Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Padding Experiment

In an effort to improve my writing, I've been reading "with purpose" quite a lot lately.  I've been going through stories of all lengths keeping track of how the author went from point A to point B to point C.  Even if you're not a writer yourself, it's a very interesting study; especially for books that have clever twists and turns in them.  How did I not expect that?  Yet, at the same time, it makes perfect sense.

I've always been a concise writer.  It's just how my brain functions.  But as I work on more and more short stories, I've become acutely aware of the concept of "padding."  For a short story writer, padding is the worst possible offense.  Adding extra words just for the sake of adding words can totally ruin a story belonging to a genre that relies on intense reactions to situations.

In a novel, padding is not only an accepted practice, but also highly encouraged.  "I just loved the beautiful, in-depth descriptions of the elfin culture.  The minute detail of their day-to-day lives pulled me into their world."  Is that minute detail really necessary?  Not really.  Does it add anything to the novel?  Arguable.

Which is why I propose all of you to accept the challenge of "The Padding Experiment."  Now, I'm not trying to turn everyone into cynical jerks.  I enjoy beautiful descriptions just as much as the next person.  It's just an intellectual exercise.  While reading the next book you pick up, just detach yourself every once in awhile and analyze the scene or dialog exchange you just read.  How much of it was really necessary?  What did it add to the novel?  Could that particular scene have been described in just a few words?  Or was the length needed?

With today's reading "world" obsessed over word count, I find this is a very eye-opening experiment.  People won't buy books because they're not a certain number of words long.  Publishers won't publish stories because they're not a certain length.  The list goes on.  Point being, what are all those words really saying?

6 comments:

  1. I'll take padding from Stephen King and Clive BArker any day in their short stories... its part of the reason I enjoy reading them. But they are established authors and are entitled to more leeway. As a new author, you are right- every word must have a purpose which furthers the story.

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  2. It's not even just descriptions. Descriptions can add to the mood. I'm talking about actual conversation loops. Where they repeat the same concept two or three times.

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  3. I was never really very good at padding, which is why I suspect I was drawn towards the shorter forms of story telling.

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  4. Me either. I can't tell you how many times I've started a story with the intention of making it novella length only to later think "You know what? This would be way better as a short story."

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  5. I have to say that I prefer lean writing. I'm editing something at the moment and many of the changes are taking words out!

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  6. I teach all my students to write concisely. It is fair to say that everyone uses to many words. To teach this, I often show my high school students several passages from Hemmingway, and we discuss how he is able to create such vivid descriptions with such few words.

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