TMI*

by Pari

You put your feet up after a long day and zap on the television to enjoy your favorite program. Then those commercials come on.

You know the ones I’m talking about: The mother hugging her child, the man with a skip in his step, the gray-haired woman doing the cha-cha. But wait! That drug will prevent depression or drive you to suicide. This one will transform your sex life or cause 24-hour erections. And ladies, your bones will get stronger or you’ll go into renal failure.  

I’m fascinated with the skillful juxtaposition of cheerful visuals with droning voiceovers, mile-a-second disclaimers that are every corporate legal department’s wet dream. I’m in awe of how abundant and terrifying details wash over us so effectively we hardly hear or digest their meaning.

While this is undeniably intentional in the marketing world, there are unintentional parallels in our own literary craft.

No we’re not all striving for cognitive dissonance. Yes we do overwhelm our stories with irrelevant information. The result? We force our readers to ask unrelated questions, to get distracted, to lose track emotionally or to fall out of our stories completely.

Be honest, is the entire history of a grandfather clock – from the sprouting acorn through the clockmaker’s apprenticeship — really driving the story forward? Or is it merely showing off your knowledge? Hmmm?

Sure, there are writers who include chapters of details that read like fresh lemonade – cool and refreshing. Far more writers drown their salads with gloppy dressings, float their matzoh balls on seas of schmaltz, cover their steaks with gallons of Hollandaise . . .

What’s a poor wordsmith to do?

Here are a few techniques that might help counter TMI:

  1. Cultivate the mindset of a reader:  Look for the yawn trigger. Find the places in stories you read where you skip or skim. Study these sections. Chances are the writer got carried away with unnecessary information. Got it? Now search for the same flaws in your own work.
  2. Read your work aloud #1:  If you run out of breath, something is probably wrong. I’m not joking. Well, unless you aspire to be Proust.
  3. Read your work aloud #2:  If you find yourself wanting to skip over sections you’ve written, get rid of them!
  4. Play the cutting game:  See how much detail you can cut from your descriptions/explanations and maintain the essence of your message. This game is good for two reasons: it cleans up your prose and shows you that no matter what you write, it can be deleted without killing you.
  5. Find sections that contradict everything I’ve just written:  Study them. Find out why they work and tell me in the comments.

Writers: Do you struggle with TMI? How do you deal with it?

Everyone: Do you have examples of TMI in favorite or crummy books/short stories? How about apparent TMI passages that actually do work?

* TMI: Too much information

27 thoughts on “TMI*

  1. billie

    My solution to this is to allow myself to put whatever I want in the first draft. I can write things two or three different ways in a row, just to make sure I get that image across, I can put in huge amounts of info about how the characters move, get from the sofa to the front door, etc., and I indulge myself in letting all that good research find its place in the story.

    That seems to satisfy me. All the excess comes out in subsequent edits, and when reading aloud.

    I suppose if one is on a very tight deadline this method might need to be changed, but I love that first indulgent draft where all my sentences/info get equal footing, and I’m in that free fall mode that is like a river flowing from my head down through my hands.

    I guess the problem is if you get too attached to all the excess – but I’ve not struggled much with that. I rarely save the excess when I cut it – I trust in that river rush that happens with each new book.

    Reply
  2. Stacy McKitrick

    Is there such a thing as TOO LITTLE INFORMATION? My first draft is sparce (I love dialog and internal thoughts). I have to go through and beef it up on subsequent edits. I think that’s because that’s the part I tend to skim over when I read. Too much detail is a killer, too little is confusing. Must find that happy spot in between!

    Reply
  3. Cornelia Read

    I cut 150 pages from my second novel, a month before the second draft was due. I just got to that point when I was reading through it and tweaking and thought, "*I* don’t even want to read this subplot…" Kind of scary to be 150 pages short with only 30 days to go, though…

    Reply
  4. Rebbie Macintyre

    This is a great post, Pari. And Stacy, I hear you about not enough information! I read an online interview that asked a writer: When it comes to writing, are you an eeker or a gusher? I’ve learned over ten years of writing that I’m an eeker. I NEVER have enough about my story. Every sentence is like trying to squeeze the words out of a bone-dry sponge. I’ll get finished with a first draft, and it will be a measly 30K words. After smacking my forehead for a couple of days, I’ll finally go back into it and try to really get the details of the story. Again, it’s like pulling teeth. I assume the reader will "get" what I’m writing about–a dangerous assumption. So many times, my problem isn’t TMI, it’s NEI–not enough information!

    Reply
  5. Karen in Ohio

    Pari, a novel I just finished is a perfect example of this. It was Rosamund Pilcher’s Winter Solstice. It’s a lovely story, but of the 698 pages, at least 150 of them are extraneous descriptions of meals prepared and eaten, actions made, and walks taken. I was itching to get the red pencil out, which is too bad, because the story is charming. I was just taken out of it way too many times.

    Reply
  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is a great analogy, Pari! (I stopped watching TV entirely because I just don’t want commercials in my head).

    My editor could answer this question for you. I mean, me. I go way overboard describing buildings. Maybe I’m a closet frustrated architect. Luckily theater and dance has given me a good sense of rhythm and I usually end up cutting most of the fat – it just doesn’t FEEL right.

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  7. toni mcgee causey

    I think of a camera moving through my story: how long am I lingering on this shot? Is it absolutely riveting information that will alter the perception of everything that comes after it? If not, it’s indulgent and it needs to go or get trimmed.

    A story is motion–if the camera is sitting still on one item too long without conflict occurring, then it’s going to be boring.

    Reply
  8. pari noskin taichert

    Billie,
    I use a very similar approach and, I hope, I’m getting better at being able to distinguish the useful description/explanation from the ego-driven crappola in later iterations.

    Stacy,
    Yes. There is such a thing as too little. That’s just as dangerous but for different reasons. When you don’t give enough, the reader gets confused and asks questions that don’t pertain to your story . . . he or she gets knocked out.

    Cornelia,
    Isn’t it amazing when we can get that kind of clarity about our work, when we know something we slaved over just wasn’t relevant? I’m in awe of that 150-page cut . . .

    Reply
  9. Zoรซ Sharp

    Damn, I’m going to have to start posting earlier than Toni, because she always says what I’m thinking – only she puts it much better!

    I’m a skip-reader, so I try and leave out the parts other people skip. And I usually make a final pass trying to cut as many words out of the manuscript as I can before it goes off.

    Timely blog this, Pari. Just this morning I sent off a short story that was originally 4900 words. The editor of the anthology I’d submitted it to got back to me last week to say he really liked it, but asked if I thought I could lose 1000 words out of it, so he could fit in more stories. I sent it back at 4000 words dead, and MUCH improved…

    Yup, less is more.

    Reply
  10. pari noskin taichert

    Rebbie,
    Thanks. I’m amused by the NEI. I can relate to that too. I bet most of the writers here can because we tend to err like pendulums.

    Karen,
    That’s EXACTLY what I’m talking about. I’m going to see if I can find a book I read during the Master Class that had pages and pages of description, that was almost alllllll mood, and I still adored it.

    Alex,
    I can’t imagine you going overboard in that way. I guess that means you’re incredibly effective at cutting since I never feel that way about your work. Maybe I *should* corner your editor some time. I tend to do it with descriptions of New Mexico . . .

    Toni,
    Talk about great images. Wow. The camera is going to be in my head from now on. Thank you!

    Reply
  11. pari noskin taichert

    Zoe,
    Well, Toni didn’t say everything because you just added some nice information including the idea of doing a pass just to cut words.

    Congrats on that short story, btw. I’m working on learning that craft.

    Reply
  12. JT Ellison

    Yeah, less is more. I just finished John Sandford’s STORM PREY. In it, Lucas Davenport’s surgeon wife is participating in a major operation on conjoined twins. The research he did was obviously intricate, time consuming and thorough, because the story flowed like a river, with no breaks where you stopped to say wow – the research is really good, but he did way too much. He’s a master at giving enough to help you understand without going overboard. If anyone is struggling with this, I highly recommend looking to that book for an example of the right way to throw in research without giving TMI…

    Reply
  13. Allison Brennan

    Alex, exactly! If it doesn’t feel right, I cut it. I tend to write lean in my first draft, except for lots of background information that is more for me than the reader. Thank God for revisions. Once I know what happens in the book (Hmmm, maybe I write 80K word outlines? LOL) I can go back and ruthlessly editing, slashing and burning, and end up with a 110K story. How does that happen? Well, almost all my dialogue is just that–dialogue. No tags, no descriptors . . . yep. And my endings are always rushed in the first draft.

    I also read my work outloud, but usually not until the copyedits or page proofs. There, rhythm is as important to me as how the words look on the page. Which is weird, I know. But if I find a page that is all narrative or description, I go in and edit it even in the proof stage because I can’t stand looking at a page with no white space.

    Reply
  14. pari noskin taichert

    JT,
    Thank you for the Sanford example. That’ll be useful for everyone.

    Allison,
    I hear you about the rhythm. I do the same thing, though not in proofs . . . Of course, I only have three books out there.

    Reply
  15. Paula R.

    Thank you for this post. I am in the TMI stage of writing…it’s a first draft, and I need to write everything out, so I know everything that happens. I think this is the best way for me now since I am unpubbed, and it is a good way for me to learn too. I needed this. I was feeling a little discouraged, but this post is making me feel better. I am going to continue vomiting out everything, then clean up the mess after. You just took a load off my shoulders. Doubt is a real b!t@h!!!!

    LOVE LUCAS DAVENPORT! He does give a lot without being too overwhelming. I love this entire series. I am so glad they are repubbing them.

    Thanks again.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

    Reply
  16. Mike Dennis

    Not long ago, I picked up a book about a con man in the jewelry business. Sounded pretty good, so I gave it a go. Well, before too long, the author was explaining the jewelry business to me in its most finite detail. Facets, pavilions, carats, store layouts, nothing was too small to flesh out in its entirety. I should’ve known this would happen, because everyone I’ve ever known with an extensive knowledge of jewelry feels a primal urge to educate every single person within earshot.

    I put the book down after fifty pages.

    Reply
  17. pari noskin taichert

    Paula,
    I’m delighted to have helped you. What a wonderful compliment. Thank YOU.

    Mike,
    That’s EXACTLY what I’m talking about. Of course, it’s not just jewelry . . . it can be anything.

    Reply
  18. Allison Brennan

    Pari, I wish I didn’t have to do it in the proofs. Tight deadlines are a double-edged sword. I’m not complaining, but I do have to adjust. Ideally, I’d like to always have the time I had with ORIGINAL SIN and the book I just finished LOVE ME TO DEATH–an extra month gives me the time to read aloud when I edit as opposed to having to wait until I get the final proofs.

    Reply
  19. Tammy Cravit

    A great post, Pari, and a great question. I have an index card tacked to my desk to remind me of this issue when I’m reading, On it is written the question, "why does the reader need to know this?" If I don’t have a good answer, then that means I probably shouldn’t include it. Not a perfect solution of course, but it helps.

    Another trick I have is maintaining a document, in parallel with my WIP, called "interesting stuff" (or similar). If I’m not sure that a piece of interesting info (which I’d love to include) is helpful to my story, I’ll paste it in there. When I’m mining for nuggets of research to include in my story, I look there, but those documents collect a lot of fascinating stuff that never ends up in the final story. ๐Ÿ™‚

    One of the first, and best, editors I’ve ever worked for was a crusty old newspaper guy named Russ (may his memory be a blessing). He liked to say, "the story only cares about the story." The story doesn’t care about whether the writer’s filled her brain up with trivia, or whether she’s brilliant โ€” it only cares about being told, and anything that doesn’t further that goal is extraneous. A great and wise man, he was. Tangentially, he also liked to say, "when it’s five minutes to the press deadline and the ten inch hole in page one is your fault, writer’s block is a luxury you can’t afford", which is perhaps the single best piece of advice I’ve ever been given in my career.

    Reply
  20. Eika

    Oh, God.

    I suffer from TLI most of the time: Too Little Information. My beta-readers send things back saying I need to describe things more clearly and show them what’s going on. They know the plot, essentially, but I need to let them know how things look, how they get around, what someone’s wearing… I have awesome bobbing heads doing cool stuff against a white background. Working to fix that.

    For a TMI that works: Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series. While I thought it was overdone at times in the newest one, A Wizard of Mars, the others? Gorgeous. What’s the point of taking them to other planets without describing the landscape; the floating multiple ceilings that move at random in the Crossings; the dog who created his own universe entirely made of grass, trees, and squirrels; or the walking- er, wading, I think- tree who goes batty over bright colors and likes baseball caps. The only reason it was overdone in the newest was they only went to one other planet, Mars; and she described the different areas of the same planet with loving detail, without differentiating them much. Once was fine, though.

    Reply
  21. pari noskin taichert

    Allison,
    It’s funny. I yearn for tight deadlines, if only to have the experience. <g>

    Tammy,
    I like Russ’ advice — all of it! And that idea of having the parallel doc with the nuggets sounds like it might work well for many people. Thanks for suggesting it.

    Eika,
    You made me laugh. TLI, huh? I’m certainly not advocating abandoning description . . . just making sure it serves the story. And most of us do fall into the TLI trap too because we don’t convey what we see in the scene as writers to our readers fully enough. It’s a matter of choosing the details, of making the atmosphere rich without being overbearing.
    Quite a trick.

    I’ll check out Duane’s work. Thank you for suggesting it.

    Reply
  22. Alafair Burke

    Perhaps because I have an editor who is always asking me to cut, cut, cut, I find that almost everything I read these days leaves me thinking, "How did the author get away with all this extra stuff?" I enjoyed reading more before I started writing. Sigh.

    Reply
  23. pari noskin taichert

    Alafair,
    I had the same troubles with reading until I took that master class and my teachers insisted we read the 12 books they assigned as readers NOT writers. When I was done, I’d regained my pleasure again.
    Thank goodness!

    Reply
  24. KDJames / BCB

    I’m not guilty of TMI so much as TMW (too many words). Never use one word when 10 will do just as well. Or 20. A fault I’m sure you all have picked up on after reading my blog comments. I tend to repeat myself. To say the same thing, just in a different way. And then leave them both in there. And not delete one of them. And maybe add a third.

    Sigh.

    But I’m working on it. And trying not to do it anymore. To be a better editor. And write tight.

    You all won’t believe this, but there was a time when I wrote 200-word kick ass op-ed newspaper columns.

    Reply
  25. Spencer Seidel

    I’m always suspicious of books that contain too many details about a particular job or hobby or location or whatever. Sometimes the details overwhelm a (probably weak) story, which is not good. My philosophy is story first, research and detail last.

    Also, I think sometimes as writers we underestimate our readers’ ability to create and imagine. We don’t need to fill in every single crack, our readers will mostly do that for themselves.

    Reply
  26. pari noskin taichert

    Rob,
    Really? I can’t wait to read the final product!

    KD/BCB,
    I believe it. Writing nonfiction is just so different from fiction. I think I might write a post on that some time . . .

    Spencer,
    I have a similar reaction. Basically if I’m aware of the author including details, then it’s too much detail because otherwise the story would just flow. And readers need to use their imaginations. But there’s also the mistake that some newer writers make where they tell instead of showing because they’re relying too heavily on readers’ ability to visualize. What makes a work distinct is often that detail that shapes the readers’ perceptions and enriches the experience.

    Reply

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