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When Less Is More: Twitter for Writers

Advice to aspiring writers usually includes these words: "Write more." More words. More pages. More chapters, poems, articles.

But I have a different suggestion: To become a better writer, write less.

No, not less frequently. But with fewer words. Lots fewer. As in... no more than 140 characters' worth.

What? And why?

The answer to "what" is Twitter, the social-media technology that combines the immediacy of text-messaging with the reach of the Internet. Use it on a computer, a cellphone, or any mobile device. (There are rival platforms, like Plurk, but Twitter currently dominates; keep reading to learn about a Twitter-like service just for reviews of books, games, music, and movies.)

Go to the Twitter home page and sign up (it's free). You'll see a blank field that asks "What are you doing?"

Ignore it.

Sure, some Twitterers post tweets (as these microjournal messages are called) about what they ate for lunch and what the traffic's like. But you're a writer. You have other goals. And that's the "why" of Twitter.

Limiting yourself to 140 characters or fewer — Twitter will count them for you — warms up your creative muscles, sharpens your writing, and compels every word to pull its weight.

Most of us write the way we talk — with extra words and clauses that provide social lubricant. Classroom essay assignments — "Five hundred words on the Federalist Papers by Monday!" — only worsen the padding habit.

The challenge with Twitter is to get to the point. How can you distill your message most effectively? Which words can you eliminate without losing the meaning?

Once you try it, I'm betting you'll be hooked, as I was. And you'll be in excellent company. All sorts of writers are finding that Twittering's a useful — and fun — way to tune up their skills. For example:

Copywriters: You may find it easier to create that zingy slogan or arresting ad headline after you've warmed up with some pithy, energetic tweets. Web writer Kelly Parkinson, of Copylicious, says she reads other writers' tweets for inspiration: "I take mental notes about the methods other writers use to be witty and interesting. It's like subscribing to a grab-bag of linguistic tricks."

Reporters and editors: Craig Stoltz, an editor for 20-plus years, wrote earlier this year that Twitter "has become my mid-career editing coach." If he were teaching journalism, he said, "I'd have students edit 500-word stories as Tweets. Not for the result, but the process." Other journalists use Twitter to practice writing headlines and captions or post fact-checking queries. By the way, many news media — including the New York Times, CNN, the New Yorker, CNET, and the Huffington Post — have jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. And yes, you can choose to follow their tweets.

Reviewers: Zero in on why you loved or hated that movie, book, or show. There are plenty of micro-reviews on Twitter, but if reviewing's your specialty you might want to check out Blippr, which invites users to write critiques and comment on others'. Compared to Twitter, Blippr is epic in scale: it allows writers a full 160 characters.

Poets: Twitter is ideally suited to haiku, the 17-syllable Japanese poetry form. (Twitter haiku have been dubbed "twaiku.") Some Twitterers pride themselves on posting only haiku tweets. Learn more about them on this Twitter haiku fan page.

Fiction writers: In Japan, five of the ten best-selling novels of 2007 were originally composed on cellphones. Ultrashort-form fiction is catching on in the rest of the world, too. Last spring, the Copyblogger blog held a Twitter writing contest that required each entry to be exactly 140 characters long. (The first-prize winner: "Time travel works!" the note read. "However you can only travel to the past and one-way." I recognized my own handwriting and felt a chill.) Tip: use Thsrs to find the shortest synonyms. If you're serious about narrative writing, a new site, QuillPill, invites users to "write a story, keep a diary, jot notes, or express yourself with poetry" in 140 characters or fewer.

Comedians: Funny guys and gals flock to Twitter to try out one-liners and absurdist humor. "The brevity of the form is well suited to puns and verbal jokes that tweak grammar and punctuation," wrote blogger Chris Erenata in a two-part series on "Twitter's comedy underground." The most popular (or "favorited") funny tweets rise to the top of a website called Favrd — a coveted way to grab the virtual spotlight.

Teachers: David Parry, an instructor at the University of Texas at Dallas, has been using Twitter to build classroom community, track academic conferences, and lead team-writing exercises. He even finds it useful for teaching grammar. Read his ideas for using Twitter in the classroom here.

Want to try it? Here are a few tips to improve your Twitter experience:

  • Remember that Twitter is a social broadcast medium. It's pointless in a vacuum. Find some people to "follow" on Twitter—receive your updates—and most likely they'll return the favor. (The Twitter home page makes this easy.) Who? Colleagues, members of your writers' group, friends with an interest in writing.
  • Familiarize yourself with Twitter lingo and learn shortcuts and etiquette.
  • Want to include a web link in your tweet? Shorten internet addresses (URLs) with "tinyfication" tools such as TinyURL and Snipurl.

If you're already using Twitter, tell us how it's affected your writing. If you're a non-Twitterer — but curious — get started now by following me and some of the interesting people I follow.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday September 4th 2008, 1:24 AM
Comment by: Josefina B.
I'm not sure how this will work for me. Is it like I will follow twitterers and then they will send me messages? Is this like sms-ing strangers? Let me know.
Thursday September 4th 2008, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Josefina: I recommend that you start by following people you know, or at least have heard of, or with whom you share interests. If any of your friends or acquaintances are using Twitter, start following them. Then follow some of the people they're following--you'll see their photos in the right-hand column on Twitter.com, with links to their profiles. It's actually easier than it sounds, and there's a natural snowball effect as people you follow start following you. They won't remain strangers for long.
Thursday September 4th 2008, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
I've twittered but missed the point till now. Thanks Nancy. Onward!
Thursday September 4th 2008, 10:53 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
I enjoy anything that helps to elevate language above common everyday speech. In poem-writing parlance, less is more. More generally, crafting a literary composition requires a lot of healthy judgment to decide how much less or how much more. Seems that depends on the subject and the amount of pertinent and appropriate material. Some poetry gurus will have you use less adjectives or adverbs--probably because aspiring poets still think that'waxing poetic' is all that matters--and hold nouns and verbs to be the mainstay, and lines ending in one or the other are said to be strong ones. I do feel that given a paucity of verbs a poem tends to be static, unexciting. But today there are poets who shun words that serve merely to connect the tropes and thoughts that lend wholeness and continuity to a poem. They seem to think that as long as they know what the poem intends to say the reader will know what is being left out. It makes me sad to think we are forgetting that good writing depends on realistic full use of the riches a language provides.
Friday September 5th 2008, 3:03 AM
Comment by: Ali G.
I have been twittering for almost two years now. The 140 character limit helped me a lot to organize my thoughts in an economical manner, and urged me to post somewhat regularly to keep going. Responses to my tweets from others, if any, would encourage me to take different perspectives into account and thus use more suitable expressions for storytelling.

One thing though, as short text messaging evolves, destroying many beautiful expressions to a mere minimum of characters, it widens the (literal) gap between users and non-users of this lingo, and surely so, hardening the resistence of the latter to participate. Emerging? Yes. Revolution? No.

So, your first IMHO is not far away, but it can still (safely) be ignored.
Monday November 10th 2008, 9:18 PM
Comment by: David L.
Nancy,
I lowered your grade as you seemed to be twoooting.

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