Episode 46: A Matter of Density

You can do a lot with a little. That’s the main reason I decided to spend my life prodding, poking, and pulling apart words. They’re versatile little things that obey funny rules and produce wholes that are much greater than the parts.

Besides word choice, though, you can also use structure to get your idea across and to help drive points home. This comes out in syntax (word order), figurative language (e.g., metaphors), and the under-appreciated density.

Think back to basic physics. The density of matter concerns how close together the atoms are. Far apart and you’ve got gas (that sounds really bad); close together and you’ve got a solid.

Words can work the same way—especially with paragraphs and sentences. Density impacts how the reader experiences what you’ve written. Your choices in the matter can also aid in readability.

When you’re writing and editing, consider these density issues:

Paragraph density:

Short paragraphs make the pace of the writing seem quicker. This is especially useful for blogs or online articles, as online readers tend to scan more than read. In fiction, short bursts of speech and short paragraphs can add an element of suspense or heightened drama.

Long paragraphs make the writing seem more scholarly or more introspective. I don’t recommend using this online, but for printed materials, dense paragraphs give the sense that the reader needs to weigh the words. In fiction, for example, longer paragraphs help establish the setting, give background, or reveal motivations.

Sentence density:

Marketers have been on a staccato sentence kick of late. It drives me crazy, but it does what they want. Short. sentences. make. points. one. word. at. a. time. Use short sentences together to give statements gravitas (and to annoy editors the world over).

Long sentences, on the other hand, make your words seem to flow freely. Avoid run-ons (unless you have a good reason—and there are very few), but long sentences are especially useful in lyrical descriptions of idyllic scenes.

Word density:

Word density has to do with the length of your words in close proximity. This is more often an issue in poetry, but prose can get some mileage out of it as well.

Big words close together slow the reader down because they take longer to process. So, if you are pontificating the consanguinity of Latinate archaisms, then you’ve done your job of bringing out the literary molasses.

Short common words do the opposite. They can make the reader zip along. Your sentence structure, however, can still, depending on what you do, slow the pace—if you have a number of breaks (e.g., all of the parentheticals I’ve crammed into this sentence). The key is to use short words without pauses.

Density is an element of writing that is often ignored, but it is the hallmark of a careful writer. Consider it in your own works.


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