arched doorway on the right.” 

Common descriptive essay techniques can strengthen writing everywhere. Robert Caro constantly asks his subjects, “What did you see?” And Mary Karr writes, “In writing a scene, you must help the reader employ smell and taste and touch as well as image and noise. The more carnal a writer’s nature, the better she’ll be at this, and there are subcategories according to the senses.” Moreover, I want to point to a blog post that Jeff Atwood writes, citing Wil Shipley:

Your software, your product, is nothing more than a collection of tiny details. If you don’t obsess over all those details, if you think it’s OK to concentrate on the “important” parts and continue to ignore the other umpteen dozen tiny little ways your product annoys the people who use it on a daily basis – you’re not creating great software. Someone else is. I hope for your sake they aren’t your competitor.

Selecting descriptions and details are the most important part in writing now. A quick glance at Axios’s homepage would tell you that. For example, this latest piece, “The coin that could avert a federal debt default,” is nothing but a selection of details extracted from a larger story. In a segment called the big picture, Felix Salmon writes:

When a U.S. Treasury secretary is tasked with averting a fast-looming potential cataclysm, she has to consider all possible options — even those that seem bizarre at first light.

Even though it’s punchy and concise, this hard news entry is extremely descriptive. It’s not an easy task for the writer and editor: Can you find that one event—the one quote, the one stat, the one detail—that really resonates with the reader?

I am a big fan of shipping—to make acceptable pieces and release them—but I also know that details are what makes or breaks things. You can dial up your obsession with details as you need. If I could phrase it better, it could be a paradox. It’s all details. The more rounds of edits I can go through, the better it’ll be because the more attention I’ll have paid to the details

Perhaps I’m conflating the idea of details and descriptive essays, but that’s exactly my point. Good writing invokes both, because one is nothing without the other. Caring for descriptive essays obviously means caring for details, and caring for details should also be as deep as caring for descriptive essays.

Descriptive Essays Impute Quality

Apple has three core values: empathy, focus, and impute. This last one is the strangest of all, and incredibly relevant in the case of details:

Impute. “People DO judge a book by its cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we represent them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.”

Image: The Apple Marketing Philosophy/Apple via George Mack

In an interview with Farnam Street, biographer Walter Isaacson describes what impute means:

Even when Steve Jobs did the original Macintosh, he made it so the boxes that they delivered them in, the boxes that you got your Mac in, had color. And the people there were saying,“Wait, that’s really expensive to make boxes for color.” He said, “Yes, but we need to impute. We need to impute the fact that this is going to be an object of delight.”

Obviously, design is one way of conveying this—an almost instantaneous visual communication of values. But the headlines, the ledes, the hero image selection, modals, all of those are details as well. Each communicates to the reader.

Ultimately, reputations—brands—are built on the details that your name imputes. Apple imputes aluminum, simplicity, excess, quality, design, and thoughtfulness (unfortunately, as well as Antennagate for some). It’s something to think about in your line of work.

This isn’t to be confused for naming yourself as, “The ____ guy or girl,” but actually building a reputation over time by constantly caring about the details, to the point where putting your name on something imputes trust and that what you made is worth the other person putting down what they’re doing and picking your thing up.

Quality Means Deciding on the Details

Essays, apps, blog posts, designs, dishes, songs—everything is a collection of details. It’s the details you choose to discover, research, and develop an opinion on that matters. There’s a lot to unpack here too, of course; for example, larger companies and teams can afford to research and combine all sorts of details, experimenting on them with trial and error. (Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s studio assistants, making replicas of paintings with different details. Or Joe Perez’s 325 variations of an album cover.)

Editors are experts at these details; they clearly understand convention, communities, stories, and which details matter and which don’t. (I’m the editorial director for WorkOS and for my own editorial studio!) The aforementioned Axios figured out how to make a lot of corporate money by teaching teams which details are important.

But when you’re one person, deciding on which details to obsess over, which to keep, and which to leave out is an art in itself. I explore part of the answer in this blog post, which involves setting a set of criteria to explicitly define what quality means. Given the limited time you might have as one person, it also means choosing what details to obsess over, and what not to (Apple’s value of focus!). I write about the different types of writing here.
Caring about the descriptions, the details, and the selection of both is where the magic is. It’ll make the difference between the reader closing the tab, or reading to the bottom, and connecting with—feeling—what you make.

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