In September 2013, I was asked to write a piece for FHM on the Dos and Don'ts of text-flirting, and what the great writers had to say. Here's the piece in full:
For a flirty text how important is brevity? How long is the ideal length?
Try too hard, she'll think you desperate. Don't try hard enough, she'll think you weak. Say too much and you'll bore her, joke too much and she'll think you're a clown. And always remember, as Shakespeare said,
Brevity is the soul of wit.
So anything longer than a Tweet (140 characters) is too long. This is a wooing, not PhD thesis. Be brief, simple, to the point. Too many relationships start, continue and explode with texts. A text message is the means to the end - being in the same room together.
How best to make yourself seem intriguing? What sort of language is best to use?
Speak low if you speak love
The modern meaning of 'low' is gently, briefly, and with humility. From the heart, in other words. You'll never know how far a simple line like
You looked beautiful today
will take you until you try it. And definitely don't brag about yourself along the
It's hard to be humble when you're as great as me
kind of line. It'll get you ignored faster than junkmail.
And what sort of language is best to avoid?
As Lord Byron once wrote
So, we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
Translation - never text late at night, and certainly not drunk. And do NOT take Charles Bukowski's advice to elicit a response:
If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.
Is it in fact better to send texts which you HAVEN'T poured over for hours? If the text seems like the result of hard work does that put people off?
I've spent what seemed like hours over how to phrase an initial text to a woman I like:
Hey, how're you?
Hey how are you?! X
Hey, how's it going? :-)
Hey, how's it going? :-)
Hey, howzit? x
Hi, I want to see you!!! XXX
One kiss or none? Two or one big X? A smiley like :) or like :-) ?
Irony is hard to get across without a voice backing it up, and sarcasm is practically impossible. Avoid both. Leave out the smileys, drop the howzit and goin' type slang, never use more multiple exclamation marks, and show willing with a final 'x'. So don't think too long or too hard, and try not to follow Oscar Wilde's poetic technique:
I worked all day on a poem. In the morning I added a comma. In the afternoon I took it out again.
Spending an hour on a three word response will end with her thinking you're mad or ignoring her.
Oh, and for goodness sakes, make sure you haven't left in any spelling mistakes. Women want men to love not boys to teach.
Is it wrong to overload your flirty texts with adjectives? Will it make the writing seem clumsy?
Women like to be complimented, but take advice again from our Bard Shakespeare:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind
So I probably wouldn't take Edmund Spenser's line, making actual make direct reference to your lady's assets. Lips, breasts and, indeed, paps should probably be left out.
Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest like to a bowle of creame vncrudded,
Her paps lyke lyllies budded,
Direct, and to the point seems best, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge tried:
You lie in all my many Thoughts, like Light
This sounds basic, but it's important: how to write something romantic? Something that a girl would actually think was attractive and not creepy/lame? What have the great romantic writers in the past shown us with regards to manipulating (in the nicest possible way) the hearts of the opposite sex.
Surprise and romance is key. I'm a romantic, and while some women can be surprised by what is generally considered a long-dead tradition, a touch of direct sweetness can go a long way. A lot of writers played hard, fast and loud. But softly softly catchee. As the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell once wrote:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
That said, it didn't stop Shakespeare. He wrote a pretty desperate run of 17 sonnets trying to convince someone to procreate, arguing it would be a sin for his love's beauty not to continue:
Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another
Don't be lewd, rude, or be too forward (save that for after you've taken each other's clothes off). Whatever you say, the response you're looking for is 'Ah' rather than 'Ew!'
The thing that everyone wants to avoid in texts is sounding desperate. But is there a GOOD way to express desperation? If you're desperate to see someone, and you express it in an appropriate way, can it actually be quite attractive?
Don't be like Thomas McGrath, you'll scare them away - especially the kind of I'LL DIE WITHOUT YOU talk of death:
You'll look at least on love's remains,
A grave's one violet: Your look?-that pays a thousand pains.
What's death?-You'll love me yet!
Other lines probably best avoided, even if you think they sound great in your head:
That's so funny! You remind me of my mother / ex-girlfriend.
Gotta go, off to drink my weight in cider!
God I hate romantic comedies.
Even a well-meaning
I'd like to take you shopping
Can be mis-interpreted as 'You've no style / you're overweight / you dress like my Gran'.
Honesty and, to thine own self be true (Shakespeare yet again) seems to be the way forward. You don't have to be a poet, or hugely original. If you've never felt this way before, and you had a great night, then tell her
I've never felt this way before. Thanks for a great night.
If she likes The Devil Wears Prada and you actually don't mind watching it, it really is ok to admit it (to her, perhaps not your friends down the pub). Wearing your heart on your sleeve, as in the most famous of love poems, Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, is a great piece of double-thinking.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Sounds like a good line doesn't it? But nah, he goes on to say, summer is too hot, itchy, boring, and it ends.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade...
You're better than a summer's day. With you it's summer every day.
Take an (autumn) leaf out of e.e. cumming's book:
Your slightest look easily will unclose me
Or indeed, women perhaps know best. The great love poet Emily Dickinson:
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
If you're texting, it's unlikely the object of your affections is across the room. And our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, takes us straight to the heart of the matter:
I want you and you are not here...
Wherever you are now, inside my head you fix me with a look...
I hold you closer, miles away, inventing love