You have anywhere from three to ten seconds to capture and hold someone’s attention in a conversation. On Twitter, you have 140 characters. Realistically, you have about one second if you consider the number of Twitter users (100 million+) and the number of tweets per second (1,000–4,000, pending on the current events). The point? If you don’t have a snazzy lede (am I old school for still spelling it that way?) you’re never going to get clicked.
So, tweeters got smarter. They saw what worked and what didn’t. They found ways to cut out the unnecessary info and focus on only the good stuff. They jazzed up their call to action. Basically, they became editors — and good ones at that (some of them, at least). Self-editing and style guidelines are now more important than ever because people can easily get content somewhere else. While Strunk and White never imagined a need for a well-defined Elements of Twitter Style, it does beg one question: Can Twitter make you a better editor?
Before joining the web design world, I worked as an editor at a book publishing company. I had a lot of writers. All of them thought their words were the coolest things to hit writing since the backspace button. (Don’t believe me? One literary agent has taken to publicizing some of her most noteworthy query fails, a true testament to how some writers get a tad too overzealous.)
Twitter forces you to be concise, to say exactly what you want in as few characters as possible, especially if you’re hoping to be retweeted without another editing. How many times have you written a tweet only to see a red -20 staring at you? How long did you then sit there, glaring at your computer/cell phone figuring out to make that puppy shorter? My guess is that it happens more than you care to admit, at least to me it does.
Because you have to get your point across quickly, you’ve also probably had to execute some thesaurus action to find the best words to say what you want. There is also no room for adverbs and adjectives. Is that “very” really going to make people think it’s more important? You also have to know exactly whom you’re targeting because the right message to the wrong people is only going to tarnish your credibility.
These are all things that I learned, both from working in publishing and in my University of Florida journalism classes, that I think have made me a better editor.
Services like TwitLonger and BIGGER.twitter have popped up to exploit the 140-character minimum, but to me, it’s a cop-out. If Evan Williams and Biz Stone intended for people to tweet longer, then they wouldn’t have put a limit. Maybe they also had an ulterior motive to make the human language more concise, but that’s probably a stretch — or just one of my daydreams.
The best way to get better at something is to practice, and since we tweet multiple times a day, yeah, Twitter can play a key part in helping you get better at what you say and how you say it. But do I think Twitter is going to replace a solid J-school education? Of course not — and I’m sure my editing professors would have revoked my ‘AP Stylebook’ privileges if I thought differently.