How subtle are you?

Is subtlety in writing facing new challenges from social media? Or is social media providing us with new opportunities to be subtle?

Everyday I observe two different kinds of status updates on my news feed on Facebook. One kind comes directly to the point in as few words as possible, oftentimes using abbreviations I am too old to be cognizant of, filled with ellipses, dropping unnecessary words and letters wherever needed quite ruthlessly.

The other kind of status update is from older, more scholarly people used to traditional forms of writing who write whole paragraphs with punctuation marks and capitalizations intact. The comments on their posts show that the same is true of people who read them. It’s as if they’d like to write whole short essays if they didn’t run out of space.

Needless to say, the second kind of writing is out of place  and will not be the dominant trend on social media where the intent is communication. It doesn’t look like the younger generation will revert to that old mode even in places where there is opportunity to write a lot such as in emails.

As brevity becomes more and more the norm, it becomes harder and harder to accommodate introductory material or explanations or any kind of additives that add nuance to writing.  It could be a wrong subset of people I am looking at, but has anyone been missing subtlety in writing nowadays?

Within such a brief space as tweets and status updates allow, there is no choice but to come straight to the point and just say what needs to be said and be done with it.

Compare that with the old, handwritten letter. Each letter would take so much effort to write (find paper, write, seal, walk to the post office) that one would probably want to include some embellishments in the writing itself.

Ease of dispersion seems to have taken out some artistry out of the common person’s photographs too. As digital pictures have become so easy, many people put less and less care in selecting or captioning photographs as they would if they put them in a physical album. Hence, hundreds of photographs are sometimes uploaded without screening and one is sometimes made to feel that one has had a surfeit of smiling faces.

At the hands of the occasional interesting person, these tools that the digital camera and social media afford become an opportunity. You get the subtle humorous tweet or the picture that captures a moment. After all, brevity is the soul of wit and to be witty you need to be subtle.

But for the rest whose storehouse of wit isn’t efficient enough to be compressible, will the bare minimum of words as the standard mode of communication take away subtlety?

30 thoughts on “How subtle are you?”

  1. The two kinds of people you have talked about are like Test and One day international players in the game of Cricket. Those who play the longer format i.e test cricket well tend to play well in the shorter format too if necessary. But the vice-versa is not true! What a co-incidence!


  2. I am known for my ‘flowery’ speech. I hate ‘text-speech’ and try my hardest to make sure my post is correct in spelling, grammar and punctuation. I’m not as perfect as an English teacher, but I try. I also try to ‘paint a picture’ with words that allow my reader to actually see in their mind what I they are reading. Sometimes, when I read a very quick, undetailed post I skip over it. I need descriptions. I need that little extra time it takes to spell out words and describe what’s happening. It makes me feel like the person actually cares if someone reads it or not.


  3. I must be old because I love to write long, convoluted, explanatory blog posts–leaping down as many rabbit holes as pop up in the landscape of the piece. That being said, I’m giving in to the new zeitgeist and have created a new, second blog where I am posting flash fiction of 500 words or less. It is an exercise in brevity recognizing our need for fast, for concise, for streamlined. Which is better? Who knows! I enjoyed this post of yours. Keep on writing!


  4. Great post. It reminds me of the old saying, “I’d have written less if I had more time.” Brevity is a challenge for good writing. And good writing will include subtlety. So yes, I think subtlety will survive and maybe even get better.


  5. I think there still is room for subtlety in writing. Maybe not in a Facebook update, or a blog post, but in fiction? Absolutely, subtlety is a beautiful thing. Think of the old “rule,” Omit Needless Words. Not so new. 😀 In my fiction, I tend to write “short,” and even in our days of short attention spans, the novel I’m editing now is on the short side, at 70,000 words. Still many, many novels being published and purchased that are well above 100,000 words.

    Twitter? I’m trying, but it feels so unnatural to me. I would say I’m just too old–but I follow Margaret Atwood, and she is a Twitter queen. 🙂


    1. 🙂 Your words give me hope. I was starting to feel pretty depressed at araneus1’s eloquent comment below which concluded “Maybe subtle is a thing of the past, or possibly it’s a hemisphere thing.”


  6. Recently, I submitted a piece of fiction to a North American magazine. It made it past the first cull but was put aside at the final hurdle. The Editor was kind enough to include the comments of the final panel.
    It seemed that the story was ‘too subtle’. At least one of the final readers did not know what the story was about!
    It is possible that ‘subtle’ is not something that American readers can cope with?
    As a reader I like the writer to show me that he/she has faith in me, and that he/she trusts me to work a few things out for myself, without an excessive amount of detail ——– and this is the way I write. Maybe subtle is a thing of the past, or possibly it’s a hemisphere thing.


    1. I do sometimes feel that “American” culture lacks subtlety from the TV ads to the solid colours that people wear (as opposed to delicate prints I was more used to) to the street names that are often just numbers and all the new buildings that are so angular. The reason I put American in quotes is because it is really a global culture now and although I’ve been in the US a long time, I suspect I see this culture only from the margins and so miss the subtleties. Depressing as that thought is, it isn’t as depressing as thinking that subtlety is a thing of the past. That would be terrible!


  7. I quit Twitter partly because of the brevity of it all. I blog because I can write and express myself in written word, but I do find myself more and more deleting whole sentences because I am worried I will lose the reader’s interest. Am I being forced so I can keep more readership? I don’t know. I often think when I do delete something I wrote that it is because I do not need it anyway to make my point. This all seems like circular reasoning to me….


    1. Never delete anything because you think someone else will not like it. If, however, you don’t like it yourself after two/three days, you can edit it. If you have the patience to wait for 2days after finishing a post!


      1. The word ‘delete’ has made me realise that in this digital world I am quick to ‘trash’ most emails, but have many handwritten letters that I have kept for years. I don’t feel the need to ‘trash’ them and want to keep them as a physical and personal connection between me and the person who wrote the letter.


  8. I think you can be subtle and brief, but I also agree with Jamie in that maybe only certain people are capable of putting that combination together. Haiku is often subtle, yet it is a form of poetry that could almost fit in 140 chrs. I also think that the pressures required to compress a message into a smaller format will inspire good writers to become better. That will work to their benefit. If I enjoy following you on Twitter, I will probably read an “enormous” blog post of 800-1,000 words.


  9. I think brevity was always a virtue. More recently it’s become more apparent in social media but that’s just a pretense for what we always knew to be necessary. Say what we mean and mean what we say. And how many Facebook posters post multiple brief (and cryptic IMHO!) messages back and forth? So is that still considered brief? 🙂

    I for one struggle with brevity (can you tell?!!). As for subtlety and nuances, I don’t think it’s only a matter of brevity. I think one’s writing can be brief and nuanced or wordy and nuanced. It’s just a matter of words chosen, timing (especially in humor) and other factors.


  10. Considering subtlety in the overall scope of social media, I think it’s still alive and well; just not as prominent. When the options are to hook a reader with a sneaky, subtle hook, or lure them in with flashy language and explosive diction, I can understand a certain tendency to lean one way over the other. Character limits are a test of us all, I think.

    In response to your commentary on rampant abbreviations versus scholarly essay-like posts, I think it’s less of a subtle-or-club-over-the-head-obvious thing and more two separate subsets of communication. Love it or loathe it, the abbreviation-speak of the internet is another permutation of language, which is constantly evolving. Both types of writing serve a purpose, and both can be subtle. Someone can just as easily post something akin to a coded message in abbreviated text or a clear attack on another person (to name a couple examples) as they could do those things in the grammatically correct, every-letter-present method.

    As you pointed out, it does come down to the person holding the pen, but perhaps only to certain degrees. I would go so far as to suggest that all people are capable of subtlety, abbreviated or otherwise, simply on the basis that all people are capable of deceit. And what is subtlety if not a bit of slight-of-word deception? Sorry, I fear I’ve gotten a little rambly here.


    1. I agree with you. I should also say that a master craftsman of language should be able to speak in both brevity-speak and the expanded way. Perhaps the brains of youngsters will be better equipped to do that.


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