How dense is too dense?
March 16, 2014
As I am using the word dense in reference to writing I mean meaty, chocked full of big words, containing allusions to obscure things.
Years ago when I read John Updike’s early works I remember having the sense that I needed a dictionary at hand to make it through every page, almost each paragraph.
Yet, I knew when I came to his writing it would challenge me as a reader to stretch my mind, dig deep.
That was long before I attempted to write a novel.
Then along the way I read that writers should strive to write on about a sixth grade level.
When I first ran across that principle I was surprised, but as I thought about it I came to understand the thrust of it.
Sixth grade writing is the level of words we most often encounter in newspapers (remember them?), on TV, in movies. It is the parlance of conversation, the glib day to day environment in which we converse and conduct business. It tends to be snappy and to the point. Both of these qualities make sixth grade writing a natural for story telling.
So there we have the conundrum.
Does an author target a particular writing level and stick with it, or does he violate that principle and venture into more dense writing?
To me this isn’t a question about elitism in writing.
Rather it is about variations in style, perhaps within the same work.
When I look at my own writing over the last five years or so, I can see an evolution away from dense prose toward shorter, snappier writing. It isn’t a straight line development because in some of my earliest writing I tended to write bare sentences that emphasized action and contained cliffhangers.
I am thinking of this issue because of my current work in progress, a coming of age story about a seventeen year old boy set in the late 1960s when school desegregation came to East Texas.
Early on I have a scene that introduces the main character’s father at the family gathering for the noon Sunday meal.
Alone on the north side, his chair positioned mid-way on the long edge of the table, the back of his chair buttressed against the deep freezer, sat R. E. Grady, sullen, distracted, lording over the meal, disinterested in anyone’s affairs save his own, unwilling to disengage, to allow the conversation to flow unhindered, the frail filament tethering him to the phenomenal world like unto a single strand of a spider’s web. His strategic position at the table rendered him landlocked, ensuring that anything necessary to make his dining experience complete must be fetched for him.
That’s pretty dense writing.
Maybe the two sentences aren’t quite there yet, but they have a lot of content.
I could say, R.E. Grady laid his cowboy hat on the top of the deep freezer and sat down at the table.
But that wouldn’t be nearly so much fun for me as a writer.
What are your thoughts? How dense is too dense when it comes to writing?