In drawing class this week, we were working with a model—my first time in years doing so—and I was sketching away, delighted at how shading here and here was turning a collection of lines into a face, trying to capture the right angle of her lips, when my teacher strolled by and pointed out that the shape of her head was wrong. Mentally I said aarrrrgghhh, because of course he was right.
Drawing, says my teacher, is 80 percent looking and 20 percent drawing. In other words, taking the time to really see all the details and contours of your subject, whether your subject is a bowl of fruit or a person, instead of immediately throwing your pencil (or charcoal) at the page.
I have been thinking about details since people on Twitter this week have had complaints about others getting their names wrong. This has happened to me my entire life. Not until college did any teacher ever pronounce my name correctly on the first try. When I email people for work-related reasons—even though my name is right there in the email signature—I frequently get replies addressed to Marlena, Marianna, Marlene, or this recent gem through LinkedIn: Marlins. Nope, can’t explain that one either.
I figured out the truth a few years back, while helping read out the names of student scholarship winners at a New Jersey Press Association luncheon. The woman I was alternating with was mangling every other name, and as I watched her I realized: She wasn’t really reading the names. She was glancing at them and then reading what she thought the name should be, without paying close enough attention to confirm it. And I think this is what most people do with names. They glance at it way too quickly, type something totally wrong, and get on with their day.
That sort of carelessness as a reporter, incidentally, earns you a giant warning sign on any newsroom copy desk. Because if you can’t be bothered to get the source’s name right, what else did you get wrong? Those were the reporters whose work I fact-checked even more thoroughly.
Attention to detail is everything, in art and in writing. Take a breath, stand back: Did you get everything right? Is there anything you need to change? Look again. That’s my job as a writer. It’s my job to help others with as an editor. It’s my job as a (wannabe) artist. Make sure you’re saying what you actually meant to say.
As for that drawing, I don’t know if I can fix it. But the model is coming back next week, so I’ve got another chance to try.