In my corner of the world, it seems that everyone is on Twitter. All of my friends are Tweeting. Somedays, it feels like almost everyone in the ad/digital/marketing industry worldwide are Tweeting. And all this activity is contained within my little old 17″ screen. It’s an incredible shrunken world … all at my finger tips. But that’s not the only thing that started off small and then got big. As Twitter itself has taken off growing in a few short years, having over 105 million Tweeple chirping away on the service according the The Huffington Post, one thing hasn’t changed: Twitter is (and likely will always be) 140 characters of communication. And yet, as anyone who has ever written for a living knows, it takes a special kind of writer to be able to make every single word count in a sentence. And that’s basically what Twitter is. It’s a baked, low fat potato chip sentence.
Writing in such a skinny format is hard. It takes work. But it’s not much different from other writing formats – like poetry, copywriting, headline writing … or even greeting card writing.
I’m an awful writer – a fact that I blame on my grade 9 English teacher. A child of the 60’s, she destained creative writing and grammar lessons in favour of spending an extra few months of the class reading William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But maybe she was way ahead of her time. If you google some Willy Shakespeare quotes from that play, you realize that if he were alive today, Wills would have had more followers than Ashton Kutcher. His brilliance and spare use of language are simply incredible. In one scene 2 characters (Quince and Flute) are discussing casting for a play. Flute is asked is asked to play Thisby, a female. Shakespeare could have written, “No yee lads, ’tis not a good idea for me to play a woman. Being a man of dark hair my 5 o’clock shadow will show and there’s no way I’ll be able to pull that off.” Instead he wrote, “Nay, faith, let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming.” That’s 58 characters of tight prose … with plenty of space left over for ReTweeting.
Good writing can be long or short. But good writing is less about how you put it together, and more about the ideas contained within it. What do I mean? Most of this article is literal. I’m saying what needs to be said. But for this article to be well written, it needs to contain new concepts – new ideas – that are different ways of saying the same old things. That’s where the true brilliance lies. “I have a beard coming” is a clever concept. “I can’t pull it off because I’m a guy” is not. Rather than worry about numbers of characters, great writers worry about filling the blank “What’s Happening?” box with language that is not cliche, boring or devoid of concept or personality.
But once you have that creative nugget of genius it all comes back to good editing. And that’s the secret. Having a luxury of space to express yourself in is great. Make no mistake. But many will tell you the true skill lies in the edit. And editing takes a certain amount of detachment. And practice. You have to kill your baby over and over again until it can be born. I have been lucky to have worked with some really great copywriters in the ad industry. Great writers with equally great, surprising ideas and points of view. But one thing many of them shared was the inability to edit their own work. Brilliance is great, but if the headline is going to run to 4 lines and the art director is ready to kill because the layout wasn’t designed to hold it, then you have no choice but to stay up all night re-crafting and editing that headline. It has to fit and it has to be genius.
On Twitter, there are also standards to uphold. For example, Internet ebonics are to be avoided (gr8!) if you want to maintain your status as a serious writer. Contractions are okay (what’s up?) but your content and meaning is your first priority. Most writers will write for intent first, say going to 215 characters, and then start hacking, chopping off language here and there until they’re close to to 140 characters. From that point you contract, squeeze and generally go into labour to squeeze out your 140 characters of tight, well-written brilliance.
Adverbs are another sapling to thin out of your woody forest of words. The definition of an adverb is words and phrases that describe or limit the meaning of a verb, an adjective,or a whole sentence. In other words, The horse ran Swiftly. Most words ending in “ly” can be chopped for Tweets. For that matter, an adjective is a word that describes a noun. A “fluffy” cat is an adjective. Without it the word cat is generic.
I think Twitter’s Shrinking World is great for good writing. I find I use more nouns and verbs, instead of adjectives and adverbs. When every word matters in my 140 characters I really look at my intent and my construction. Twitter keeps me from getting lazy. It won’t turn me into a writer of great prose, but it keeps me thinking about my writing. Not a bad thing at all.