Have you ever heard someone absolutely butcher an old joke, one that you are familiar with and found funny in the past? They’ve gone off track. They took too long. They had trouble finding appropriate words, and keeping the attention of the listener. The listener ran out of patience.
Dense prose is like a well-written joke. There’s not a word out of place, and not a word wasted. There will not be one inappropriate word choice. Each word chosen must be the perfect one for the job. Second best isn’t good enough. There are no ‘slacker’ words that don’t do anything. Every word has its job to do and it must pull its own weight or out it goes. The words have to be in exactly the right place.
That sounds so obvious, yet I often move words around in a sentence.
Here’s an example of dense prose:
John walked down the corridor, his leaden footsteps ringing hollow, echoing around and around as he went.
That one has some problems, although it’s okay up to a point.
Leaden footsteps rang in the hallway. His heart heavy with the news, John reached Mary’s room.
The second example just did a whole lot more work, didn’t it? It’s still a little shorter than the first one. Is ‘rang’ okay, or should we substitute ‘echoed?’ I like it either way.
Here is an example from an unpublished story, ‘Leap of Faith.’ It’s about a reconnaissance team in special survival suits jumping out of spaceships during time of war. While this could be augmented with more detail, it’s hard to see how it could get any shorter.
It was a leap of faith every time they did it. Everyone knew the odds, and the statistics didn’t lie. People said that when you lost the fear, it was time to quit. Jason Bridger had passed that point a long time ago. Now, he just felt resignation, a kind of fatalism. He no longer cared if he lived or died. While his body still wanted to live and reacted just as it should, his mind was cold and jaded.
The secret to dense prose is good editing. Another secret to dense prose is to be specific. Let’s edit the short piece above. We’ll look out through the editor’s eyes for a second.
'It was a leap of faith every time they did it.’
Did what? What were they doing? –ed.
'It was a leap of faith every time they jumped.’
Oh, okay, so they’re jumping, then? –ed.
It was a leap of faith every time they jumped. They all knew the odds. The statistics didn’t lie. People said that when you lost the fear, it was time to quit. Jason Bridger had passed that point a long time ago. Now, he felt resignation, a kind of fatalism. He no longer cared if he lived or died. His body still wanted to live and reacted like any organism should, but his mind was cold and jaded.
The author has made changes. He’s taken out some words and added some somewhere else. Now in the opinion of the average reader, which version is more ‘dense?’ The first example is eighty words and the second seventy-eight. It must be denser. I said exactly the same thing, I said it better, and I saved two words.