It is one of the pardoxes of art that structure, form and convention liberate the artist – Stephen Fry (@stephenfry).
Yes, yes, I know that those of us who care about the English language are supposed to be outraged by technology-induced social-speak, supposedly the death of civilised discourse.
And yes, I too hate the lazy abbreviations that so often accompany texts or micro-blogging: the LOLs and BFNs, the “u” for “you”, and “r” for “are”, and all the rest.
I contend that you don't have to go along with this lazy man's way. And that, with the right effort and approach, micro-blogs, status updates and texts can actually make you a better writer.
My favourite such application is Twitter, which gives you only 140 characters in which to express your message, a limitation that, as far as I can see, enhanced the wit, insight and observation of those who do it well.
Here are ten things writers need to do that are fostered by the constraints of Twitter.
- Frame a good sentence. It's not 140 words—or even 140 letters— but 140 characters, including letters, numbers, punctuation, symbols and spaces. Even less if you want your message to be retweeted (picked up and passed on). So one sentence has to say it all.
- Be concise. As you compose, Twitter tells you how many characters you've used and when you've gone over the limit and by how much. In working out which words (not characters) to remove/alter to make your message fit, you get a writing tutorial.
- Get clear. What exactly are you saying? Twitter won't tolerate faff or imprecision.
- Stretch vocabulary. Twitter makes you dig deep into your vocabulary to find the word that says exactly what you mean.
- Choose “weighty” words. You need the shortest, most descriptive words — in essence, words that carry maximum weight in a sentence.
- Evaluate yourself as a writer. Who are you? What topics interest you? What do you want to express – in this tweet and over time? Short regular communiques demand that you have answers to such questions — or come up with them as you go along.
- Make style reflect content. What writing style comes naturally to you — informing, snarky, amusing, inspirational? What style best suits your writing aims? Do they match?
- Evaluate your audience. Who are you trying to reach and why? What do they want to read? How can you give it to them. Although some writers write purely for artistic expression, most want readers. Microblogging is a crash course in reaching out.
- Respond appropriately to feedback. On Twitter, the feedback loop is instant and unforgiving. If you're not making sense or adding value, you die a death.
- Play with words. Twitter works best for you as a writer if you treat is as a challenging game – like a crossword or Scrabble. The challenge is to use those 140-characters to get your point across in a way that inspires your followers to take an action, to click on your link or to retweet your tweet.
So if you haven't yet joined in the fun, why not come on down and learn a thing or two.