detail (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

details in composition
Joseph Conrad, preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': A Tale of the Sea (1897).

In composition, a detail is a particular item of information (including descriptive, illustrative, and statistical information) that supports an idea or contributes to an overall impression in an essay, report, or other kind of text.

Details that are carefully chosen and well organized can help make a piece of writing or an oral report more precise, vivid, convincing, and interesting.

From the Old French, "a cut-off piece"

Detail in Literature

Literature provides a rich canvas for the use of detail as the following works and comments by the various authors show.

Elizabeth Bowen

  • "The charm, one might say the genius, of memory is that it is choosy, chancy and temperamental; it rejects the edifying cathedral and indelibly photographs the small boy outside, chewing a hunk of melon in the dust."
    (Interview in Vogue, September 15, 1955)

Clive James

  • "Bad writers never examine anything. Their inattentiveness to the detail of their prose is part and parcel of their inattentiveness to the detail of the outside world."
    ("Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Lessons on How to Write." Cultural Amnesia, 2007)

Vladimir Nabokov

  • "In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected."
    (Quoted by Brian Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton University Press, 1991

John Updike

  • "She wears Adidas jogging shoes, and a dove-gray sweat suit with canary-yellow piping down the sleeves and legs. In winter, she adds a cable-knit Norwegian sweater; in summer, she strips down to crimson track shorts, with slits in the sides for greater freedom of motion, and a grape-colored tank top, stained to dark wine where she sweats. When it rains, she produces from somewhere a transparent polyethylene bandanna."
    ("The Running Mate." Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. Knopf, 1983)

Monica Wood

  • "Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. . . . The old man's carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. The sullen teenager's one-shouldered shrug connotes indifference tinged with contempt."
    (Description. Writer's Digest Books, 1995)

Natalie Goldberg

  • "Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else. Even if you transplant the beveled windows, slow-rotating Rheingold sign, Wise potato chip rack, and tall red stools from the Aero Tavern that you drank in in New York into a bar in another state and time, the story will have authenticity and groundedness. . . . You don't have to be rigid about original detail. The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build."
    (Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, 2nd ed. Shambhala, 2005)

Joanne Meschery

  • "Details are never simply embellishments. They serve the narrative in terms of dramatization, characterization, structure, and style. . . .
    "Over and over again we're told that good, active writing is concrete rather than abstract. It's specific rather than general. And it's in these notions of active writing that details make all the difference. A detail must be both significant and specific."
    ("Details! Details! Details!" Writers Workshop in a Book, ed. by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez. Chronicle Books, 2007)

Alfred Kazin

- "I remember the air whistling around me as I ran, the panicky thud of my bones in my sneakers, and then the slabs rising in the light from the street lamps as I sped past the little candy store and crept under the fence."
(A Walker in the City, 1969)

Francine Prose

  • "Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth—a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well. Bad liars pile on facts and figures, the corroborating evidence, the improbable digressions ending in blind alleys, while good or (at least better) liars know that it’s the single priceless detail that jumps out of the story and tells us to take it easy, we can quit our dreary adult jobs of playing judge and jury and again become as trusting children, hearing the gospel of grown-up knowledge without a single care or doubt. . . .
    "'We think in generalities,' wrote Alfred North Whitehead. 'But we live in detail.' To which I would add: We remember in detail, we recognize in detail, we identify, we re-create . . .."
    (Reading Like a Writer. Harper, 2006)

Tom Wolfe

  • "[T]he recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people's status life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern of behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be. . . .
    "Here is the sort of thing Balzac does over and over. Before introducing you to Monsieur and Madame Marneffe personally (in Cousin Bette) he brings you into their drawing room and conducts a social autopsy: 'The furniture covered in faded cotton velvet, the plaster statuettes masquerading as Florentine bronzes, the clumsily carved painted chandelier with its candle rings of molded glass, the carpet, a bargain whose low price was explained too late by the quantity of cotton in it, which was now visible to the naked eye--everything in the room, to the very curtains (which would have taught you that the handsome appearance of wool damask lasts for only three years)'--everything in the room begins to absorb one into the lives of a pair of down-at-the-heel social climbers, Monsieur and Madame Marneffe. Balzac piles up these details so relentlessly and at the same time so meticulously . . . that he triggers the reader’s memories of his own status life, his own ambitions, insecurities, delights, disasters, plus the thousands and one small humiliations and the status coups of everyday life . . .."
    ("The New Journalism." The New Journalism, ed. by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson. Harper & Row, 1973)

Detail in Popular Culture

Popular culture has also been an area that provides examples of detail. This excerpt from a story by essayist and former New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell shows how detail can add color and interest to a piece, and the except below that shows how the word "detail," itself, can provide humor.

Roger Angell

  • - "The night air rushed in about us through the tilted wind portals at the front of the front windows and the smaller ones in back (we were in the zippy Terraplane that Tex and I had brought from Detroit), and with it the hot, flat scent of tall corn; a sudden tang of skunk come and gone; the smell of tar when the dirt roads stopped, fainter now with the hot sun gone; and, over a rare pond or creek as the tire noise went deeper, something rich and dank, with cowflop and dead fish mixing with the sweet-water weeds."
    ("Romance." The New Yorker, May 26, 2003)

William Demarest and Eddie Bracken

  • Sergeant Heppelfinger: I tell you it'll all blow over. Everything is perfect—except for a couple of details.
    Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith: They hang people for a couple of details!
    (Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944) 

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Nordquist, Richard. "detail (composition)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). detail (composition). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "detail (composition)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).