One attribute of good writers is an eye for detail. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, relating relevant and memorable details can make your writing sing like a soprano at the opera. Like Nero Wolfe’s love for the Phalaenopsis Aphrodite orchid or Wendell Berry’s onomatopoeic depiction of the “good, good, good” sound of men drinking from a moonshine whiskey jug in Jayber Crow.
But sometimes details can be lethal to an article, story, or book. For example, unless you’re capturing a specific period in your writing (the sixties, say, or the Elizabethan Age), incorporating trends and product names into your writing could quickly date your scenes. Everyone may be playing Fortnite this year; but by the time your book, story, or article comes out, that reference may be as dated as if they were on MySpace. (Ask your grandma; she’ll tell you about MySpace.) Or, a certain brand of tennis shoes may be cool at your school; but a few hundred miles away they may be considered geeky.
In such cases, the usual advantage of crisp details disappears and generalization takes its place. So, instead of having your character sign into Instagram, mention that she “posted a photo online” or on “social media”; those references are likely to last longer than the more specific app or platform. (Who even knows if apps will be around in five years?) Or, maybe instead of using a Tesla to portray your character’s wealth or sophistication, generalize the reference into a “sleek sports car” or “the latest model.”
It’s similarly risky to use the real names of movie stars, television personalities, athletes, or rock stars. Just reflect for a moment on celebrities who have died, disappeared, or disgraced themselves in the last year; and you’ll see that such references often have the shelf life of milk. Instead, make up something appropriate to the period (doing so could also save you from alienating fans or even—yikes!—libeling someone). Years ago, when Nirvana topped the charts (see what I mean?), a friend of mine used the band name Nervosa in some of his writing. That did the trick; and, because it was an invention, that group has never disbanded or lost its popularity.
Finally, be careful of slang. It’s a mine field. Sure, it can imprint your character in memorable ways; but it’s easy to misstep. It’s much better to suggest the way someone talks without using words or phrases that are likely to sour before (or soon after) publication. You know, of course, that “gnarly, dude” died a well-deserved death decades ago. But these days, slang expressions (especially of the urban and internet varieties) come and go faster than your typing speed.
Generally (see what I did there?), it’s wise to scan your copy for terms and other details that may not survive the life of your article, story, or book. Like “man buns.” Seriously. Don’t even get me started.