Texting 101

We live in a world of convenience, and the technology in contemporary novels obviously reflects that. Now characters have laptops instead of typewriters, and Prada suits instead of hoop skirts. We fly on planes instead of taking the stage, and we write about cell phones instead of rotary phones or telegrams.

Which leads me to today’s topic! How to use text speak/text messaging in your manuscript.

With the emergence of texting over the last few years, it’s finally begun to weave its way into contemporary literature. And when done right, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Even if you don’t text, you undoubtedly know what it is, and know your readers will, too. It’s almost expected, these days, that you include modern conveniences in your story. As a writer, what you have to be careful of is how you weave these things into your story.

Though text messaging is far more prevalent in YA novels than it is in the varying adult genres, it’s still become a trend that I feel needs to be addressed. When I worked at EPE last summer, dealing largely with women’s fiction and YA, I saw my fair share of texting. Actually, I’d say roughly 80% of our YA submissions included text messages in one form or another, be it an actual text message, or just a reference. Which is not to say you should take them out; I’ve seen a fair amount of text messages in recently published fiction. The thing is, those authors know exactly how to slip texting into their stories in an unobtrusive and easy to understand manner. Text messages are woven in seamlessly, and there is, more or less, a purpose for doing it. They’re also done in such a way that the reader isn’t left guessing as to the text’s meaning.

This, I find, tends to be the biggest problem when a writer decides to include text messaging in their story. There have been numerous times where I’ve spent a good 20 to 30 minutes trying to decipher all of the text messages an author has included in their manuscript. Words have been made up, or shortened to such an extent that they’re unrecognizable. In one instance, I thought the text messages were actually a code the reader was supposed to crack in order for things to be fully explained. I was disappointed to eventually find out this wasn’t the case at all – it was just a failed attempt at including text speak in their manuscript.

Now, I’ll be the first person to admit that I text people more often than I call. And maybe being a writer is the reason I still write everything out and use proper punctuation. That isn’t to say I expect everyone else to do it, but texting in person and texting on the page are two very different monsters. In a book, text speak needs to be toned down and easy to understand. If a reader has to sit and figure out what’s being said, there’s the chance they might just give up and put your book down. Or skip over those sections entirely and miss valuable information you could have included elsewhere. I’ve found that when I get hung up on what a text message is supposed to say, I forget that I’m actually reading a book. I feel like I’m some kind of secret agent trying to decipher codes, and I’m sure that was never the author’s intention. Sometimes I can figure out what’s being said, and sometimes I can’t. In both cases, if I have to actually think that hard about it, I’ll probably put the book down.

That being said, I think there are plenty of books that pull off texting very well. Just keep the following in mind when adding texts to your own manuscript, and I think you’ll be okay:

1. Things like “How r u?” “C u l8r,” and “I’ll c u 2morrow” are things easily understood by a reader. “W@ up d00d adsouyasdh” is not.
2. Is there a purpose behind using text messages? Could the information be incorporated in another (better) way? If so, it’s probably best to go that route.
3. If your characters are in the same room and could freely speak to one another, don’t resort to a conversation through text messages. Readers will always prefer actual dialogue to a text message.
4. One of the main rules of writing is to show, not tell. Texting is strictly telling, so you want to keep it to a minimum.
5. Keep it consistent. If you’re going to use text speak throughout your novel, spell everything the same way.
6. There should never be more text speak than legitimate writing. Never.

I firmly believe text messaging in contemporary fiction is something that’s here to stay, regardless of whether readers like it or not. So your job, as the writer, is to make sure you’ve included text messages in a way that makes sense, that they’re easy to understand, and won’t pull the reader away from your book’s stellar plot. You’ve got to keep them hooked, and sometimes texting will either make a novel, or break it.

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2 thoughts on “Texting 101

  1. I also write everything out when I text! Only for the purpose of not wasting two texts when I could squeeze the message in one did I start using numbers (instead of spelling them out, like “two”), “u” instead of “you”, or dropping some periods and apostrophes here and there.

    Making texts understandable in fiction seems necessary to me. On the other hand, I can’t think of texts without thinking of what they tell of the people who write them (well, just like letters do, actually)… Using correct spelling and syntax denote a certain type of personality and relationship with writing, like you said. Someone less “intellectual” or finicky will write in a more coded/random manner, and maybe your eccentric character will be the one to send nonsensical/undecipherable texts that other characters will struggle to understand!

  2. I totally agree — the way a person texts says a lot about their character. But I still think it can be diversified and still make sense. I still find myself trying to decipher my friends’ texts, but at least then I can call them to clarify. If it’s in a book, no can do. Texting in fiction is just something that needs to be handled very carefully!

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