Is your helicopter the right height?
Let's go for a little helicopter ride, shall we?
We start by walking toward the stinking, whirling beast... Whappa, whappa, whappa. Our hair is whipped 'round our faces and we instinctively duck as if to protect our precious necks as we walk under the madly spinning blades. We scramble inside the door, stow our briefcases under the seats and pop on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Phew!
As soon as the pilot takes off, we look out the window to see houses and cars and treetops. At first, they're life-sized. But as the helicopter starts to rise, they become smaller and smaller. Soon the cars are the size of Tinker Toys and the houses look like something from a doll's village.
As the helicopter continues its ascent, the cars become tiny specks -- like little black bugs -- and the houses, mere dots. But suddenly, as if by way of compensation, we start to see patterns. The landscape stretches out below us like a quilt. There are big patches of green -- forest -- and wide swaths of yellow -- fields of grain. Look! Over there, there's a lake.
"Okay, okay, but what's this got to do with writing?" you ask.
Forgive the long analogy and let me get to my point. When you write, you are like that helicopter pilot. And what you see from that metaphorical window is what you need to describe to your readers.
Remember: you're in the pilot's seat, so you have to decide. Are you going to hover low, focusing on details like individual trees and houses, or are you going to hover high, looking at the patterns in the landscape (or, in that dreadful '80s phrase, "the big picture")?
When I have a hard time understanding a piece of writing, I often discover the author is dipsy-doodling in "height." He or she is going from big ideas to small without giving me enough warning.
Now I don't want to suggest that a pilot or a writer has to pick one spot and spend the entire trip hovering there! As you know, pilots change altitude all the time. But, except in emergencies, they don't do it so quickly that you get a heaving stomach.
Similarly, when you're writing, you should think like a skilled pilot and always be conscious of your altitude. Is your plan to discuss large concepts or little details? Be aware of what you're doing! And when you want to change altitude, give your readers some warning.
This article, for example, is mainly a conceptual one (i.e. my helicopter is hovering high). But let me dip for a moment to give you some examples of transitional or warning phrases you can use to drop in height smoothly. You might say, "for example" (as I just did at the beginning of this paragraph), "specifically," "for instance," "here," "there," or "to illustrate."
Using phrases like these will help ensure that all your writing-induced helicopter rides are trouble-free.