How Twitter’s 140-Character Limit Made Me a Better Writer

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How Twitter’s 140-Character Limit Made Me a Better Writer

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 practice a few principles for better writing.

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.”

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How Twitter’s 140-Character Limit Made Me a Better Writer

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 practice.

How Twitter’s 140-Character Limit Made Me a Better Writer

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 practice 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 practice proofreading. I occasionally notice a missing word, typo, improper tense, or even misused words with a single once-over.

How Twitter’s 140-Character Limit Made Me a Better Writer

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.

Image by Nick Criscuolo.

Lifehacker

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Writer responds ‘I love you’ to PR pitches

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It is a tale of love for the ages, worthy of William Shakespeare or Jane Austen.

Ralph Jones, a writer whose inbox is flooded with press releases, spent a month replying to every such email with the words “I love you.”

In a recent piece for Hexjam.com, Jones tenderly details his prank and the amusing responses he got. Some PR pros ignored the intimate declaration from a stranger; others played along. A few were so taken aback that they promised to remove Jones from their mailing lists.

One guy named Michael told Jones, “I love you too,” leading to increasing declarations of ardor (“I love you more,” “I love you so much it hurts,” “I love you more than the vast majority of my family”).

The exchanges highlight a problem for both sides. Reporters are overwhelmed, and they become a bit giddy (or panicky) at the relentless onslaught of irrelevant announcements. Yet PR pros are often forced to pump out FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE emails by bosses who don’t care whether the messages have no chance of getting picked up.

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4½ weeks

Jones’ month of passion started when he cast a baleful eye over the contents of his inbox. He’s not unsympathetic to those Miss Lonelyhearts who are stuck plugging a story unlikely to get any traction. He writes:

Tough job, PR. Speaking as someone whose inbox is flooded every 24 hours with messages about the latest torch you can wear on your nose, or a brand-new skiing festival in Warwick, I know that most of the communications sent by public relations officials are unwelcome and superfluous, like an extra testicle on your back.

So, he started dashing off the love notes.

The first reply came from an apparently baffled publicist named Michelle, who wrote, “Obviously, this isn’t pertinent to your audience. We won’t bother you again with Foxhills’ news.”

Jones snickers, “If Michelle reacts like that to everyone who says they love her, she will end up missing out on a lot of fun.”

On it goes. Jones’ story has charmed—or, possibly, irritated—many the PR world. Christy Marion of Media Frenzy Global confesses she hasn’t laughed that hard in the office in a while.

“Maybe I have had too much coffee already, but I think this is a refreshing piece,” she wrote me. “It’s very easy for PRs get caught up in the daily hustle of getting pitches out, so when a response like that comes around it reminds us that we are all still humans with a sense of humor (most of us anyway). Michael’s response was the best.”

Maria Perez of PR Newswire was kind enough to forward my request for comment to a colleague within minutes, even though she’s on vacation. “We love you right back. ;-),” she wrote to me, which made me feel warm all over.

A Newsweek experiment

Jones isn’t alone in experimenting by replying to the vast flood of incoming promos. Last year Zach Schonfel, a Newsweek writer, spent Labor Day week responding to every single press release he got, and chronicling the results.

Already on Tuesday morning, Schonfel was huddling in his cubicle, terrified of his own inbox as the press releases rolled in, seemingly four or five at a time.

He responded to a French manufacturing company, “I don’t know much about drilling and optronic assembly, but thank you for sharing!” He got an email about a professor willing to comment on Hong Kong’s democracy movement (“I’ll be sure to keep him in mind if I cover Hong Kong’s democracy movement”). Schonfel declined an invitation to a BuzzFeed Brews event in Los Angeles. (He lives in New York.)

He even chronicled, day by day, his weirdest pitch excerpt of the day. One day’s winner: “As a result of the stand-off during the rescue, one lioness was separated from her cubs, both of whom were retained by the circus, and a solitary castrated male … was separated from his cage mate and initially put with the cubs.”

Well, shoot, I figured I could play the “I love you” game, too. But after sending a couple of replies to unlikely pitches, I started feeling like a lothario making false promises to homely spinsters. It takes a degree of sangfroid to declare love to the poor wallflowers stuck with promoting unlovable stories. I say this as one who once flirted with a PR career but ended up parting ways after a hasty Las Vegas divorce.

Loving Dr. Darling

That’s why, after I responded to an email with the subject line, “Dr. R. Clement Darling III has been named Vice President of Society for Vascular Surgery” (“I love you,” I wrote. “I love Dr. Darling, too”), I ended up confessing what I was up to. The society’s spokeswoman didn’t reply.

I also declared my love to Doron Ofir Casting for a press release that somehow made the sun shine and the bluebirds sing again in my life: “Doron Ofir Casting and VH1 are seeking women who are at least 25 years old who are looking to wipe their slate clean and get a ‘Fresh Start.'” Sadly, they didn’t get back by press time.

I even wrote back to my own employer’s email plugging an internal communications master class. “I love you, Ragan,” I said. Yet after an all-employees email about Jones’ story had blasted our workplace, there was no hope of catching any of my colleagues off guard.

What did it all mean? I sought the wisdom of Orly Telisman, founder of Orly Telisman Public Relations, who wrote that if a reporter replied with “I love you, “I would assume he just got done emailing his wife or mother and write it off as a simple mistake/too much stuff on his plate. Of course I would be kind in my email back to him.”

But if he again emailed, “I love you again,” she says, “I would totally Facebook stalk him to see if he was cute.” She then might email him back a funny “I think I love you” Partridge Family meme as well.

“That’s how this gal rolls,” Telisman writes.

So maybe Jones was on to something. It’s a thankless task to call reporters’ attention to castrated lions and optronic assembly, and maybe we all like to be romanced a bit—even if we suspect we’re being played.

As Marion wrote to me, “I think we should all share more love.”

@byworking
Ragan.com

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