||"The fathers in their white soutanes gathered on the verandah like moths round a treacle jar, and when Colin looked behind him he could see the glow of the Superior's cheroot following them down the road."
-- "A Burnt-Out Case", Graham Greene, 1960.
I love this sentence!
The book, by one of my favorite writers, tells the story of a world-weary architect who travels to the heart of Africa to escape his life yet is found there by a journalist. Like all Greene's books, whether set in Africa or Haiti, it's full of sounds, sights and smells.
I love this sentence because the language is so carefully chosen: soutanes, verandah, treacle, cheroot. Classic journalism demands that every story tell the reader who, what, when, where, how and why. This sentence, albeit in a work of fiction, provides all that, evocatively, in barely two lines: night-time (the glowing cheroot), the countryside (down the road), "the fathers" (a soutane is an outer garment worn by Catholic priests).
Every writer must be equally specific, no matter what the subject. If you're profiling a woman and she is wearing a white blouse, is it cotton? Pique? Silk? Low-cut or a turtleneck? Designer one-of-a-kind or polyester? Does it matter? It might add to our picture of her, both visually and psychologically. Or it might not. If it does, don't leave it out.
As a newspaper reporter in Toronto, I once followed the Pope around for a day. Maybe I should have been most impressed by the huge crowds, his Popemobile, his piety. I was mostly intrigued by his French cuffs, gold cufflinks and Gucci loafers, all visible close-up during one of his walkabouts. Does it matter what the Pope wears beneath his robes? Maybe not. I, for one, always want to know in detail what someone is wearing as I think clothing reveals a great deal about its wearer. But it has to matter to the story at hand.
I certainly didn't expect to see such opulent, tailored clothing on a man of God. I didn't include these details in my reporting because they were irrelevant to the story I was there to report. But I never forgot them.