What I love most about tweets and similar updates is how they impose limits on length. This forces social media participants to focus precisely on what they want to say, a skill more people should sharpen if they want to be heard in our 140-character world.
I honed my write-tight skills in the old days of type-settting, when I had to mentally calculate the space of every character. With headlines especially, I had to be mindful that the anorexic “i” counted for much less than the voluptuous “m.”
On top of writing economically and chopping agressively to fit a rationed space, I had to avoid widows and orphans, lonely words that would require accommodation on a too-precious extra line.
Yet instead of dulling my writing, these constraints usually sharpened it.
Web loosened, Twitter tightened
In freeing us this way, the web enabled busy people to go on and on rather than take the time to wield the editing knife.
Until Twitter. Suddenly long-winded people had to learn to summarize succinctly.
Actually, skilled writers had known this all along, from preparing executive summaries, abstracts, key messages, news leads, brand promises and other crystals of communication. Still, many of the people now expected to write more and more don’t take the time, or have the training, to peel off the layers to reveal their core point.
Many people insist they don’t have the time. But it’s the best way to prevent readers from flitting off to the next information snack.
Fortunately, you can improve through practice. At the same time, you can strengthen your brain’s left-hemisphere capacity for symbolic thinking, with words as the symbols we use to order and convey our thoughts. Writing tightly will get easier. If you want to learn more, I recommend The Brain That Changes Itself by fellow Canadian Norman Doidge.
Other people hear the ghosts of their teachers telling them to present the setting or context before they get to the point. Today that advice bears as much relevance as the caution about ink spills when reloading your fountain pen.
Setting is essential to story structure, but few of you are writing novels. Even then, don’t forget that movies usually start with a dramatic scene to rivet attention then circle back or show the back story in other ways.
Show me the beef–or tofu
Context is often either too boring to hook readers or smacks too much of advertising to entice knowledge-hungry people to proceed to the feast. So wait to use it or consider dumping it if your potential readers already share your perspective or simply don’t care.
For example, a client once asked me to write a very brief web update about a bridge reopening. The bridge officials had released a bloated statement that droned on about their mission, history and stats, why the bridge had closed and more. But for the drivers who simply wanted to plan their trip, 140 characters were more than enough.
Write tight, then chop
In my book Write like you talk–only better, I recommend thinking through a precise version of what you want to say before you start writing, then removing most of what’s superfluous to focus on your core point when you rewrite.
I also provide tips on how to write tight in an earlier post called 5 ways to hook your readers.
Remember that you need to take the time to plan and tighten your communication and strengthen your brain’s left-hemisphere capacity for symbolic thinking, if you’re going to succeed in our 140-character world.
Duchess Wallis Simpon used to say that a woman could never be too thin or too rich. If she were still alive, I think she would add that she–or he–can never be too smart.
So write thin, but keep your ideas rich and clever.