The Art of Subtle Writing

I am the last person to spout about how texting and its shortcuts are ruining the written word. I love my emojis and emoticons. I use them regularly, but I have to admit, they’ve made me lose sight of something very important to me. Subtle writing.

In texts and on social media, these shortcuts are what they are, part of the fun. It never occured to me that it would spill over into my writing, and it was able to because I wasn’t paying attention. As I go through this final edit with the extraordinary Penny Barber, I am relearning lessons I learned long ago. Write invisibly. Trust your reader. Trust your words.

Before Penny, I’d have witten that like this:

As I go through this final edit with the extraordinary Penny Barber, I am relearning lessons I learned long ago–Write invisibly. Trust your reader. Trust your words.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, yeah, there is. The mdash and the italics say, “I’m here! Look! Me! The author!” They’re author intrustion of an insidious kind, because they’ve become easy signposts to spot, and that’s the point. We spot them. It’s not writing invisibly, it’ s not trusting my reader, or my words. You got it just fine the first time, right? Exactly.

Many years ago, the incomparable Teresa Nielsen Hayden  told me I write invisibly. It’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever recieved as a writer. Writing invisibly lets the story shine brighter. It allows the reader to not only see it clearly, but to put her own spin on things, to hear the characters in her own way, to give her own voice to the words she is reading. That is a beautiful thing, and it’s what makes a good story into something extraordinary.

Just this morning, I commented on a comment a friend made on Facebook. To this pic he wrote:

my futer home 2

Clinton Harris Pretty sure a witch lives there already. Like the kind that bakes children into large pies.
To which I replied:
Terri-Lynne DeFino I’ll have to ask for her recipe. Mine’s dated. (wink emoticon)
Not uncommon on FB to use the emoticons when you want to make sure the person recieving the message knows what you were going for. But did my friend really need that winky-face to know I was kidding? And how much funnier the subtle version is. Subtle writing, the lost art I am finding again.
I am the Sparklequeen. That’s where it all started. Anyone who knows me understands I think in exclamation points, I sparkle, I smile, I throw my hands in the air like a muppet and shout. Putting my personality on the page began with sparkletext on LiveJournal, and turned into the overuse of semicolons, mdashes, italics and all the other indicators that have become habit. When Penny started taking out my exclamation points and semicolons, my heart shriveled. I didn’t want to lose my voice. But what I have come to understand in the days of this edit is my voice is clearer without all those things. The beauty of my writing isn’t inserting myself in there, it’s taking me out.
This entire post would have once been rife with exclamation points and italic text. Now, not so much. And not only have I learned this lesson, but it has sparked another we should all, readers and writers alike, never forget. The learning process never ends. Ever.


Filed under Writing is Life

13 responses to “The Art of Subtle Writing

  1. Great post, Terri. There’s nothing harder for an author than stepping out of the way of his/her characters. I struggle with it all the time, too. But I’d never made the connection between this and our modern modes of communication. Brilliant. 🙂 (Sorry, couldn’t resist the emoticon. But at least I avoided exclamation points! Oh, wait. Aaargh.)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this post. The neverending-ness of the learning process makes for a deep aliveness and awe-some sense of the present moment when we remember to pay attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Absolutely, Mary Beth. I realized that I shouldn’t have been so worried about whether or not I used a semicolon correctly, more than should I have been using them at all. Thanks for stopping by. And tweeting!

      I’m totally lame with the tweet-thing. I’m trying to thank people for favoriting and retweeting and whatever else I’m getting notifications for, but I think I’m failing. Wah!


  3. Thought provoking post, Terri.
    Just to play devil’s advocate, fiction writing and the modern day world of communicating via social media strike me as two different things. The overuse of certain punctuation etc. in fiction is a no-no that I certainly do agree with. Yet in “social” media, we’re getting this very unusual face-time with people via Facebook or Twitter. Some we do know–for real. Some we only know online. For the on-line friends, who don’t get to listen to my bubbling, exclamation filled chatter, the punctuation can change how they perceive everything I type.

    Am I looking for an excuse to keep using my exclamation points in social media? You betcha! My books is another matter.

    Either way, you’lll always be sparkly to me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Exactly, Sharon. I’m not giving up my emoticons or the stickers on FB, Probably not the ! either, but I do see how using them constantly on social media has spilled into my writing. Now that I’m aware, I am aware. Y’know?


  4. I think it’s easy to blur the two sometimes, when social media is such huge part of our lives. We take a break from our writing and go right to FB or Twitter where things are more relaxed and fun and EMOTICONS!!! 🙂 🙂 and back to our writing fresh with all those temptations at the tip of our fingers.

    You’ve got the hard part conquered, you’re aware!

    Geez, I wish I had a FB sticker I could send, LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  5. P.S. you need to use hashtags when you tweet. #amwriting is a established hashtag that is always trending. People go looking under that hashtag for articles on writing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      I love those stupid stickers!

      Ugh…Mary Beth tweeted this post with the #amwriting thing, but I had no idea what that even meant. Yeesh!


  6. Hi Terri

    For me, after a day at the typeface, it can be a relief to let myself go & employ a few smilies & exclamations points. (*Resists*) Emails to friends, texts & so forth are the IDEAL place for self-expression. In my stories I like to give my reader something to do & ‘trust’ her/him. (*Resists smiley*)

    In British English we rarely see the double dash but the single one is quite commonplace. Used wisely I find it useful. The semicolon is surely a matter of correct punctuation rather than overuse? (Spellcheck will rid us of most of the ill-conceived ones.) *Resists exclamation points*)

    As for italics, I use them for ‘thoughts’ as part of my visual voice & make no apologies. I rarely if ever use them for emphasis. I’ve always been a less is more writer so like to imagine myself a reasonably ‘invisible’ one.

    On the other hand…HEY GUYS!!! I HIT 40K OF MY NEW FIRST DRAFT YESTERDAY! LOOK AT ME GO!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Lots of love ♥ ♥ ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      The semicolon thing, and even the italics and mdashes, has a lot to do with the genre. Litfic allows for more creative use, structure and such, while genre fiction tends to be less inclined to use them.

      Woohoo! 40K! Go, woman, go!


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