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Three Ways to Identify “Data Dump”

Recently, I’ve advised several writers using our editing service to avoid the dreaded “data dump”.

A data dump occurs when you give a lot of information to the reader at once in a clunky or obvious manner.  Below are a few ways to detect when you’re dumping information on the reader.

The Laundry List

I often see this when we’re seeing a character for the first time.  Here’s an example (this and all others in this article are completely made up):

Bob Jones took off his wire-rimmed glasses.  He was 5′ 6″, and wore tan slacks with his blue button-down shirt.  His hands were old and gnarly, and age spots showed under the edge of his sleeve.  His shoes were brown.  His eyes were green, but one of the pupils seemed to be turning milky-white from cataracts.  His thin frame belied a desperate, inner strength.

While the description is nice, and you likely have a firm image of him in your mind, we have no idea why we should care about him.  Here’s a recommended edit of the above paragraph:

Bob Jones took off his wire-rimmed glasses.

It’s really all you need to know.  The other details can be sprinkled throughout the story elsewhere, or not at all (hint:  eye color rarely matters).

“As You Already Know…”

This is when one character tells other characters something they already know.  If you see this tag in your dialogue, consider eliminating it.

For example, if you see something like this:

“As you already know, we’re under attack from the vicious Culverians.  They’re our sworn enemies for millennia, and we need to kill them.”

It’s probably a data dump.  A revised version might look something like this:

“We’re under attack!  Man battle stations.  Let’s kill them all.”

Note how the second version appears much more active.  The reader doesn’t know all of the detail, but they don’t need to.  They know they’re reading about a battle, and that’s probably good enough for now.  Later, after the battle, you can reveal how they’ve been at war for millennia.

The Ambler

This one’s a little more subtle than the others.  Essentially, you’re trying to do too much in a single sentence or paragraph.

John slowly brought the fork to his mouth as he watched his wife, who he suspected was cheating on him, chat with a man across the street.

When you see a sentence that tries to describe two people doing different things, you should check it carefully.  When you toss in background information as well, you’re probably letting your focus wander.  You may also be dumping information on your reader.

A revised version:

John slowly brought the fork to his mouth as he gazed out the window.  His wife was chatting with a man across the street. 

She’s cheating on me, he thought.  I know it.

Look for these three symptoms to identify data dump in your writing.

What other ways do you detect data dump?  Are there other symptoms we’re not mentioning here?

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