One good number is all it takes to catch your reader’s attention

Early in my teaching career, a student in an AP English course was reading aloud her essay on eating disorders. Toward the end, the student had written about a 22-year-old woman, “Her severe anorexia … left her, at the time of her death, weighing only 61 pounds.”

At that, a handful of students in the classroom gasped. With that sound of shock still floating in the air, I smelled a teachable moment and turned to the class.

“Did you hear that?” I asked them. “Why did you react like that?”

“Because that’s… so skinny,” said one girl, suddenly pale-faced.

“What if she had just written, ‘left her extremely skinny at the time of her death’?” I asked. “Would that have worked as well? Or, ‘at the time of her death, with horrifyingly low weight for a young woman’?”

Clearly, the reaction wouldn’t have been the same. The students didn’t know 61 pounds is slightly below average for a 9-year-old girl (I got this from the CDC while researching this blog, but who carries that kind of statistic around in their head?), but they knew their own weights, and could envision how starkly a 61-pound woman would contrast against the picture of health.

Details are what make your writing pop up off a two-dimensional page and take a real shape. Sometimes, those details are description of the sights, sounds or smells of a scene; other times, they are direct quotes from your characters or subjects. And sometimes, the detail that will reach off the page and deep into your reader’s consciousness can be as simple as a number.


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