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:

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:

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)

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  • http://twitter.com/PeteLaberge Pete Laberge

    Twitter is a very limited medium. I can imagine one much better, but I do not have the money to set it up. (And if I did, I do not know if I would bother.) Twitter is isolating itself from other media, and that is a bad thing for it. (It is bad for the other platforms, too.) That being said, Twitter has improved over the last few years. Will there be more improvements? Who knows? Will it last? Again, who knows.

    I know some teachers who give tweet links to their students work. I go, and look, out of curiosity: The kids can’t write. They write in “tweet speak” Sentences of about 100 characters. Paragraphs of 2-3 sentences, not joined together. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are options! Sometimes, “tweet abbreviations” sneak in. (The teachers try to correct it, I guess. I imagine they are abhorred by it!)

    The kids know how to copy and paste videos and stuff from Youtube and video games in their “presentations”…. But they cannot write an essay! They do multi-media and do special effects, but there is only short bits of original personal content. They work hard! They are VERY Creative! They are very good at “looking things up”. They can even make their own videos off cell phones. But they do not know how to communicate. (I sometimes wonder if they have anything to communicate… or if they simply do not want to communicate. Is it shyness, or inexperience?)

    They cannot do formal writing or communication. It is all informal stuff. School yard stuff. I much fear that we will not be getting any AC Clarke, Hemmingway, or AC Doyle “works” from them. There will be no Shelley or ee cummings poetry from them. They do video essays! They sit there in from of a web cam and Ahhh, Ummm, Er, Unh, and chatter on. Some have fantastic voices. They could outdo Huntley & Brinkley. Some have phenomenal looks, Uber-photogenic. Some are learning to use “scripts”, and that gives me hope!

    What people have to realize… is that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et all…. are mere tools. Imperfect tools. But this whole social media thing … is, in a way, an experiment. A huge experiment on an entire population. What will be the result? We do not know. Nor can we predict. Will it be a “Love Canal of the mind”… Or a Second or Third Gutenberg Revolution?

    You can learn from anything. You can learn good, and you can learn bad. Heck, you can even learn medium. But we should expose students at least to other forms of writing besides “texting/tweeting”. And we should be wary, lest we take our texting/tweeting habits into other areas of life. Being concise is good. Being too concise… don’t they call that non-communication, or being laconic, or something?

    The thing is, young people often do not realize that they are being taught. What habits they are developing. Heck! Adults have trouble noting that!

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Hi Taylor,

    You bring up a good point: as more people use social media, one of the ways to distinguish ourselves from the crowd is to write well on social networks. I always gravitate toward people who write well-crafted tweets and Facebook posts, and creative and witty Instagram captions; their posts stand out from the rest.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond,
    ~Mallary

  • http://twitter.com/taymaguire Taylor Maguire

    I think social media is playing a huge role in everything these days. Now when you see commercials, more often than not you’ll notice a small hashtag in the bottom corner of the TV screen (#phrase) of whatever the commercial is promoting. This is designated to get people “buzzing,” or tweeting about the topic on the screen. As noted below, with the upcoming election social media is obviously going to play a much bigger role than it did in 2008 since Twitter’s popularity and interaction has grown in the last four years. Being a student in the PR field and at a school for journalism, it’s incredibly important to emphasize those “good writing skills” even when you’re limited to 140 characters. You may have a great thought to output on a trending topic, but if you don’t tweet in a way that people understand or relate to, your credibility with tweets becomes diminished. It’s important to use your writing as a tool working for your benefit when it comes to social media, especially with so many voices on one platform… it’s important to distinguish your words and be heard.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for your comment, @kmcmeanslhupedu:disqus. I think it comes down to following the right people on Twitter. Some journalists have told me they’re not interested in joining Twitter because they don’t want constant updates about what so-and-so ate for lunch. But quality tweets are about so much more than that. You just have to find people who use the tool in smart and thoughtful ways and then learn from how they use it.

    ~Mallary

  • kmcmeans@lhup.edu

    Twitter is definitely a good writing tool, especially for
    the upcoming generation, as news stories are already becoming shorter and
    shorter. The problem now is making it so everyone tweets about things that are
    actually news worthy. Once this happens Twitter will gain a better reputation
    for news updates while they are happening, instead of unwanted updates on
    someone’s day at the office.

  • kmcmeans@lhup.edu

    Twitter is definitely a good writing tool, especially for
    the upcoming generation, as news stories are already becoming shorter and
    shorter. The problem now is making it so everyone tweets about things that are
    actually news worthy. Once this happens Twitter will gain a better reputation
    for news updates while they are happening, instead of unwanted updates on
    someone’s day at the office.

  • http://twitter.com/Mike_McGinley Mike McGinley

    Great recommendations!