A cushion with the right amount of stuffing is comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable. By contrast, an overstuffed one is hard, uncomfortable and soon discarded. Such is the same with an overstuffed novel or piece of writing. Too much waffle, too much description, too much padding makes for a boring, slow read and one that is soon thrown to the floor.
So what constitutes padding? The unnecessary inclusion of information that is neither relevant nor pertaining to the plot; using four or five words when one or two can convey the same; repetitive phrases and actions; over-use of weak adjectives and adverbs added for their own sake, and sentence after sentence of superfluous description, more often than not included to meet a required word count that soon becomes obvious to the reader.
Some description is important and valuable; it helps set the scene, the time, the place of any action, but all too often so much is said it starts to read like a travelogue, a shopping list or, that having done your research, you have included everything you learnt to show how much you know about your subject, but including the right amount is an art. The author Rosie Thomas excels in this, bringing her stories, be it on Mount Everest or in a bazaar in Cairo, to life by drip feeding enough to give the reader a sense of smell, sound, sight, touch, and taste of her locations without bombarding us with paragraphs reading like a scenic tour. At the opposite end of the spectrum, novelist Nora Roberts includes exceedingly little description, yet the reader can fully imagine the surroundings of her characters. And that is what good description should do: hint at enough to allow the reader to use their imagination and see things in their own mind’s eye.
We don’t need to know the colour of someone’s hair or eyes every time they are mentioned. Nor do we need to know the name and life story of minor characters, or read every mundane action in getting a character from a to b, be it getting out of a chair to go to the window, climbing into a taxi and getting out at the other end or paying a restaurant bill. We know how these things are done.
The same is true in dialogue. The pleasantries of greetings and goodbyes are not needed, nor is discussion about the weather, the children, the day at the office or anything else if it is not required to move the plot along or show a character’s behaviour, mood or thinking. Dialogue should be brief, short sentences and there for a reason. It doesn’t need to mimic everyday language.
A well written piece should be concise, each word being the right word, earning its place to instil emotion or trigger a memory, but most of all it should entertain and enlighten and able to hold the reader’s interest to the end.