Can Twitter Make You a Better Editor?

You have anywhere from three to ten seconds to capture and hold someone’s attention in a conversation. On Twitter, you have 140 characters. Realistically, you have about one second if you consider the number of Twitter users (100 million+) and the number of tweets per second (1,000–4,000, pending on the current events). The point? If you don’t have a snazzy lede (am I old school for still spelling it that way?) you’re never going to get clicked.

So, tweeters got smarter. They saw what worked and what didn’t. They found ways to cut out the unnecessary info and focus on only the good stuff. They jazzed up their call to action. Basically, they became editors — and good ones at that (some of them, at least). Self-editing and style guidelines are now more important than ever because people can easily get content somewhere else. While Strunk and White never imagined a need for a well-defined Elements of Twitter Style, it does beg one question: Can Twitter make you a better editor?

Before joining the web design world, I worked as an editor at a book publishing company. I had a lot of writers. All of them thought their words were the coolest things to hit writing since the backspace button. (Don’t believe me? One literary agent has taken to publicizing some of her most noteworthy query fails, a true testament to how some writers get a tad too overzealous.)

Twitter forces you to be concise, to say exactly what you want in as few characters as possible, especially if you’re hoping to be retweeted without another editing. How many times have you written a tweet only to see a red -20 staring at you? How long did you then sit there, glaring at your computer/cell phone figuring out to make that puppy shorter? My guess is that it happens more than you care to admit, at least to me it does.

Because you have to get your point across quickly, you’ve also probably had to execute some thesaurus action to find the best words to say what you want. There is also no room for adverbs and adjectives. Is that “very” really going to make people think it’s more important? You also have to know exactly whom you’re targeting because the right message to the wrong people is only going to tarnish your credibility.

These are all things that I learned, both from working in publishing and in my University of Florida journalism classes, that I think has made me a better editor.

Services like TwitLonger and BIGGER.twitter have popped up to exploit the 140-character minimum, but to me, it’s a cop out. If Evan Williams and Biz Stone intended for people to tweet longer, then they wouldn’t have put a limit. Maybe they also had an ulterior motive to make the human language more concise, but that’s probably a stretch — or just one of my daydreams.

The best way to get better at something is practice, and since we tweet multiple times a day, yeah, Twitter can play a key part in helping you get better at what you say and how you say it. But do I think Twitter is going to replace a solid J-school education? Of course not — and I’m sure my editing professors would have revoked my ‘AP Stylebook’ privileges if I thought differently.

What do you think? Can social media networks like Twitter help journalists, bloggers and, well, everyone become better self-editors?

About Erin Everhart

Erin Everhart is the marketing associate for 352 Media Group, an interactive web design company, where she specializes in social media marketing, search engine optimization and content management. She is a freelance reporter for multiple newspapers and online sites and a frequent blogger for 352 Media Group’s award-winning blog, Ranting & Raving. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Florida where she won first place in the 2008 AEJMC Student Magazine Contest and has an unhealthy addiction to salt and EM dashes. Follow her on Twitter :: @erinever.

14 Comments

  1. I agree that Twitter helps most people become better self-editors. You have to narrow down the most important information to relay. There are some, however, who simply provide a mish-mash of information. Who would bother taking the time to decipher those tweets? Good twitterers also check the URLs before re-tweeting them.

    PS. I still use “lede,” “hed” and “graf.” 🙂

    • I completely agree, Michelle. My biggest Twitter pet peeve is getting bad links, or links that go to the blog in general, for instance, not the post specifically. Glad to hear there are still people out there that speak my J-school language!

  2. Couldn’t agree more! There’s about a million good things Twitter can do, and making you a better editor is certainly one of them. Not only am I 100% positive I’ve become a better writer over the past couple years thanks to Twitter, but I’m also more confident in my writing.

    Blog posts–pre-Twitter–used to take me hours to write. Now I can beat out 300-500 words in a matter of minutes, and it’s usually pretty good (if I do say so myself). I learned to get to the point, cut the crap, and make every word create value.

    As a business and communications student, it’s even MORE extraordinarily valuable to me. My business writing is well-suited for busy executives, and my communications writing is perfect for a pithy headline or quick sidebar in a major publication (wink wink, big fancy blogs and magazines out there).

    Anyway, fantastic post! ::retweet::

    – @alexpriest

    • Thanks for such a great comment, Alex! Being in a non-journalism field has made me value that I can write snazzy content even more because you’d be surprised at how many people just can’t. Good luck finishing up your marketing/PR degree!

  3. Twitters become headlines when you want to compel readers to open a link to a picture or story. Say it well enough and no one can resist taking a peek at the rest of the story. Twitter is a brilliant writing exercise.

  4. I have to say “YES!” Twitter and other social medias definitely help you become a better editor; at least in the headline part of things. I just started using Twitter last year, and I have to say that I did not like it at first. I wanted way more than 140 characters to have access to. I felt like it was not enough to say what I wanted to tell everyone. To my surprise though, it really did help me focus on the important and necessary parts of my message. Being forced to use a certain amount of characters (a small amount) does truly teach you how to get your message out there quickly.

    • I know what you mean, Ashley! The 140 characters definitely take time to grow on you, but it pays off in the end. Thanks for the comment!

  5. I agree completely. I think it makes you not only a better editor, headline writers, etc., but a better communicator overall. The character limit really forces you to get to the core of what’s important. This is of course an extension of writing for the web in general where you have a lot more space than print, but a lot less attention from your readers. Thus you have to come to the point quickly, still get everything important in there and make it compelling. I think this is a welcome shift for reporters who have mastered Twitter. I truly believe it makes them (us) better in our over-140 characters writing 🙂

    Of course, as with anything, it’s possible to go too far. For instance, I abhor the use of text shorthand: http://www.annatarkov.com/enough-with-the-text-shorthand-5-reasons-to-s I especially think that journalists (or any professional writers really) shouldn’t use it.

    • Thanks for commenting, Anna. I liked your post about the shorthand. I typically only use it our of dire necessity in tweets or whenever I’m out reporting and getting interviews. Can’t deny that it makes it easier to take notes! And luckily, the web gives us space for the occasional rant here and there. 🙂

  6. I think it probably can. Distilling what you want to say in 140 characters is a challenge. The 21st century doesn’t have time to waste – our attention span isn’t what it was, we’re constantly browsing – moving from one thing to the next. What I find funny is that a few years ago there was concern that because of SMS people’s writing would deteriorate – people would STOP writing, well, properly anyway. Now with blogs and tweets most of us are madly scribbling away like there was no tomorrow and some of it is very good. Food for thought: SMS character limit is 160 (if I remember rightly) and tweets 140….

  7. Great post, Erin! I think, like everyone else who commented, that it’s definitely a YES. Everyone learns from being concise and using as few words as possible to get their point across. I think Twitter is particularly helpful in making PR pros stick to short, concise messages as well!

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