How to Write in 140 Characters or Less
On Wednesday, I wrote a set of tips on writing (http://is.gd/wlJ). I had in mind business and similar situations where solid writing counts.
Joel, also of Lifehack, linked to the post on his blog (http://is.gd/wlU), saying I should do a guide to writing in 140 characters or less.
With Twitter fast becoming an important marketing tool – maybe THE important marketing tool (http://is.gd/wlZ) – there’s something to that.
Being able to express yourself, clearly and forcefully, in less than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter (and SMS) is no small thing!
Being able to do it with style and panache, to present yourself in all your greatness, to make people want to know more, is harder still.
But worth it. If markets are conversations, you need to be where the conversations are happening. And Twitter is that place right now.
Sure, maybe Twitter’s a fad. Maybe, like Friendster, it will collapse under its own coolness and people will move on. We’re not there yet.
And even if (when?) it does pass, as fads eventually do, the 140-character message probably won’t – it’s too well-suited to mobile screens.
Writing Really, Really Short
If concision is the key to good writing, learning to write for Twitter should place you among the greats. Already great writing is emerging.
Hemingway, whose 6-word short story – "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn" – is hailed as a clear ancestor to the form, would have loved it.
But how do you get there? How do you strip your expression down to its very roots in a way that’s still meaningful, still worth reading?
Here are a few tips, from my participation on Twitter and what I know about writing overall. Short writing still needs to be good writing.
- Every character counts, so use strong verbs and a minimum of adverbs - you just can’t afford to say in two words what you can say in one.
- Once again, avoid "university words". Almost every long word in English has a short, blunt word that means the same thing. Use it instead.
- Forget about breaking your thoughts into two posts. You have no control over how your post will get read or whether they will stay together.
- Write first, then rewrite. It’s hard when you can feel that 140-character limit breathing down your neck. Spill it all out and then trim.
- You can usually cut "that" and "which". "The toy train that my sister got for Christmas" can be "The toy train my sister got for Christmas."
- Take your cue from Spanish (and Obama) and eliminate personal pronouns. "I am going to the Apple store" can be "Going to the Apple Store".
- Write short sentences. They stand out more. You share a page with dozens of posts. Many short sentences looks like something worth reading.
- Use punctuation! Many will tell you to rely on forceful words, not exclamation marks, but when words are limited, punctuation adds impact.
- Be personal. Short posts are very conversational and almost intimate. That’s something business doesn’t do well, but on Twitter, it counts.
- Get to the point. Say what you want me to do and why I should do it. You have no room to build anticipation – cut straight to the chase.
Lots of companies are paying attention to Twitter and the services emerging in its wake. Nobody knows quite what to do with it yet, though.
Which is fine. That just means there’s plenty of room for creative people to do what they do best – come up with innovative ways to connect.
Get in there, follow some of the top Twitterers, and pay close attention to how they craft their posts. And remember a last couple things:
- Humor works. 140 characters is well suited to the snarky jab, the aphorism, the epigram. Brevity is, after all, the soul of wit. And Tweets.
- The best you can do in 140 characters is entice – leave the sale for longer copy. Get their attention and give them someplace good to go.
Do you have any other advice for tweeters and messaging mavens? Let us know in the comments – this is all new, I know I’ve missed something.
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