Invisible Writing

Good writing is invisible.  Really. It’s true.

A well-written story draws the reader in so deeply he forgets he’s even reading. The words, and the paper or screen they’re written on, disappear. The reader loses track of time, doesn’t notice the pages flicking by under his fingers. Often, he even forgets where he is or what’s happening around him.  The real world fades as he watches, feels and shares the events taking place in the characters’ lives, the world they live in. He’s immersed, completely, in the illusion created by the pages, the writer.

We’ve all read those books. Or ones like it.

Maybe we’ve stopped to wonder how.  How did the book do that to me? What was it that transported me?  Was it the characters?  The plot?  The setting? It could be one or all of those things. Or a lot more. A lot of subtle triggers placed on the page, all conspiring to transport you to another world, another time.  The process of reading has been forgotten, rendered invisible by the spell woven into the pages.

Good writing doesn’t call attention to itself.  Its job – the writer’s job – is to make the reader forgets that he’s reading. The words are a medium, finely crafted to hypnotise and conjure the story into the reader’s mind. It can’t be cluttered with trips and traps. It can’t be clumsy. It, above all, must not get in the way of the story.

This is often the downfall of new, beginning writers. When a person first attempts creative writing, there’s a tendency to put as much into each page as possible.  Each sentence will be packed with descriptive words, phrases and imagery, presented in passive voice, using a long-winded, flabby style.  We probably all went through that phase. Blame school. Blame the English teacher who encouraged us all to expand our vocabulary by including every adjective and adverb possible into our exercise books. Blame the text books we had to read, the essays we had to write. Blame the exams, whose rigid formats demanded that our missives be chock-a-block with facts and figures, paraphrasing, regurgitation and quotes.

How do we move from that to making our writing the vehicle, not the journey? How do we make our words invisible?

The good news is it isn’t talent.  Anyone can write, and write well. Like riding a bike or learning to type, you start off slow, then practice. Before you know it, you can’t write any other way.

There are techniques, guidelines and rules which anyone can get used to using if they’re willing.  Learning to keep writing tight, grammar correct, voice active. Those and other tricks are skills any writer can employ to make their words fade into the background and the story appear in their readers’ minds. The writing is still there – that carries on at a subliminal level – but the pages, the individual words, the layout, sentence-structure, grammar and spelling are all forgotten. That’s invisible writing. It has to be in shape. Lean, clean and awesome. Even a bad book can get by if the writing’s done well.

Over the next few weeks I hope to put up some blogs covering the tips, tricks and techniques I’m talking about here. They’re there to be commented on, added to, improved by you.

I’m going to start right now. With the most basic of basics.


There’s no tip or trick to go with this one. Something’s either spelled right or wrong.  Wrong spellings tell an agent or publisher one thing about you. Amateur. As far as your reader is concerned, a misspelled word is unforgivable. Guaranteed to drag him out of the story. Illusion lost. Writing visible.

With spell check so ubiquitous these days, no one should misspell anything. No excuses. If your text editor throws a red line under one of your words, you’ve probably misspelled it. Check its suggestions, and if you disagree, or it has none, check other sources to make sure you have the right word.

Ensure your text editor is set to the right English version (UK or US), depending on your market, and make sure you know the differences.

If you write in longhand, use a dictionary or check online if you’re not sure how something is spelt.

Make sure you use the right version of the word. A problem for English, in particular. It’s a mongrel language with lots of root sources. This ultimately means we have such esoteric things as improper verbs and words which sound the same but mean different things, and which are usually spelled slightly differently. Make sure you know the difference. It’s not two hard to get too words muddled up. (See what I mean?)

Made up words/names/places should always be spelled consistently throughout your work. If you use the word regularly, add it to your spell-checker’s library so you don’t forget how you’ve chosen to spell it, or create a list with a short description – the start of your glossary.

Please add your own spelling issues (or solutions) to the discussion. The more tips and tricks we have, the better.


The Apostrophe

When to use, where to use and what does it do?

How can such a little thing cause so many people such headaches?  The apostrophe confuses, annoys and intimidates.

Most people don’t have a problem with it when it replaces missing letters such as the shortening for can’t from cannot. That one’s easy.  The problem arises with its other use – possession.

Used in this way, the apostrophe usually appears in the company of an ‘s’.

If, in a sentence, something belongs to something else, an apostrophe and an ‘s’ are called for. The problem arises because there’s often confusion about whether the apostrophe comes before or after the ‘s’ and whether to add an ‘s’ or use one that’s already there.

The answer is fairly simple. If the ‘possessee’ is singular (one swan), the apostrophe comes before the ‘s’, which needs adding.  (A swan’s neck.) If plural (two swans) the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’. (The swans’ necks).

That’s it.  The only exceptions are sometimes, in a name, when denoting that something belongs to someone whose name ends in ‘s’ (like Davies).  You wouldn’t break that person’s name apart to put the apostrophe in, and it’s clumsy to add another ‘s’ (Mr Davies’s car), so you often see the apostrophe after the ‘s’, even though the possessee is singular (Mr Davies’ car).

The other exception is it’s. In this case the apostrophe has one use and it’s nothing to do with possession, even if the ‘it’ possesses something. The apostrophe here is always a shortening from ‘it is’. (It’s cold). When an ‘it’ possesses something, there’s never an apostrophe. (The cat has lost its fur).

If you have any more to add to the apostrophe discussion, or have a grammatical ‘criminal’ you want brought to justice, comment, or send me an email/posting.

Martine Lillycrop




2 thoughts on “Invisible Writing

  1. Check out Grammar Girl for answers to all grammar issues – she’s awesome.

    And I don’t think you have to be writing longhand to have a dictionary. Is there a writer who doesn’t own a dictionary!? Surely not.

    But language isn’t always there to carry a story. It depends what kind of fiction you’re writing. Is it plot driven, or experimental/literary fiction? James Joyce’s Ulysses focuses on language, not story and his language does hinder and trip you up. It makes you think. Faulkner barely uses paragraphs.

    It’s essential to know and understand the rules, but I don’t think story always has to come first. Think about your goal as a writer and use language and its rules, or break them, appropriately.


    • Good link, Chella. Thanks. 🙂

      Yes, agreed. Experimental writing is challenging, and not for the faint-hearted, and I think you have to have a deep grasp of language and its rules before you can pull it off successfully. Or even read it successfully. 😉

      Even with less radical writing, if the style incorporates a distinct ‘voice’ the writer can get away with breaking the rules – particularly with a stream of consciousness narrative – provided the style is consistent. It can be off-putting if the style is so ‘out there’ the narrative is ambiguous or indecipherable.

      When does it stop being art and just becomes a mess? Breaking the rules to accommodate style is great, provided the style has its own set of rules to adhere to. Or your reader is set truly adrift.

      There are changes in fashion within writing, too. 19th C books have a style very different to modern books and can take a bit of getting used to. That doesn’t even tip a wink at the fact that language is subject to evolution!

      The point about writing invisibly, though, is not to challenge the reader, but draw them into the story.


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