November 8, 2017

Editor's note: This story was originally published in late September, when news of the 280 Twitter character count first surfaced. We bring it back today with this lament: Sorry, we tried.

When it comes to short writing, I am a professional hypocrite: I wrote a book on the topic. A book. On short writing.

How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” was published by Little, Brown in 2013. It covered the territory from Biblical proverbs to Twitter and honored the idea that history’s most memorable texts were written in short form, from the 23rd Psalm to the Gettysburg Address.

We might draw a logical conclusion that the most important topics are best expressed in the weightiest tomes, such as War and Peace. The counter-argument comes in the form known as the aphorism, a single wise and witty statement that has the ring of truth. Samuel Johnson was a master of the form, arguing that “A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” Yes, exactly.

This reflection is prologue to my nut paragraph: the news that Twitter is experimenting with doubling the number of characters permitted in a tweet. I assume this means that the character counter will not turn red until you exceed 280 characters.

Some will welcome that invitation to logorrhea. I will mourn the change. Some time before the end of the year, my Twitter followers are likely to exceed 11,000. We have a good thing going, my friends, and my New Year’s resolution will be to stick to the old standard: 140 characters. But I know I won’t.

Why? Because I understand my imperfections. These include my tendency to take a perfectly well-written 100-character tweet and, rather than post it, say to myself, “Hmm. You know, Roy, you have 40 more characters available to you. Surely, you have more brilliance to impart.”

Most writers I know cannot resist the temptation to fill up the available space. Even when I choose the smaller Post-it note to the bigger, I shrink my letters to squeeze as many words as possible onto the available space.

I would argue that Twitter’s success has been largely predicated on the size of its vessel. There are ways to work around the 140-character limitation. The tweeter can write a numbered series of tweets, which can create a short essay, or even a serial narrative effect. And we have all mastered the shorthand that allows us to say more with less – sacrificing, for example, all the articles (a, an, the) and other function words that can be assumed by the reader without loss of meaning.

When I heard the news that Twitter was – like a middle-aged couch potato – expanding, it led me to think of analogies to my theory of the “perfect length.”

1. The distance from home plate to first base: There are variable measurements in baseball, such as the size of the bat or the distance from the batter’s box to the centerfield wall. I am persuaded by the argument that the person who gave the game its energy was the one who decided that the bases should be 90 feet apart. As someone who watches many games – in person and on a screen – I am always amazed by how many close plays there are at first base. Did the ball beat the runner? These days even a slow-motion replay will not always provide a clear answer. A tie used to go to the runner. Now it confirms the umpire’s call.

2. The half-hour situation comedy: The length of an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “All in the Family” or “Seinfeld” is less than 30 minutes, of course, because of the commercial breaks. The key is that the sit-com – until the advent of HBO – was rarely stretched to a full hour program. The brevity of the form led to exquisite writing. It gave Lucy Ricardo just enough time to get in and out of trouble. The writers of Seinfeld played with the form so that the disparate elements of subplots could be woven into a satisfying comedic narrative. They became, indeed, masters of their half-hour domain.

3. The sonnet: The haiku is arguably the tightest of poetic forms: three lines and 17 syllables, just enough to snatch an image from the natural world and see it fresh: “Captured on the shore / Chorus lines of horseshoe crabs / Unlucky in love.” By my count, my haiku comes in at 68 characters, almost exactly a half a tweet. You can’t fit a sonnet into a tweet, but you can take a photograph of the poem and attach it to your Twitter message. That’s another way to beat the system. Poets, I am certain, have tried to push the boundaries of the sonnet length, by writing a sonnet sequence, for example. To me, the 14 lines of the sonnet seem inviolable. Enough space to build an argument, describe a paramour, ask a question, and come to a loving conclusion. Shakespeare made several changes to the sonnet forms he inherited from earlier poets – but had enough sense not to tinker with the number of lines.

4. The telegram: One noble predecessor to the tweet was the telegram. And while telegraph messages could run to various lengths, brevity was enforced by a simple economic imperative: you paid by the word. It led to this famous exchange between a Hollywood reporter working on a profile of actor Cary Grant. Reporter: “HOW OLD CARY GRANT.” Actor: “OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?” Perhaps the most concise message in history did not require words at all, just punctuation. An author in Europe sent his editor in New York a message, dying to know how the new book was doing. Author: “?” Editor: “!”

Countless other examples could be brought forward as evidence. On Mount Sinai, God created the “listicle” when he inscribed 10 Commandments on two tablets. Few remember that the main speaker at Gettysburg – Edward Everett – delivered a two-hour oration; Lincoln took care of business in two minutes.

I have exceeded 1,000 words – almost 6,000 characters. That equals 43 tweets.

So I conclude with why I love the 140-character limit: The discipline it imposes sharpens my writing. As an inveterate putter-inner, it forces me to be a taker-outter. Against expectation, this is not a strait-jacket. Far from it. Poets and headline writers already understand how the boundaries of language help you find and make your point without the sacrifice of style. Writing of the demands of poetic forms, Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet who lent his name to little Bobby Zimmerman, said it best: “I sang in my chains like the sea.”

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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