The Art of Density

July 31, 2008
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Trudy's Promise Cover
Trudy's Promise
by Marcia Preston
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The Art of Density

by Marcia Preston

August 2008

In my former life as a magazine editor, I felt that cover letters were a waste of words. But the cover letter that accompanied David Kear’s short story was only six lines long, so I scanned it. His last sentence impaled me where I sat.

“Hope this finds you well,” he wrote. “The sun is shining in New York City, and if I stand up in my cube, I can almost see Ellis Island out the VP’s office window.”

Wow. If he can write like that, I thought, this story could be good.

Workshop leaders extol the virtues of writing dense sentences, but many writers seem to think density means packing on the vocabulary. Big words don’t make sentences luminous and potent, just hard to read.

“Dense writing makes use of both denotation (the specific objects or ideas represented by the words) and connotation . . .”
—
PRESTON

Dense writing makes use of both denotation (the specific objects or ideas represented by the words) and connotation (the implied and emotional content of the words). In the sentence from Kear’s cover letter, we get the mythic history of New York City from the mention of Ellis Island. The image of standing up to look out the VP’s office window conjures one of those sky-scraping towers where thousands of people labor in four-by-four cubicles. The sunshine gives us a wink of another world outside those tunneled office buildings – Central Park, green grass, a day in spring. And the fact that it’s the VP’s window, not his, which he can almost see out of, creates a rumble of loneliness, a hint of futility. It’s a wonderful world outside that window, yet we’re caught there with him in the canned air.

“Dense writing is greater than the sum of its words. ”
—PRESTON

Dense writing is greater than the sum of its words. It’s the hallmark of a writer who respects his craft and his readers’ intelligence. We achieve density by striving for it, but not straining. Clarity is job one; density is the fine tuning, the elegance. It’s the difference between wealth and real class.

“The reader smells those damp walls, hears the wind wail, feels that ceiling pressing down.”
—PRESTON

Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, is a master in the art of density. In a minor passage from that book, he illuminates a character’s shadowy past with the mention of time spent in a prison “where the wind whipped and the walls dripped and the ceiling hung too low.” The reader smells those damp walls, hears the wind wail, feels that ceiling pressing down. In less than a sentence, Lehane created a place you don’t want to be, a place that either hardens a man or breaks him.

Once you learn the art of density, you can apply it to everything you write. David Kear’s short story employed a completely different voice from his cover letter, but it was wonderful and I bought it. 

Author note:

Marcia Preston just returned from a trip to London to promote the U.K. release of her newest novel. Trudy’s Promise is the story of a young mother separated from her baby by the Berlin Wall. An AuthorLink review called the book “a time capsule of a turbulent and exciting time in history that should not be forgotten, one that, in Preston’s hands, will live long in memory.”

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