Texting 101

18 Aug

By Sammy Bina


We live in a world of convenience, and the technology in contemporary books 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 work 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. Working at an agency that deals largely with women’s fiction and YA, I’ve seen my fair share of texting. Actually, I’d say roughly 80% of our YA submissions include 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 set!

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 writing. You’ve got to keep them hooked, and sometimes texting will either make a novel, or break it. Just be careful, and I wish you all the luck in the world!


Sammy Bina is a 5th year senior who just completed her Creative Writing degree. She is currently querying her adult dystopian romance, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, and is working on two new YA projects. She is an intern at the Elaine P. English Literary Agency in Washington DC. You can follow her on twitter or at her blog.


12 Responses to “Texting 101”

  1. Julie Eshbaugh August 18, 2010 at 12:33 AM #

    Great post, Sammy! So timely. I have texting in my MS and this post will help me evaluate their use. 🙂

    • samanthabina August 18, 2010 at 7:40 PM #

      I hope so, too, Julie! I’m sure yours is just fine 😀

  2. Julie Eshbaugh August 18, 2010 at 12:33 AM #

    Oh, and I forgot, great new pic!

    • samanthabina August 18, 2010 at 7:40 PM #

      Gracias! It was taken this weekend at Arlington Cemetery!

  3. Rowenna August 18, 2010 at 8:37 AM #

    Yay! I found one thing I don’t have to worry about writing historical fiction 🙂 But great post–I could see characters revealing interesting bits about themselves by how they text, if they text–an unintelligble texter could be kind of a funny side character. “I just got this text from Timmy.” “What does it say?” “H7 J8RQ!” But not funny if anyone has to actually know what he’s saying…

    • samanthabina August 18, 2010 at 7:41 PM #

      I agree – texting can really say a lot about a person. I just worry that authors are trying to tell EVERYTHING about a character through texting rather than giving an explanation that makes more sense.

  4. Vanessa August 18, 2010 at 9:26 AM #

    Great post Sammy! I totally agree; text speak is here to stay, but it shouldn’t make us scratch out heads with confusion as we read it!

    • jenn fitzgerald August 18, 2010 at 3:59 PM #

      Great post Sammy, I like the point about making sure textspeak is readable, no one wants to sit and decipher someone else’s abbreviations.

    • samanthabina August 18, 2010 at 7:42 PM #

      Sometimes text speak in manuscripts really boggles my mind. I’ve always wanted to be a secret agent, but not when it comes to decoding :-p

  5. Armith-Greenleaf August 20, 2010 at 12:28 AM #

    Hmm, I don’t really think texting is telling rather than showing. It’s like dialogue, only tagged differently and on another context. For that matter, done well it can spice things up and move the plot along.

    It’s a good thing you guys made a post about this, because normally literature (except historical, dystopian, sci-fi, etc.) keeps up with the current times–and technology defines ours. Computers, hybrid cars and texting are here to stay. 😛

  6. Aurora Blackguard August 20, 2010 at 11:33 AM #

    Gosh, I just realised it’s true: all (okay. well. most) writers have this INSANE need to text properly. With no shortening of words and with proper grammar. I CANNOT STAND short words like ‘c u’ or ‘r u’ or stuff like that. I get SO annoyed.

    Wouldn’t it be something if I tried to incorporate texting into a fantasy story? ;D

  7. MattBrook December 2, 2011 at 12:43 PM #

    Hey Sammy, GREAT article! I can see how it might be confusing with cryptic messaging, so I have tried to stay away from it. I am working on a YA High School Drama Novel, and there are some text messages used in different places, so I will be going back over them and making sure that they are relevant.

    My question is how do you format text messages in the manuscript, when you already use italics for internal dialogue? Bold? Should it be indented or not?

    Here is a snippet from my WIP:

    Cole watched as Rick faded into the woods.

    Man, what have I got myself into?

    Cole turned back toward the band room and grabbed his cell phone from his pocket. He flipped it open and looked at the text message from Emily.

    It read: Band practice over, ready to take U home. Where u @?

    Crap! She can’t see me walking from back here!

    Cole stopped walking and texted back: Feeling sick, walked home already.

    Cole waited.

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