Today I was reading an article on the indictment of several coal mine supervisors for manipulating equipment and data meant to keep miners safe. Several of the miners who worked under them have developed black lung disease as a result of years of exposure to elevated levels of coal dust, levels that their equipment should have shown to be unsafe had the supervisors not told those miners to interfere with the equipment’s ability to collect accurate data. So basically, the focus of the article was black lung disease and the regulations put in place by the US federal government to help protect miners from this disease as well as other mining hazards. However, approximately two-thirds of the way through the article, the author decided to add a comment about the coal industry being a contributor to the production of greenhouse gases. Now many people may glance over such a comment as being part of the everyday discussion of fossil fuels and climate change, but it stopped me mid-paragraph. Why? Because I was reading an article on black lung disease and federal mining safety regulations. What does climate change have to do with either of those topics? It’s about as incongruous as an article on walruses mentioning that whales also are aquatic mammals.
I hope most of you would agree with me in saying that it’s bad news when news media starts throwing around superfluous information. Journalists should stick to the facts that relate directly to the events and topics they’re reporting on in any given article or news segment. Pulling in unrelated information, even if it addresses another facet of the topic at hand, misdirects readers’ attention and may cause people to draw incorrect conclusions. (Climate change does not cause black lung disease or vice versa.)
Fiction writers are not immune to adding superfluous information to our prose. Sometimes we spend hours upon hours on world-building and character design, coming up with facts and details that will never impact our plotlines or story development. It can be easy to fall in love with all of these little tidbits that make our created worlds three-dimensional. We want to share them with readers and answer all the questions they may never have thought to ask. And including a moderated amount of these details can help add depth and breadth to our storytelling, as long as we don’t bog down our plot progression with too many facts.
I’ve stopped reading several books, because I found the writing style to be tedious and distracting with superfluous facts. There are some readers who do enjoy such writing, but due to my limited free time and long list of “to be read” books, I prefer fast-paced stories. I want a writer to draw my attention with action or interaction between characters. I want to feel a need to know what happens next when I reach the end of a chapter. I want every paragraph and (nearly) every sentence to feel like it has a definite purpose behind it, drawing me forward to the next page. But if a writer spends too much time on details that fail to materialize an impact in the story, I end up feeling cheated out of free time.
Despite all this, details can be a good thing. We shouldn’t shy away from fleshing out our characters and the worlds that surround them. Even if many of those details never make it into our final drafts, they can still affect how we present our stories. Facts we create in our personal notes can inform how we write the actions and reactions of our characters and help increase our effectiveness in sharing our imagined worlds with readers. Details are important, but that doesn’t mean they’re always relevant to share.