Black space: improving writing by increasing lexical density

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Style … is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament… ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

On the Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

So, what is lexical density? Basically, all texts are made up of lexical words which carry meaning (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) and grammatical words which act as the glue which hold the lexical words in place (Conjunctions, prepositions, articles, auxiliary verbs, some adverbs, determiners, and interjections.) It is the lexical words that explain information. As a general rule texts with lots of lexical words tend to be specialised academic texts only comprehensible to well-educated folk in specific fields. Low numbers of lexical words result in easy-to-understand writing. And if the number of lexical words is too low, writing becomes meaningless and vague.

For the type of academic writing pupils need to do in schools, it’s terribly useful to teach nominalisation. Kerry Pulleyn has written an excellent blog post on how you could go about this. Nominalisation is the process of turning verbs into nouns; actions into concepts and ideas. There’s a hell of a lot of meaning packed into nominalised terms and it’s no surprise that nominalisation features  heavily in lexically dense, academic texts.

In the essential guide to great writing, The Elements of Style, master rhetoricians William Strunk and EB White offer this advice:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he should avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

There are a great many stock phrases in general use which making writing baggy and add extraneous grammatical garbage to writing. Strunk reserves special ire for the stock phrase “the fact that”. While editing my new book I found about 20 instance of this phrase, which I promptly disposed of.

When we teach students to write academic essays, we give them scaffolds that contain stock phrases. These phrases are the glue that hold their thoughts together and provide their work with structure. But often, the phrases become redundant. Students continue to use them long after their usefulness has been exhausted. Consider such gems as “The first point I am making is…” or, “The writer is using the phrase “___” because…” These can be essential as students first learn the basics of essay writing but quickly become clunky with over use. It’s very difficult to know when and how to remove this scaffolding and it sometimes isn’t until A level that it becomes clear just how bad at writing otherwise able students can be.

What’s the solution? Part of the philosophy (if that’s not too grand a term) of Slow Writing is that students don’t write, they draft. And if you draft, there’s an assumption you will redraft. The idea of using ‘black space’ can after a conversation with Kay Tinsley - she told me that part of her approach to redrafting written work was to get students to use a marker to black out what she calls ‘the redundant chunk’. This immediately struck me as good advice. Stephen King says in On Writing that a second draft should be 20% shorter than a first draft.

Consider this extract from a student’s essay on Julius Caesar:

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Here it is again after the student has blacked out anything that isn’t essential:

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And here it is when the paragraph has been redrafted:

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This last example has greater lexical density, is more economical, and expresses thoughts with more sophistication. Less is more. Is it work more marks? Possibly. But this isn’t the point: it’s a better piece of writing.

Another cause of unnecessary grammatical words is the presentation of a complex idea as a series of single sentences. Strunk & White have this great example of a piece of writing about Macbeth:

Macbeth was very ambitious. This lead him to wish to be king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (55 words)

Let’s black out all the grammatical words and see what’s left:

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By combining some of these sentences and using nominalised terms we can increase the lexical density of the text while reducing the word count:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realised the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words)

And that’s it: lexical density in action. The power comes not only from students actively blacking out their own scaffolding, the acres of black helps them to see just how much of what they write is unnecessary. What’s more, it’s a very efficient way to give feedback. Embrace the power of Black Space.

Related posts

The art of beautifully crafted sentences
Thinking like a writer

15 Responses to Black space: improving writing by increasing lexical density

  1. Dan Lyndon says:

    Firstly can I thank you so much for taking the time to write this blog, it really is much appreciated – or maybe I should have nominalised and written about my ‘appreciation’!

    I have been teaching History for nearly 20 years and although I have risen to the ranks of AST and have been training / mentoring History teachers for half that time I really feel that it is only in the last year that I have finally got closer to understanding what makes an effective piece of (historical) writing. Last year I was trained on the LiLAC course (Language in Learning Across the Curriculum) and this year I became a trainer for the course hence my request for support in teaching about lexical density. I am now exploring a range of ways in which the explicit teaching of literacy / language skills can significantly improve the quality of writing in my History classroom and I have to say I’m very excited about it! Last week I used the sentence escalator with my year 10s and now I’m going to get them exploring black space, so once again thank you for your fantastic blog and generous support.

  2. […] via Black space: improving writing by increasing lexical density | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  3. Jane says:

    A thoughtful post. Many thanks for sharing. The thing that saddens me is that with the new system of exams we face then these valuable skills will get neglected.

    • David Didau says:

      You think? With the increase in ‘spag’ marks across subjects and the 20% in new Language GCSE this stuff is only going to become more valuable, surely?

      • Jane says:

        I agree that the focus on the Spag marks are important and welcome this. I was really thinking of drafting skills. With a move away from coursework I feel that the skills of drafting and redrafting are left behind. This makes it all the more difficult for students to develop these skills after GCSE.

  4. Tom C says:

    This is SUCH a useful blog for helping improve the formality of students’ writing – thanks David. Your tips about helping students construct sentences more effectively and write in a way that ‘sounds like an essay’ have been a real wake-up call to me as a first-term NQT, and I’m grateful for you for posting them.

    I’m currently trying to work out how to integrate these into longer-term schemes of work – so many great ideas, so little time!

    • David Didau says:

      Thank you Tom

      My top tip on integrating all this into schemes of work is to ensure that we use the rather unfashionable teaching sequence for writing. This requires that we deconstruct high quality, challenging texts, model the process of creating them, scaffold the creation process using techniques like Slow Writing and then allow plenty of time for deliberate practice.

  5. […] Style … is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament… ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your…  […]

  6. […] process carefully. Some students may need help with concision. David Didau’s post this week – here – on encouraging his students to cut 20% of the content is a great strategy. Others struggle […]

  7. I like this. Black space for redundancy, white space for increasing absorption.

  8. […] with writing frames; the scaffolding is hard to remove. You can go through the process of using Black Space to increase lexical density, but it’s far simple and much more straightforward to provide the scaffolding at the point of […]

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