Depending on your personality type, you’ve probably either had this acronym spoken to you or spoken it yourself.
For me, it’s usually the former. I’m from Jersey, I’m very straightforward (this can also be read as blunt), I spent much of my college life as a biology major, and I’m a journalist. In other words, not much is off limits for me.
But I do find myself uttering the phrase more these days. Particularly on Facebook.
I saw in my news feed the other day a post from an acquaintance thanking her boyfriend for giving her the best kisses ever. Ick. I mean, good for you, but c’mon. That’s kind of intimate information. Why do you need to share that with the world?
Then, there’s the lovey-dovey messages between significant others. Again, posted in the news feed for all to read. And again, good for you, but that seems like something you talk about in private.
I probably seem like a prude right about now. I’m not. But sometimes my Facebook feed feels like I’m reading the stall of a high school bathroom. Too much information.
There’s a time and a place for everything. And this goes for details and descriptions, too. Even in writing.
When I was running the news desk during the inception of the second Iraq war, I was responsible for culling the news feed for updates. I read the raw reporting coming over the wire from war correspondents on the ground—in vivid detail. I will never be able to forget those accounts. Unless you were a journalist covering the war or part of the military action directly, you have probably never read the descriptions now burned into my brain. I know because we, the gatekeepers, filtered them.
When I asked my managing editor why the reporters included so much information we couldn’t print (information that disturbs me to this day), he told me that the horrors of war must be documented, but to present them in gory detail would overwhelm the message. In other words, the information the public needed to know would be lost in the shock of staring into the face of war itself.
I had to explore this further. I did so through my graduate thesis in which I studied a year of newspaper coverage, particularly the use of photography, of violent political acts against civilians. As part of my research, I obtained this quote from Jim Pokrandt, then managing editor of the Summit Daily News and a member of the Colorado Press Association: “The morality of it, I don’t know. I’m not sure we do society a big favor by euphemisms of the day and not confronting suicide and not showing the true horror that life can present. Yes, there still needs to be sensitivity, but I don’t know, we all live in this vacuum where somehow the blood and guts doesn’t happen.”
Granted, this was nine years ago. A lot has changed in the media since then.
But the idea of too much information continues to be a topic of discussion. I’ve just outlined some thoughts on nonfiction. But what about fiction?
In fiction, too much information can be a bad thing, too, but for somewhat different reasons. Because fiction is a delicate balance of creating a rich environment for the reader to immerse themselves into while not providing so many details that the reader either gets lost or cannot fully engage their own imagination.
Murder, for example, is a delicate deed in fiction. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a master at killing off characters. No one is ever safe in a Rusch novel, and we don’t just see a character die, we see it happen from their perspective.
Take this passage from one of Kris’ Retrieval Artist novels (title and character name omitted to avoid spoilers if you haven’t read it yet):
The redness slashed across her throat and she made a gurgling sound that panicked her even more. If she survived this, she would need surgery; she wouldn’t be able to talk or to breathe on her own—
Like she couldn’t breathe now. Black dots ran across her vision.
She couldn’t pass out.
She didn’t dare.
She would die if she passed out.
She willed herself to stay awake—
And fought the darkness, even as it took her away.
Like I said, she’s a master.
It also takes a masterful writer to recognize when they’ve gone too far with their description. Dean Wesley Smith wrote about that in his Writing in Public blog last week. He got to a point in his narrative where he realized that 7,000 words of description (lovely as it was) could be summarized by the words, “two days later.” So, he cut it. Again, a master. It takes a skillful writer to be able to step back from their own words enough to make that kind of edit.
I could discuss this topic all day (my thesis alone is almost 400 pages), but that would run the risk of “too much information,” so I’ll leave you with this:
Good writing, like good design, is all about the details. And details need context. Too many or too few will throw everything off balance.
Kind of like how I feel sometimes when I read my Facebook feed.
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.