Ways to make room for good writing on social networks
Is it possible that it was not a misanthropic Harvard kid, dressed in his t-shirt and hoodie, who first imagined Facebook? What if I told you it was a poet named Peter Meinke?
It was back in the mid 1970s that Meinke, an old friend, had a fantasy that he compared to a “hunt for unicorns.” The Florida poet imagined what would happen if all his friends, folks who had never met each other, joined together, maybe at a barbecue. In this daydream, Meinke pictured himself sitting in the shade, a bottle of beer in his hands, smiling:
They would look around and see themselves
no longer isolated
no longer points in the darkness pointing nowhere
but as links in a magnificent chain of
girdling the world, and their talk
(they are all talkers)
would burst like spray in the sunlight…
That verse is more than thirty years old, but it has the feeling of something quite modern and familiar, a poetic vision of a social network.
I am a toddler in the new world of social networks. My reluctance to jump in was not skepticism about the benefits of technology, nor cynicism about the slippery nature of the social bonds in virtual worlds. It was my instinct that the air in Facebook would be so intoxicating that I would want to breathe it constantly, draining time and energy from my larger professional pursuits and ambitions, which, these days, means writing books.
I now wish that I had made the leap earlier. In less than a year I have realized, in real time, how powerful Facebook can be, not only as an engine for social connection, but also for the craft I think about most -- writing.
I am experimenting with this new form of communication and interaction, trying to understand what it means to be a “writer” on Facebook, especially in a cultural context where many don’t think of the activities of social networks as acts of literacy at all. To make sense of this for myself, I want to share over the course of the next month my first impressions of what it has been like for an old dog to learn some new tricks (thanks to the help of some young Poynter pups).
I’ll share what I’ve learned about concise writing, about riffing on the work of others, theme building and serialization, marketing, branding and developing test readers. While none of this is unique to social networks, something feels quite new when all of these converge on a single platform.
Please forgive me if some of these insights are old news for you, or if they seem presumptuous coming from someone so new to the game. I am a compulsive sharer who learns from sharing, so I hope that what is working for me as a writer on Facebook and Twitter might work for you, too.
Strategy I: Short is good. Concise is better.
Facebook updates can be about 240 characters long, 100 more than on Twitter. Some writers and teachers have complained to me about this, saying, “How can you be a writer in 140 characters?” But then all readers and writers have experience with even smaller containers for good writing: a journal entry, a haiku, a telegram, an epitaph for a gravestone, a love message on one of those candy valentine hearts, the chorus of a song. Back in the day, headline writers counted available spaces per line, and poets still count syllables. Writers on Twitter and Facebook just happen to count characters (or to have characters counted for them by The Machine.)
This is a good thing. Any metric of length forces a discipline on the writer. My habit is to write without much regard to length, and then use the character counters in the software to boil my message down to its essence. To get from 300 characters, for example, down to 200, requires attention to every single character, applying a stern test on whether each word -- sometimes each letter -- carries its weight and length.
I may begin by blasting out: “I traveled to New York last week to visit my 91-year-old mother, Shirley Clark, and I’ve finally returned to Florida – completely exhausted.” That’s 141 characters, including spaces. But what if I wanted to add a link, which might, if shortened by tinyurl or bitly, boil down to about 26 characters?
If I’m trying to save characters, my message might become, “In New York to visit Mom, who turned 91. Have returned home –- exhausted.” That’s 73 characters.
If I need more cuts, it can become: “In NY with Mom. She’s 91. Back home -- exhausted.” (49 characters). Or “Mom in NY now 91. Left exhausted.” (33 characters). I see that I am tiptoeing to the brink of vagueness or ambiguity; but the idea is to match your language to the form and to squeeze as much meaning as you can from each syllable.
Being brief is not the same as being concise. A text can be short and flabby, or long and lean. Brevity for its own sake can be a form of dishonesty in which the writer leaves things out she doesn’t understand, or makes believe that a summary is comprehensible when it’s not. Critic John Simon offers this antidote: “Concision is honesty, honesty concision.” By that I think he means that an honest writer expresses what he knows with the right words -- and the right number of words -- to express it.
Meinke taught me another important lesson at a Poynter seminar on short writing: that the poet sees the short form as an advantage, an opportunity to express wit and apply polish. Wit, in Meinke’s terms, means a governing intelligence; polish means an agreeable style. In other words, short writing may require greater effort and time than long writing, a thought expressed by many famous writers. It’s hard for me to find a wasted word in a Shakespearean sonnet; any decent editor can find quite a few in any of Willie’s five-act plays.
And as for those infamous abbreviations used in social networks, they can come in handy. Consider this complaint from the Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten about the limits of Twitter: “Serious Twitter design flaw: You can't complete a limerick. So we are consigned to stupid haikus. Ten more characters would have done it.” To which I replied: “h8 2 abuse GWeingarten/ by saying his avatars rotten/ but da poop on da page/ has Bcome all da rage/ in dis limrik he has just misbegotten.” A limerick in exactly 140 characters.
Editor's note: This is the first installment of a five-part series on writing for Twitter and Facebook.