Tl;dr: Examples in an essay work like world-building in a fantasy novel: too little of them and the idea/story lacks substance, too many and it's weighted down.
John keeps telling me to use more examples in my work and writing, and he's right: they enliven a post, give you a hook for free, and ensure that your idea is deep enough to appear at many different places. Going from "without example" to "with example" is always progress.
Yet I noticed myself overindulging in examples. When writing my last post, I structured a whole draft by presenting one cool example after another, and noting the implications for my general idea. But the examples are not the message! What I wanted to convey was the thesis, the core idea of the post, with examples as illustration and anchors. Instead, I found myself showing off my extensive research one example at a time.
That's when it hit me: I was info-dumping.
The image that came to my mind was a fantasy author so in love with his world-building that he takes every opportunity (and some more) to serenade you about the minutely crafted economic system or the elaborated (and linguistically coherent!) invented language.
The more I think about it, the more I like this metaphor. If I keep it in mind, I expect that my misuse of examples will be obvious, just like I notice info-dumping easily.
Here's a couple of implications:
- Don't have too many examples. Just like too much info-dumping distracts from the story.
- John told me once that three is a good number; I think that five is probably the maximum for a single post.
- Always have examples. A story without a world rarely captures a reader's attention.
- Only present the relevant examples or the relevant part of the examples, not all that you've studied. Info-dump isn't excused because you spent week building the world.
- Don't go into too much detail when describing the examples. Descriptions forever will annoy the reader.
- As much detail as you need to get the point across, and nothing more. From time to time a bit of color or a really cool bit.
- Research your examples as much as you need, but not much further. Don't go into the deep hole of world-building and lose months fine-tuning your invented banking system if you have a single scene at the bank.
- I think there are some examples that deserve a deep dive, but far fewer that you would expect.
- Use examples to rekindle the reader curiosity. Show the glory of the world when the story slows down.
- Works well after (or before, depending on your style) an abstract point.