What Twitter teaches us about writing short & well
When deciding whether to follow someone on Twitter, I typically look at the person’s tweets to see if they interest me and if I can learn something from them. Increasingly, I’ve also been looking at whether people's tweets are well-written.
Do they have a distinct writing voice? Is their writing witty? Does their writing pull me in as a reader?
If so, I click the “follow” button.
Twitter is a powerful tool for writers. With its 140-character limit, it's like an electronic editor that forces us to find a focus and make every word count. It’s a verbose writer’s friend and worst enemy -- a constant reminder that it’s often harder to write short than it is to write long.
In no particular order, I’ve highlighted some of the journalists and writers who I think do an especially good job of crafting well-written tweets.
BoingBoing writer Xeni Jardin (@Xeni) and her tweets about battling breast cancer:
- Soft rock radio in radiation waiting room. Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day.” Bad track for room full of people possibly on on way to heaven.
- Cancer ward. The ones who have hope here walk as if toward something. The ones who do not walk aimlessly, or do not walk at all.
- Some great art on the walls at my hospital, here and there. Lichtenstein. Rauschenberg. Oldenberg. Place is a cross between LACMA & Gitmo.
Jardin’s tweets create a sense of tension -- the calming music playing in a high-stress setting; the artwork displayed in a place not of creativity but of entrapment. Her tweets show that short writing can have depth.
Author Jennifer Weiner (@JenniferWeiner) and her tweets from the Olympics:
- I think the beach volleyball commentators are just reading from the Big Book of Sports Cliche. ‘A team of perseverance?’
- So, basically, if you're over six feet tall, a college volleyball star, and okay wearing a teeny swimsuit, this is your sport.
- If I was playing beach volleyball in the #Olympics, I'd insist on my dark-brown skirted tankini. And probably also no cameras.
- Beach volleyball. I have abs just like that. Under here. Somewhere.
Weiner’s tweets convey a sense of humor and playfulness. And if you’ve ever felt self conscious about your body, they’re relatable. Weiner also does a good job using the period -- a stop sign in writing. She could have easily written the last tweet in one sentence, but she instead broke it up into four. Because it’s a single word, the last sentence carries a lot of weight.
Los Angeles Times’ Henry Fuhrmann (@Hfuhrmann) and his tweets about language/style:
- If exclamation points cost us calories, would we consume with more restraint? http://twitpic.com/aavjfc via @jayminwang
- Loved this tribute to a quirky @NewYorker copy editor. Yes, I realize the adjective is superfluous. http://nyr.kr/KxBcKh
- "Defenestrate" is a fine word, though an impulse best ignored as deadline approaches: http://bsun.md/KFKLXf via @johnemcintyre
- My cranky copy editor's personal Buffett Rule: When I see the spelling "Warren Buffet," I tend to stop reading.
Fuhrmann’s tweets are conversational and creative. They illustrate his interest in copy editing and actually make grammar, style and syntax seem fun. He does a good job of including links, Twitter handles and strong writing in a short space.
Toronto Star reporter Joanna Smith (@SmithJoanna) and her tweets from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti:
- Was in b-room getting dressed when heard my name. Tremor. Ran outside through sliding door. All still now. Safe. Roosters crowing.
- Fugitives from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.
- Woman shrieking, piercing screams, ‘Mama! Papa! Jesus!’ as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic. No painkillers.
Smith’s tweets don't just tell us what was happening in Haiti -- they show us. She includes powerful details and dialogue that make you feel as though you're right there alongside her. After reading her tweets, you get a strong mental image of the chaos that ensued in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
New York Times reporter Frank Bruni (@FrankBruni) and his tweets about food:
- At this point of sustained heat/humidity, I feel like rigatoni---rather, gigantoni--left to boil too long. Don't sauce me. Just toss me.
- "Salad" doesn't cover the arugula and mustard greens at Bklyn's Franny's. So fresh. So perfect. Love this place.
- There should be a law against advertising mayo but using Miracle Whip. A felony.
Bruni’s tweets about food stand out because they're so witty. I like how, in the first tweet, he uses food to describe how he's feeling, and even manages to slip in a little rhyme. Also, he knows how to stress his point. By adding that second sentence to his third tweet, he shows just how big an offense he thinks it is to advertise Miracle Whip as mayo. (The horror!)
Susan Orlean (@SusanOrlean) and her tweets about writing:
- When a story keeps growing and growing and feels sweeping in some way, it starts to seem like a book idea. It’s a gut feeling.
- Making the story your own is more important than being the first writer to tell the story. It has to have your heart in it.
- Reading a book should be like sitting with a charismatic person who is telling you a wonderful tale, fact or fiction.
I collected some of Orlean's tweets last year after she did a Twitter chat on writing. I was struck by how much advice she was able to cram into her tweets, and how clear her advice was. 140 characters at a time, she showed how concise writing begets clarity.
The main Atlanta Journal-Constitution (@AJC) account:
- No special observances today, but Sunday is International Polar Bear Day. Thought you might want to prepare.
- Crime must be at an all-time low in Villa Rica. Cop targets Girl Scouts selling cookies. http://bit.ly/ekC9kL
- Hazmat situation clears #GaTech building, but no injuries or #mutants reported.
AJC’s Twitter account, which is run by a group of five people at the paper, has been recognized for doing a good job of balancing news and humor. This is a delicate balance to strike, especially during breaking news situations, but @AJC manages it tactfully and knows when not to be funny. When tweeting about last week's Empire State Building shooting, for instance, @AJC didn't turn to humor. @AJC's well-written tweets lets followers know that there are creative people behind the account.
I asked my Twitter followers who they think writes well on Twitter. Here are some of their recommendations:
- John Dickerson (@jdickerson) of Slate
- Wired magazine (@wired)
- Colonel Tribune (@ColonelTribune) of the Chicago Tribune
- David Carr (@carr2n) of The New York Times
- Nadine Silverthorne (@scarbiedoll) of Today’s Parent
- Ali Martell (@alimartell) of yummymummyclub.ca
- Melody Kramer (@mkramer), former NPR producer
- Kady O’Malley (@kady), politics writer
- David Beard (@dabeard of The Washington Post)
- Monkey See (@nprmonkeysee), NPR's entertainment and pop-culture blog (I’d also recommend NPR’s Media Correspondent David Folkenflik (@DavidFolkenflik). He often tweets mini serial narratives and has said that, on Twitter, “concision takes precision.”)
Along with helping you to write short, there are a few other ways Twitter can make you a better writer. I wrote about them here.
Related: Twitter writing as genre, "economy, beauty and continuity" (Interview with Jay Rosen)