Critique Technique, Part 46 — Padding

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There are times when padding is acceptable, even desirable. When preparing something fragile for shipping, for example. Or filling out a Santa Claus suit. But in writing? Not so much. Not today, anyway.

Back in the day, that is before Ernest Hemingway, padding was acceptable, even expected. Check out anything written by Henry James, for example. Since writers were paid by the word, “Never say in ten words what can be said in fifty” must have been their motto. No, sorry, more like, “Never say in a mere, miserly ten words, my good man, I exhort you, from the bottom of my soul, not to mention the bottom of my inkwell, what could be said, I have not the slightest doubt, with the greatest of sincerity, depth, and yet extravagance, in not less than fifty words, or indeed more.” There. Fifty-six words in place of eleven.

Today, especially for the new writer, brevity, to quote Shakespeare’s character Polonius, is the soul of wit. Write tight.

Sure, sure, the later work of writers like Tom Clancy were padded—filled with material that didn’t contribute to the work—but Clancy’s publisher knew that he had a fan base that would buy anything he wrote (or put his name on), no matter how bloated it was.

You’re not Tom Clancy. Neither am I.

Packing on the Pounds Words

So why and how does a work get padded, how can you as a reviewer recognize padding, and what can an author do to get rid of it?

Broadly speaking, padding is any material that adds length to a work without adding meaning or depth. A writer can pad her work in a number of ways. One of the most common is with backstory, that background material that explains why and how the hero got into his predicament in the first place; why the antagonist is the way she is, starting back in her deprived childhood; the histories of the remote monastery they now find themselves trapped in and the ascetic monks who first built it, and so on and so on. The reader needs to know all that, right?

Um, no. That’s padding. (Part 25 discusses backstory in more detail.)

Another form of padding is excessive description. Beautiful, detailed description is the thing in literary fiction (next to psychological navel-gazing—but I digress) and it can be wonderful. Until it gets in the way of the story. Remember, the more of those details the author provides, the less chance the reader has to be the co-creator of the story, so the less engaged they’ll be. I discussed having too much setting detail in Part 20.

Speaking of digressions, they’re great examples of padding too. Digressions can be anything from a parenthetical phrase to a full story line that has only tangential connection or relevance to the main plot. They can also spring from secondary or even more minor characters, when the writer spends excessive amounts of time on them. I discussed tangents, which is another term for digressions, in Part 26.

Travelogues are extensive descriptions of a place, its history, culture, food, people, atmosphere, geography, etc., or just getting a character from Point A to Point B where nothing but the travel happens. When these things aren’t key to the story, they’re padding. James Michener could get away with that. You and I aren’t Michener either.

Older writers, and people who have worked for government agencies or even private corporations, may have been taught to write in “bureaucratese.” This is a special language that favors verbosity over conciseness, and big words over smaller, clearer ones. For example, rather than writing “to,” these writers will write “in order to” or “for the purpose of.” (I discussed putting too many words into the text in Part 30 and again in Part 42.) This kind of padding doesn’t reach the Henry James level but it was designed to hide meaning rather than reveal it. A motto for today’s writers should be “eschew obfuscation”—I mean, write clearly!

Diet Time

So how, as a reviewer, do you decide whether material is padding or not? Aye, there’s the rub. Sometimes it’s clear: Is the writer spending so much time on certain material that you lose track of the main characters and/or plot? Is the text just flat wordy? Do you find yourself getting bored? These are all signs of padding, and they’re places you need to flag for revision.

If you’re reading only part of a piece, especially a small part, padding can be harder to spot. What seems like a digression now may turn out to be critical later. The only way around this problem, other than asking the author, may be to read larger pieces of the work.

To help your writer trim the fat, discuss with her why you think the material in question doesn’t contribute to the overall work and how she could improve it by taking out the excess. You both have the same goal: to produce the best possible work. Removing padding is one of the best ways to achieve that.

Questions for You

Here are some things you can ask yourself as you review a piece.

  • Has the author provided too much backstory?
    • If so, what is excess, why, and how can he trim it down?
  • Is she spending too much time describing settings, people, or other scene details, or just moving characters from place to place?
    • If so, what did she spend too many words on?
    • Why do you think that was excessive?
    • How can she tighten up her descriptions without losing anything important?
  • Does the work contain material that doesn’t seem relevant to the story?
    • If so, why is it irrelevant? Might there be something you don’t know yet that will make it relevant?
  • Is the writing simply too wordy? Is he using multi-word phrases where a single word would do?
  • Is he using two-bit words where shorter, simpler ones would be better?

How do you spot padding? How do you help your writers remove it and make their stories better? Set a good example: keep your suggestions short and to the point in the comments box below.

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