Twitter is planning to extend its typical 140-character limit, and a lot of people are welcoming the change. But as annoying as the 140-character limit can be, I’ve found that it actually helped me practise a few principles for better writing.
Image by Nick Criscuolo
It Forced Me to Declutter My Writing
Writers love words, and they love to use as many as they can. This can lead to a lot of clutter, or what some might call “fluffing” or “padding.” When you fluff your writing, you’re adding words you don’t need to convey your message. It may make your paper longer, but as William Zinnser, the author of On Writing Well, adamantly conveys, it weakens your writing:
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
Twitter only gives you 140 characters to play with (for now). That means your thought, joke, or news peg must be, as Zinnser explains it, “stripped to its cleanest components.”
When I write out a tweet, I am constantly reminded that I over-complicate what I’m trying to say; and If I want to share my thought, I have to whittle down my cluttered message. In theory, you can declutter every piece of your writing this way.
When you go to edit a piece of your own, don’t be afraid to ruthlessly cut words like you would in your tweets. In fact, Zinnser recommends you examine every word you put down. You’ll probably be surprised at how many of them serve no purpose. Figure out what you want to say and say it as simply and efficiently as possible first; then worry about nuance. Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.
It Helped Me Write More Clearly
Because I’m trying to fit a well thought-out message into 140 characters, Twitter forces me to think about the reader’s perspective. Not only do I have to get to the point fast, but I also have to make sure that point is clear.
Basically, you want to make sure your tweet actually makes sense. It’s not so much about changing the thought, but about the best way to shape it so others will understand. As Zinnser puts it:
If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough… In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship.
Obviously, on social networks, nobody cares that much about what you’re writing, but it’s the perfect place to practise.
Twitter perpetually asks the question, “What do you want to say?” Before you answer, why not take it a step further and also ask yourself, “Is what I’m saying clear?”
If you can learn to make your short thoughts more clear on Twitter, that practise may very well cross over to your other forms of writing the way it did for me.
It Forced Me to Proofread More
This isn’t directly related to Twitter’s character limit, but when you’re forced to whittle a tweet down, you’re forced to scan your writing a few times, which helps you notice mistakes.There’s no rule that says tweets need to be grammatically perfect (or correct in any way), but it doesn’t hurt to practise proofreading. I occasionally notice a missing word, typo, improper tense, or even misused words with a single once-over.
More people see your tweets than see your private writing, and the internet isn’t the most nurturing of places, so there’s some extra incentive there. People love to point out errors, and while some folks do it to be helpful, others just like to be mean.
My best advice is to read your tweets, and anything else, out loud. When something sounds wrong when spoken, you know there’s a written error lurking around somewhere.