Is good writing invisible?


Three years ago I wrote “7 Writing Maxims and What to Do with Them” on my blog, in which I take seven writing “rules” people throw around constantly and clear up what they actually mean and when to apply them.

Here are the maxims:

  1. Kill your darlings
  2. Show, don’t tell
  3. Write what you know
  4. Eliminate adverbs
  5. Avoid purple prose
  6. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.
  7. Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.

You’ve probably heard them all before. Go ahead and read what I have to say about them, but here’s an eighth maxim you might not have heard:

Good writing is invisible.

Here are some quotes and resources that say something similarly:

It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. —Elmore Leonard

A mature artist never calls attention to himself, and a wise artist never does anything merely because it breaks convention.—Robert McKee

Maybe writing is like typography:


Bad typography is everywhere. Good typography is invisible.—Craig Ward

Good writing is invisible…is it really?

You know what’s invisible?

Cliches. Nobody even remembers where they came from anymore because everybody uses them. They are the obvious, hive-mind choice.

Formal writing. When you’re taught how to write a paper or conduct professional correspondence, you’re learning academic or formal writing. Formal writing is a style of writing that is, by nature, anonymous. It is so far removed from personality, that passive voice is almost encouraged. (What’s passive voice? I just used it. “passive voice is encouraged” … by whom? Passive voice removes the active subject from the sentence. Rewritten, that sentence would be “Academics almost encourage…” or “Formal English usage almost encourages passive voice.”)

Creative writing is the opposite of formal writing. “VOICE” is the buzzword we often hear as writers. What’s my writing voice? How do I know if I have it? How do I create or establish or develop it?

Your voice is your personality. Every time you choose imagery or vocabulary, you are creating your voice. Every time you decide between using a comma, semicolon, period, or dash, you’re making voice choices. If you’re writing in first person, every word and simile or metaphor your narrator makes establishes that character’s voice.

Good voice is specific and interesting. It’s remarkable. If something is remarkable, it’s not invisible—otherwise it would be unremarkable, like dry text that doesn’t excite or compel the reader at all.

But you can swing to the opposite side of the spectrum, and that’s not good either. Bad writing is certainly “remarkable”—people talk about how bad it is. Now, maybe you think all press is good press. That’s true to a point. I’ve definitely read books and watched movies knowing they’d be bad, reveling in their awfulness.

So we’ve got completely “invisible” text on one side, the text people don’t even want to look at because it has zero personality. On the other side, we have hyper-“visible” text: gaudy, self-obsessed writing that draws attention to itself. This is the purple writing, the “Look at how clever I, the writer, am” writing.

If you have to err on one side, then go toward gaudy. Garish writing is easier for editors to tone down than lifeless writing is to animate. It’s easier for me to say, “Oh, hey, these metaphors your exposition is wearing clash with each other. Let’s take one away or rewrite it.” or “Maybe this description of your narrator needs a trim.” than for me to play Doctor Frankenstein and use questionable science ghostwriting bring your text to life.

Get an honest—not cruel, but not “too nice to tell you”—critique partner to tell you if your writing style feels too formal or academic or if it is a little too loud and loose.

  • If your writing is too formal, then read more contemporary fiction and poetry. Allow yourself to play. Write like a madman. Take a creative writing or improv class. Find your cliches and rewrite them to be fresh and personal to your narrator.
  • If your writing is too loose, ask critique partners or beta readers where you went too far and listen to where multiple feedback aligns. Make sure you’re using punctuation correctly and not too liberally. Ask yourself if you use metaphors or similes too often and if they are appropriate for your character’s worldview and experiences.

Good writing is visible. It’s the writer that should be invisible. Look back at the quotes from writers above. It’s the writer, the artist, who is invisible, not the writing itself.

Readers should be so immersed in your story, they won’t be constantly reminded of who brought them there. It’s your job as a writer to create experiences and emotions in your reader. It’s not your job to impress or annoy. You won’t be standing over their shoulder saying, “Do you like that metaphor there? I’m pretty proud of it. I came up with the idea when I was yadda yadda yadda.” You won’t be chucking semicolons and em-dashes at them saying “DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME.”

But when they stop reading and want to go on their next trip, then they’ll remember you and come back to you for more.

The same goes for pitching your novel—your story is more important than who you are or how or why you wrote it. I’m leading a pitching workshop starting on June 8th. Join at any time! For information on how you can save $50 or even win free tuition, check out this post on

Did you enjoy this post? Please share it with other writer friends!
Click to Tweet: How to strengthen voice (or know if you’re overdoing it) by @LaraEdits:

2 thoughts on “Is good writing invisible?

  1. The writer is invisible, I suppose that’s what I assumed when I read your title.
    I also think as ‘the writing is invisible’ when after you’ve read you don’t really remmeber the words, but you remember the feelings, the images in your head. But I suppose that yes, it goes back to what you say: the writer becomes invisible and the reader take up the story.


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