Twitter challenge: how short can you go?

In my previous article for Emphasis, I looked at long and short words and their relative merits, writes Stan Carey.

One place where shorter is usually better is Twitter, where everyone has to stick to the 140-character limit – unless you use a tweet extension service, and where’s the fun in that? Many tweets contain links, which further reduce available space. So how do you compress information without sacrificing clarity? Here are some tips on getting the most out of 140 characters.

Edit

Twitter is pretty laid-back, so even if you’re tweeting in a professional capacity, you don’t always have to use a strictly formal style: go ahead and cut a few corners. Instead of writing ‘It’s time to make sure that you’re ready for X’, consider the more concise ‘Time to ensure you’re ready for X’. Or draw readers’ attention with a question: ‘Are you ready for X?’ or even: ‘Ready for X?’

You needn’t turn your tweets into headlinese. But you can leave out preambles, padding, and peripheral phrases unless they’re an important part of what you’re sharing, or valuable for contextual reasons. Watch out for needless nominalisation (turning things into nouns), which has a way of lengthening text. An example I used recently is: ‘There is a requirement for us to’, which essentially means ‘We must’. Plain language will tend to make your message more direct and effective.

Abbreviate

Contractions and abbreviations are routine on Twitter, so don’t be averse to adopting some of these conventions. Shortening government to gov or govt, and administration to admin – with or without accompanying full stops – saves several letters and remains perfectly clear and inoffensive. You may prefer to write some words and phrases fully, if there’s room, but initialisms like BTW (by the way), ICYMI (in case you missed it), IMO (in my opinion) and AFAIK (as far as I know) are commonplace and useful.

If you’re stuck for space, abbreviating more liberally is OK too; for instance, managementmgt., withoutw/o, becausebec. or b/c. (Avoid cos unless you want a very casual tone.) Just make sure they’re recognisable in context – acc. by itself could mean many things, but in ‘acc. to a spokesperson’ it’s obviously according. Develop a sense for what is and isn’t appropriate. This will obviously vary from one person to the next, but it’s fair to assume that sez for says is unlikely to please, and u for you smacks of txtspk. Use your judgement, and don’t abbreviate excessively or gratuitously.

Punctuate

The em-dash, though associated more with American than British English style, can be handy when you need to shave off a couple of characters. If you’re writing an aside—like this one—using em-dashes instead of parentheses or en-dashes (–) with spaces either side immediately gains two or four characters. Em-dashes can be used to indicate a source, too, as I did here. That tweet also uses a one-character ellipsis (…), another convenient space saver. I use it regularly when I want to shorten a quotation and show that I’m omitting some words. On a PC, the shortcut is ALT+0133. On a Mac, it’s COMMAND+semicolon.

Observe, get creative

Common currency like retweets and hashtags weren’t part of the original Twitter design – they were user innovations the company later adopted officially. Good ideas spread, so if you see one you like, try it out. Over time you’ll develop ways to adapt your style and needs to Twitter. Everyone uses it differently, so it’s worth observing closely how other people tweet. Pay particular attention to how editors and other language professionals tweet; many are adept at clipping their word count while keeping communication clear.

Skilful use of hashtags can save you space. Instead of tweeting about some topic, location or conference and adding a hashtag at the end, you can integrate the tag into the body of your tweet, as in this example. Symbols are also beneficial. £ and $ may be placed in brackets after a link to mark an article as paywalled. Swapping & for and saves two characters; putting ‘~’ before a number neatly expresses approximately; while the equals sign can serve as shorthand for is, means, amounts to, and so on. I don’t often rely on ‘=’, but I did so twice in this conversation. Explore your keyboard for other possibilities.

The challenge

Modify the following paragraph and tweet your revision to @EmphasisWriting with the hashtag #EmphasisTest. Using our name and the hashtag means you’ve just 109 characters left, so get editing, abbreviating and paraphrasing! We’ll give a prize for the one we like best.

It is generally agreed among writing specialists that the more unnecessary detail you include in a piece of prose, the more work it becomes for the typical reader. Or as the English poet Robert Browning expressed it: ‘Less is more.’

Want more Twitter advice? See Four tips for effective tweeting and Five tools to help you tackle Twitter.

Stan Carey is a freelance writer and editor. He blogs at  Sentence first and tweets at @StanCarey.

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