How Twitter Can Help You Become a More Concise Writer

140 characters or less.

One of my biggest problems as a writer is that I tend to be overly wordy. If a story can be told in 500 words, I’ll take 1000. If a how-to piece for a magazine article needs to be 1500, I’ll write 2200.

A Real Writer's KeyboardI was lucky. When I first got started as a writer, only the magazine publishers cared about word count. I’d spend a day writing a piece and then spend half the following day cutting it down to the necessary size. I still wound up submitting 10% to 20% more words than they wanted. The book publishers didn’t seem to care how many words I wrote.

Times change. When my primary book publisher started restricting page count, I knew I had a problem. It bugged me, mostly because they were willing to cut out entire chapters of a book revision just to keep the page count under some magic number spit out by a spreadsheet. Content didn’t seem to matter as much as maximizing that bottom line. The tail had begun to wag the dog.

Most of my magazine work, on the other hand, went digital. Since there is no paper and a page can be any length, they don’t care how many words I submit for a piece. Of course, payment by the word went away, too. Instead, I’m paid by the article. As long as what I submit is complete, they’re happy.

The Ultimate Limitation

Of course, my history with publishing isn’t the point. The point is, a writer needs to be able to deliver a message in the desired word count.

Twitter logoAnd that’s where Twitter comes in. With only 140 characters, it’s often tough to communicate a complex message. While many people resort to cryptic txt world abbreviations, I prefer not to. Instead, I prefer whole words and even whole sentences.

Still other people will use several consecutive tweets to tell a story. This is generally not a good idea — more than two Tweets in a row that tell a long story is generally considered bad Twitter etiquette. Besides, where’s the challenge in that?

A better idea — one that offers good practice for a writer — is to embrace the 140-character limitation. Deliver complete, grammatically correct — or nearly grammatically correct, as I’ll discuss in a moment — thoughts as whole sentences.

And this is what I attempt to do on Twitter.

Tighten It Up

Here’s how I embrace Twitter’s limitation and use it as a tool to practice tightening up my prose:

  1. In Twitter client* software — compose the tweet to say what you need to say.
  2. Check the character count. If you’re under, tweet it as is. You’re done. Skip the remaining steps.
  3. If you’re over the character count, start paring down the text. Here are the things I do in the order I usually do them:
    • Reread the tweet. Do you really need to say all of that?
    • Look at the long words. Can any be replaced with shorter words that mean nearly the same thing?
    • Kill the adverbs. This is basic writing advice that has nothing to do with Twitter.
    • Look at the adjectives. Do you really need them?
    • Drop periods after obvious abbreviations, such as Mr or Dr.
    • Kill the articles. This is where grammar begins to suffer. I have a personal rule: if I kill one article in a tweet, I kill them all, just for consistency.
  4. As soon as the character count gets below 140 characters, re-read the tweet. If it’s what you want to say, tweet it. You’re done. Skip the remaining step.
  5. If your tweet doesn’t relay your message, start over from scratch.

This exercise can be fun if you go at it the right way. Although it might seem tough the first few times you do it, it does get easier and easier. I’ve gotten to the point where I sometimes cut so much out that I can add another short sentence. Not bad.

Are you a writer or just a tweeter? If you’re a writer, rise to the 140-character challenge of Twitter without leaning on txt abbreviation crutches.

*This is nearly impossible to do on a cell phone using txting, so don’t even try.

What do you think?