How much detail is simply too much?

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate). How much — REALLY? — do we need to know?

Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

— I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

— I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

— My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

— My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

— My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?

Our private lives, when written for mass consumption, offer readers the powerful opportunity to feel empathy, horror, sadness, disgust, delight, amusement.

They can high-five us across six time zones — or trash us with vicious comments. It’s the deliberate risk we take in exposing our soft underbelly to the cool gaze of strangers.

Sharing personal detail can offer the writer a chance to reflect and make (better) sense of their own milestones, and help their readers do the same: divorce, death, marriage, the bewildering rejection by a friend or lover. In reading others’ stories, we can feel less alone, better understood.

Less weird.

I found great comfort, when I wrote about my tortured relationship with my mother, from some of your comments. As the painfully unhealed wound of my life from the age of 14, this issue offers a lot of great material.

But without a wise and protective editor saying “Um, you know, this might be a little too much”, bloggers run the very real risk of over-exposure. And the only editor most bloggers have is themself.

When I wrote “Malled”, I initially included some unhappy details about my family relationships, I thought important because they would offer context. I had five first readers, one my sister-in-law and another a dear friend.

All five said, “Nope, take it out. It’s too much information. You shouldn’t share that much.”

When I handed in “Malled’s” final revisions, I sent them to a friend who works in publishing for another major house, who offered some new and unexpectedly tart criticisms about the book’s tone. As my friend, as someone who knows what makes books sell well, she was being helpful and kind, even if it was hard for me to read.

My editor and her assistant, when I asked them, agreed — and we made even more changes.

My point?

Thank God for editors! Thank God for protective friends.

Those posts, however raw, remain available for lovers and employers and friends and family to forever find on-line. I’ve found far too many blogs that are merely verbal vomits, as though simply spewing one’s misery into the ether offers readers something of value. It doesn’t.

A blog post asks attention from someone who does not know you.

And naively assuming their goodwill, understanding, empathy and/or agreement is unwise. Some of the comments on about “Malled” have left me shaking, as, in the guise of a “review”, people who have no idea who I am, beyond the narrator’s voice there, have shredded my character and impugned my motives.

That’s the risk you take.

Here’s a thoughtful piece from The New York Times Magazine about the perils of over-sharing:

Every personal-essay writer struggles with this line, and I don’t know one of us who hasn’t bungled it big time. I tried to protect the writers I worked with. On other first-person sites — sites where I flattered myself that the editors weren’t as careful as I was — I saw too much exposure. I would find myself excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate.

“This feels a little unprocessed,” I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege…

People often complain about the narcissism of our moment, how everyone is posting and writing and talking about themselves…My experience with alcohol and private pain has given me a near-religious fervor for how first-person storytelling can illuminate the human experience: through your story, I come to see my own.

Yet sometimes, I feel as if we’ve tipped the scales too far. Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void.

How much do you share in your blog posts?

Have you ever regretted it?

56 thoughts on “How much detail is simply too much?

  1. This topic is very real and important to me. Writing about myself–and even writing at all–is always a risk. When you expose yourself, you risk the judgement of others. It’s always fascinating to see who pops out of the digital woodwork with encouragement or disapproval.

  2. Well, I never use a person’s real name (unless they use it themselves online and have given me specific permission to do so), and I never share the details of other people’s private lives without permission either. And as much as I like to tell stories about work, I am very careful to not violate confidentiality laws. As for myself I don’t talk about my political or religious persuasions, I talk about my family but I edit for their privacy, and though some people might be able to infer where I live or work, I have never stated it outright and won’t confirm or deny.

    I could probably reveal more, to be honest! But I think that people tend to overshare, and I don’t find it necessary (in blogging at least) to tell a good story or strike up a conversation.

    Oversharing is an interesting phenomenon. I’m still working out my opinions on it.

  3. Nemesis

    I promise… To buy ‘Malled’ @ FullRetail and go CoverToCover in OneSession… [caveat: I have to work through a slush pile or two first; “Malled” will be a most tantalizing and welcome Dessert after “eating my peas”]…

    We read because… You’re good, Darling. Nemesis was “Malled” a long time ago… but he switched that for AvenueOfTheAmerica Manhattan views from Eleanor Taylor and Dianne Green’s luscious corner suites… [and when that paled, the Corridors&Arsenals of Power]… Keep punching those keys.

    Too much information… or not enough?


  4. So far I haven’t shared anything that might be a case of TMI (I’ve had too many instances of that in real life that I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping quiet). So far I’ve only commented things I regretted, but hopefully that’ll be the end of it.

  5. Being relatively new to the blogging scene and because of my job I’m particularly sensitive to need for discretion. In my own blog I never use peoples real names unless I’m talking about a public figure. At this point I’ve never written about anything particularly embarrassing to anyone I regularly associate with or count in my circle of friends. I do though keep in mind when writing about my personal experiences that everything I post my site also gets picked up on my Facebook and Twitter accounts where close friends, family, and others can see what I post.

    1. I don’t use Twitter and I am very selective about what I post on Facebook, as many of of my “friends” are also high-level people working in my industry.

      Writing about other people (or not) is, I think, the easiest call. It’s deciding how much of yourself to reveal that seems to cause the most problems.

  6. An interesting and important post. In an era where social media and maybe especially Facebook is banking on us sharing everything it important to set up our own “sharing boundaries”. Sharing amongst close friends is a healthy way of living. Sharing as a mean to get noticed by whomever is not (in the long run). We share but get nothing but scattered comments in return.

    I think Mr Zuckerberg comments on identities and integrity is more a result of his hope on Facebook being = internet (so FB can have all the traffic) rather than a deep philosophical insight.

    Yes, I love social media and are a blogger myself. I also make the mistake of over-telling from time to time. My point is though, that we need close friendships and confidants where we can let of stem, and work through difficulties. The sharing medias is nice add-ons, “not instead-ofs”

    1. Thanks for weighing in.

      You make a good point, that “sharing” on-line needs to be an add-on. I sometimes fear that people who blog their little hearts out are doing so (and I’ve read these) because the people in their lives are just not listening (carefully) to them. It seems some people are truly starved for attention and the Internet is certainly happy to fill that void.

  7. Outstanding reflection!
    I had some of my own serious personal struggles in my early 20’s, and I wrote a decent amount about it. Mostly for myself. While I feel like strangers could benefit from hearing some of my “darker” stories, I’m probably not going to self-publish them. I, too, find many personal blogs pretty useless, whether they be focused on joy or misery. If you’re simply publishing a personal journal online, I probably don’t want to read it.
    When I write for Mindful Stew, I am thinking about an audience of strangers, but I also want to blend in personal anecdotes to highlight my points without compromising anybody else’s identity and digital footprint in an unflattering way. So far, I don’t regret anything I’ve posted…
    I plan on reblogging your entry later today!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.

      I’ve been writing this sort of material for decades, so I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way, back in print) that strangers can be very rough on you, so deciding to share details means you’ve got to be selective — and make them great reading. You’re basically retailing your life. It is exposure, but that’s not always a perky positive.

  8. I think I share enough to make it interesting, but I leave enough personal details out so that it’s not completely irrelevant, and more importantly not BORING. I refer to family, friends, and my wife (Herself) vaguely, but I never name them or put photos up of them. They have a right to their own privacy and that’s much more important than me massaging my ego. I also don’t write about my full time job, as I teach English as my primary income, there are enough people blogging about that. Besides there are much more interesting things to write about in Korea, namely the people, the cities, the countryside, etc.

  9. It’s a interesting decision when/if to include a photo of your spouse, partner and/or kids.

    With his permission, I have named my husband here, and described his work, to add context to my comments about work, journalism and some of the struggles we now face in this industry — many of my followers here are students of journalism, mass comm. or marketing, so this may (or may not) be a useful reality check for them.

  10. I agree. It adds authority to your posts, and I wouldn’t doubt that you got permission in the first place. Usually when I refer to my wife, it’s usually only after we’ve had a particular conversation about something related to the subject. She appreciates the privacy but likes that I refer to her ‘authority’.

    I know of a few bloggers here in Korea who have been approached randomly on the street, usually in good nature with a compliment, but they’ve found it awkward. I would be bothered by this also probably, but I’m sure that my wife would prefer if that never happened to her 🙂

  11. Thanks!

    I have yet to be approached by anyone who reads my blog. I did have a really lovely moment at BlogHer, as I sat with my book in my lap, seekng people to offer it to. A young woman two seats over in one session exclaimed: “That’s a great book!” And was thrilled (as was I) to be able to meet the author. It’s so moving to meet a reader who appreciates what you do!

  12. It’s interesting that you posted this when you did! I was just thinking about this very same issue a few days ago. There is definitely a very fine line when it comes to being open and honestly vulnerable and giving TOO MUCH information. As a “personal” blogger, I find myself walking that line occasionally, and I think the way I censor myself without an editor is to write a post, save it, and then come back to it later to read it with fresh eyes and a little detachment. Sometimes this leads to more editing, sometimes I’m satisfied and hit publish.

    I think the opportunity to be understood can be very appealing to people, especially when they have the ability to do it in a semi-anonymous forum – however, at least in my personal experience, it’s pretty clear who writes to write (even if they overshare occasionally), and who writes for attention! I tend to “un-follow” those who “are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void.” (Great way of describing it!)

    Thanks for sharing, and for getting me thinking again.

  13. And yet…some people love to hear TMI. I’m not one of them.

    Like you, I save and edit (and edit and edit and edit) most posts, certainly ones with more personal content.

    I do see some irony in being “understood” by people you’ll never (likely) meet face to face. It’s something of a faux intimacy, no?

  14. Socioknit

    An excellent collection of points and food for thought as we each cautiously begin our next blog post. This is an issue I take seriously, since privacy is a hot topic in journalism in contemporary US. Even being cognizant of this issue however does not protect you from “bungling” your posts once in a while though… o_O

  15. Elaine

    This is something I thought very much about when I first started my blog. Because of my potential future career, sharing personal details is a challenge. At first I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to put my real first name or a picture of myself. But as I wrote more, I realized I was proud of my work and wanted to own it. I write about my personal life very infrequently and when I do, it’s almost always in broad generalizations. If I include anything about my personal life in a post, I ask myself, does this really add to the point of the post, or am I just talking about myself because I like to talk about myself. Not that I’m, in any way, an expert on this; it’s an issue I struggle with and probably always will.

  16. I mostly err on the side of discretion. I just recently added my name to my about page on my blog because I felt that I needed to be more personal. But I only refer to my family by their initials and I only use my first name. Many times I write some long drawn out introduction to a recipe that I’m sharing only to go back and edit it down because I feel like no one really cares about the long story on why I decided to cook that particular thing. That isn’t the case on every blog. I read yours because it makes me think and I like that.

    I prefer concise but meaningful. That’s hard to do but when it works it’s amazing.

  17. It’s interesting. I admit to being very curious about who I am reading, so I always seek out their About page and am frustrated when it’s non-existent, or too goofy or opaque. I get that some people need more anonymity, but I really want to know, and see, who I am giving my (precious) time and attention to.

    Thanks for the compliment on my blog! At the end of the day, in almost everything I write, here and elsewhere, that’s my goal — to get readers to think (or even think a little differently about an issue they know.)

    Brevity is tough! Brilliant brevity even tougher. I’ll keep trying…:-)

  18. I struggle with this issue all the time. What is too much information? As a therapist, I do not reveal personal things about myself unless a client asks and then I usually ask them why they want to know. Sometimes if it is not too personal I will answer the question so that I seem real to them. Boundaries with other people are important in life as there really is “Six Degrees of Separation” which separate us, one from another.
    I read many mom blogs and am amazed at some of the things that are shared…not just the stories but also the photos. I was told by a writer, who is well known in her field, that this generation of moms is not as concerned about boundaries and privacy as much as their parents.
    After reading your post, I think that many mom bloggers are writers but they are not educated in the field of writing or journalism and there lies the difference.
    Your post has educated me in the area of privacy while writing a blog yet keeping it real and sincere. Thank you.

  19. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply.

    I wrote an essay for the NYT about how skeeved I am by the medical oversharing I see on Facebook. I really hate it — photos of boody skinned knees?! Seriously? So it’s not just moms who seem to have no filters or sense of self-restraint.

    I’ve been doing this for a long time and it is, bluntly, a sort of emotional/intellectual striptease. You show enough to maintain interest but not enough to leave little to the imagination. 🙂

  20. Pingback: Friday Five | Jacquelin Cangro

  21. I went to media reform conference last year. And on one panel, a panelist said that today’s children are not going to have reasonable expectation of privacy, thanks mainly to the social aspects of the internet. I’m interested to see how that plays out because I don’t think it takes away from the expectation of humiliation and embarrassment that comes from being put down and ridiculed – but as this relates to your post – I think stories need to be genuine to be effective and that means they have to have unvarnished, ugly details from our lives or else who would we relate to?

    That said, it takes courage to do so for good reason. The wrong false context taken by the right blogger can elevate a deeply personal revelation in a very cruel and public manner. Perhaps this is why my Facebook feed of 2012 is much less rant-filled than the same feed circa 2009.

    What are your rules of thumb for opening up online?

    1. Lots of stuff to think about.

      First — I don’t have kids, so all these (important) issues as they pertain to children (posting photos, for example) don’t enter into my comments here or my post.

      My rules of thumb are my own, and because I write for a living and am easily found (my address, sadly, is online because {stupid me!} it didn’t occur to me until too late to remove it from my resume which is on-line) are possibly different than others’. I’ve been a crime victim a few times and my police and DA were useless, so personal safety/security issues matter to me more than they might to someone who has not faced that threat. Having said that, I used to blog at Open Salon, where the atmosphere is VERY different and became so toxic I left, as many others have as well. I was very, very rudely attacked, to the degree one (anonymous) male commenter said he would “beat me bloody” if I continued in expressing a specific opinion. I did not hesitate: I went to my local police; made sure the managers at OpenSalon knew that I had done so (it is a felony to threaten someone this way on-line) and got that blogger removed from the community.

      I take this stuff very seriously indeed. I never write anything publicly I would feel embarrassed or ashamed about if, in a job interview, or live broadcast interview, I was asked to comment on. That did happen to me recently with a radio host and I had to wing it gracefully. Everyone has to make their own decisions about how much candor is simply ill-advised. There are many deeply revealing and personal stories I could relate here — juicy ones that might titillate or shock or amuse — that I never will. What’s the upside? To me, none.

  22. Reblogged this on Mindful Stew and commented:
    Great commentary on one writer’s take on leaving personal details in your digital footprint. What information should we share? What should we withhold? Why do so many people publish what seem to be personal journals?

      1. I’m on vacation, so it’s always nice to repost stellar commentary as I take a break:)
        I’d be interested in exploring more the idea of social media/connectivity/narcissism.

  23. I think there should not be personal stuff unless it is over exaggerated and therefore funny. I am sure readers don’t want to know if I have a weight problem or some weird disease or broke up with a boyfriend or have been married 8 times. Celebrity magazines take care of all that. And facebook accounts should be customized so you aren’t sharing your crazy party pictures with the whole world or your emotional breakdown about how miserable your life is. That is what the phone+moms is for. People are starved for attention and they have probably watching too many reality shows.

    1. That’s one way to look at it certainly.

      I disagree — humor can be fantastic, and God knows I love a good laugh. But humor is also too often a shield and a defense. If — and it’s rare — a writer can talk about their weight problem or eight marriages skilfully and engagingly (not all can), bring it on! You don’t have to make me laugh.

      But you have to make read.
      And, ideally, make me think!

  24. Excellent post, leaves me much to process. When I started thinking about my blog, I knew my goal and focus would be honesty. Life as it is, as opposed to the life I might have wished for, or expected. The tricky part is to balance, so it isn’t oversharing, threatening anyone else’s privacy, or so narrowly focused on my own whines that no one else would want to read it. It’s a work in progress, and posts like this one will help me make decisions as I edit.

    Thank you!

    1. It’s a real challenge for everyone. Some people are much more comfortable “telling all” — and some readers thrive on it. The goal, always, is to make it personal enough to be compelling but universal enough to be relatable.

  25. I am so pleased to have found you today – I signed up to follow you because I can so relate to what you are saying. I’ve been a blogger since just 2 days ago – and your recent discussion gave me lots of things to think about. Your article helped me to formulate tonight’s blog in a better way – thanks!

    1. Thanks for stopping by — and signing up. I began blogging in July 2009, so if you search the archives you’ll find a few helpful posts, one is titled Fifteen ways to make your blog irresistible.

  26. Really interesting post. I re-read my blog posts before I hit ‘Publish’… just to check I haven’t revealed too much. If it’s too personal and I still need some form of ‘writing release,’ I jot it down in a good old diary.

  27. Great post as always. I write a personal blog, but my guideline is that each post needs to be relevant or fun. I share stories about my life and teaching, but there has to be some kind of concluding thought or it needs to connect to an issue others can relate to. My readers should get something for their time. I normally do not get very personal– there are some stories that are mine alone. Last night I did post about my feelings of inadequacy and debated about hitting the publish button because it felt really personal. I chose to publish it on the basis that others may feel the same way about themselves. Many people I know in “real” life, including both of my parents and my principal’s secretary, read my blog, so I consider what I want them to know. I always enjoy reading your work!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! Especially in your line of work, you have to be very careful indeed…On one hand, I think a lot of us are curious what a teacher’s life is like, but you need (as you know) to retain privacy and authority.

  28. Pingback: Oversharing – Opening The Door A Bit, But Not All The Way | Gifts Of The Journey

  29. This was timely for me as I’ve been in total blogging and all other writing shutdown for the last seven weeks. I’ve censored so much since I had a bad experience last November that I found I needed some time away to sort things out. I linked this post to mine today … I hope that’s okay.

    To answer your question, I think you can overshare in social media. I don’t mind personal revelations, it’s just difficult to see at times in a blog post when I’m not expecting it. If I buy a book and know I’m reading a memoir, I’ll expect more personal details.

  30. I’ve missed your blog! Thanks very much for the link…

    The problem with blogs (and memoirs) is that readers tend to build up some notion of who the writer “really” is or who we want them to be. A memoir/overshare can shake that up.

    I don’t share a lot of deep, dark personal stuff here, and there is a PILE of it I could dig through and use.

    1) I’m not sure people want any more darkness in their lives ; 2) it can create a voyeuristic vibe I don’t want to encourage, here or elsewhere; 3) I loathe pity ; 4) unless someone has had a similar experience, it is very isolating to discuss.

    I may well write another, far more personal memoir later, after my parents are gone. I’ve already got the title…:-)

  31. I am always complaining about online over-sharing. I’d like a little more mystery–spare me your bloody knee photos!

    This post really spoke to me, as I’ve actually been stuck in a blogging silence because I’m not sure how to write about recent life events. I guess the big question is: how anonymous do I want to stay? Since the answer will affect the future of my little ol’ blog, I’ve found it hard to commit. Meanwhile, the silence stretches on…

    Always happy to read your posts! I have some catching up to do!

    1. I guess the larger issue is…what’s your goal with your blog? It’s too easy to toss chunks of red meat to the lions to get page views, but at what personal, professional or reputational cost?

  32. Thoughtful comments on a thoughtful issue. As a relative newbie, who began blogging for a specific purpose (to keep my supporters informed of my progress toward a fundraising/physical-challenge objective), I’ve mostly shared what amuses and delights me on my walks. So you can call it impersonal, except that it is filtered through my perceptions and interests, and therefore indirectly is also about me.

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