Friday, December 1, 2017

Feedback Says My Writing Is "Dense"--What Does This Mean and What Can I Do About It?

A student in my online classes is writing a futuristic thriller about memory loss.  I've enjoyed reading her chapters in class and so have her classmates.  But recently she emailed me about some feedback she'd received that she didn't understand.  She said she couldn't find much information about online, so she was hoping I could help her with what to do with the comments.
Readers have told her that her writing can be dense and hard to get into.  As a thriller writer--and someone who is very comfortable with action scenes--this confused her.  "For my book to be accessible I want to make it as quick and easy to read as possible," she told me.   "I've tried to make it fast paced because that grabs people's attention."

She's also tried to minimize description because, she says, "when it's done poorly it slows people down," and I agree. 

So why do some readers say that her writing is dense?

Dense, by the way, doesn't mean stupid, slow, not getting it, or any of the other slurs we might have used (or still use).  In writing lingo, it refers to writing that feels thick to the reader, difficult to absorb.  Dense writing can appear in a couple of ways.

1.  When a piece of writing uses a lot of big words or complicated terms--think legal language or tax forms--it can read "dense" to us.  It takes work to figure out what the writer is trying to communicate.  I once read an article about what happens in the brain when we repeatedly encounter words we don't know or writing that feels too complex to easily understand or makes us work too hard.  The brain literally turns off.  It stops absorbing meaning, or even trying to.  This can even occur when we're reading and a word pops up that we don't know.  Our brains just say, "Nope," and begin right then to disconnect from the emotional impact of the writing.  Imagine a whole paragraph like this, or a page or two.  Not a pretty sight.  This is dense language.  Language, or word choice, that feels unnecessarily complex.

One of my students years ago was a published poet.  He was trying his first novel.  He brought his love for words, especially complicated, poetic words, into his fiction.  At first it was interesting.  Then he began getting feedback from the class (and me) to ease up on the love of language.  Stop trying to make everything beautiful and intense and interesting, and make sure the words he chose actually served the story.

He backed off a bit from the poetry, chose simpler words and structure, and the story blossomed.  Once the story was intact and working, he could go back in and add his poetry.  It was a big wake-up call for him and changed his writing.

Another way dense writing appears is too packed with events or information in too small a space.  One editor I know calls this rat-ta-tat-tat writing.  This happens, then this happens, then this happens with nary a pause for a breath.  If you write like this, and my student who posed the initial question for this blog article might, your goal is to keep things moving fast.  But realize that readers need time to actually "see" what's happening and "feel" the character's reaction. 

They need what's called beats.  Beats are the small pauses between events or dialogue lines that allow us to absorb the meaning.  Beats are a big part of screenwriting, and novelists and memoirists are learning to use them too.  When I add beats, I can do it intuitively, for the most part--although we are all most blind to our own writing.  But if I can't, I grab a favorite published book and read a page aloud to get a feel for where those pauses, those beats, occur.  Then I read a page of my own writing and see if I can sense where the pauses should occur.

Nonstop action isn't all that fun to read, truthfully.  After a while, it's just rat-ta-tat-tat.  And who needs that.

2.  Dense can also have to do with the visual appearance of paragraphs and sentences on the page.  Dense prose means too little white space.  Novelist Alexander Chee has a great technique for seeing this:  print out a chapter and placing the pages end to end, then squint to see the balance of text and white space. 

If you see pages with thick chunks of text, see if you can break them up.  Conversely, if there are lots of one-line paragraphs, consider adding beats to create some density. 

It all comes down to a perfect balance.