Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.
On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.
Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.
For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.
A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his own dictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found in Essays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).
I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.
On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)
The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).
Density isn’t just a property of non-fiction.
A randomly opened page of any (literary fiction) book by John Banville displays a dense descriptive style (p.33 of Birchwood).
The sun shone calmly on the garden, except in the corner by the swing where daffodils blazed like trumpetblasts. Josie was polishing an upstairs window, and the glass, awash with sky, shivered and billowed under the sweep of her cloth.
While a randomly opened page of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles displays a loose descriptive style (p.19).
The chimney sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of the trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch, only to fly away at dawn in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flashes of dirt, undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent cawing and musty yellow streaks of light.
Neither is better or worse, they are simply different (in fact, I find both to be lovely).
Density isn’t just a property of literary fiction. Take a few polar opposites within fiction in general.
First, on the loose side there’s pulp fiction’s royalty, Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore. In particular, here’s a line from Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood (the story within the story). Note how, in contrast to the E. B. White quote, the polysyndeton uses and four out of five times not to state a new idea but to list another item similar to its predecessor (marked in bold).
The first anyone in the workshop knew about this was when the door of Moe’s office slammed open and the startlingly loud and crackling rendition of “Ride of the Valkyries” blasted out from within. Framed in the doorway with tears in his eyes and the crumpled letter in his hand, Moe stood dramatically with all eyes turned towards him. He was still wearing the set of artificial breasts. Almost inaudible above the rising strains of Wagner swelling behind him, he spoke, with so much hurt and outrage and offended dignity fighting for possession of his voice that the end result was almost toneless.
“Fred Motz has had carnal knowledge of my wife Beatrice for the past two years.”
Next, neither too dense, nor too loose—the water between the solid and the gaseous, stylistically speaking—would be Raymond Chandler’s hard-boild crime novel The Big Sleep.
She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business men’s lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.
Last, at the extremely dense end (think Pb, lead), Neal Stephenson’s speculative fiction Anathem. This is how the book begins.
Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or mystical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anathem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along).
As the quotes show, on a professional, established (and critically acclaimed) level density of style allows for variation in subject matter, form, genre, and overall style without much relation to the quality of the text. However, density also extends to the writings of any aspiring author, and there I think it is largely a measure of quality.
To put it bluntly: if most members of a target audience don’t know whether the text is upside up or whether they should first run it through decrypting software—as it’s too dense (haphazardly verbose or hyper-innovative)—they’ll give up because the author’s name lacks cachet. Likewise, if the plot and the pages are so predictable the reader could make loose-leaf soup out of them and feel none the worse for it. Those are the extremes, but ultimately a breakout text has to aim at the density sweet spot of its audience.
In practice this means steering the course between brevity and its nonchalant counterpart. Put differently, omit needless words (and thoughts) must be balanced with another piece of equally sensible advice from the famed Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage:
The obvious is better than its obvious avoidance.
Style cannot be learned, but must be brought out and burnished—chisel, sandpaper, diamond dust, all the way down to the spit-and-rub. Language guides can be good mentors in the chisel stage, especially when seasoned with choice authorial idiosyncrasies that exhibit style. That’s two in one: tell me, then show me how you do it. I’ll imitate the bits I like, the rest I’ll make up.
Strunk & White has been around on this blog for a while now, and I still think their advice on writing and style is most relevant. But it’s time for me to study the British “equivalent”. In my next post I’ll pull horses, frying pans, and battered ornaments straight out of Fowler’s.
This post introduces a series about the second (1968) edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.
- Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance