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The Elements of Style: Twitter Edition

I have at least four copies of The Elements of Style. Originally published in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., this book has truly stood the test of time. It’s been a great writing resource for me over the years, even though there are still dozens of its rules that I break with each blog post. I recently read the book again and noticed how many of the rules are relevant for Twitter and other short-form, social media writing.

Here are some guidelines for tweeting adapted from or inspired by The Elements of Style. I hope you find these suggestions helpful and entertaining:

Elementary Rules of Usage in Tweets

  • In a series of three or more terms, use a comma after each term except the last. Example: following, follower and friend
  • Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas. Example: the fastest way to read this post, unless you are a speed reader, is to read from top to bottom
  • Do not break sentences in two (don’t use periods for commas). Example: This post is awesome. Though not the best post I’ve ever read.

Elementary Principles of Tweet Composition

  • Use the active voice. Example: I always use the active voice when tweeting. My tweets are magical.
  • Put statements in a positive form. Make definite assertions. Example: instead of “her tweets are useless,” use “I don’t find her tweets useful.” Instead of “I don’t remember,” use “I forgot.”
  • Omit needless words. If there’s one thing you get out of this post, it should be this principle. Don’t use more words than you need to communicate your point. Example: instead of “she is a woman who tweets” use “she tweets”. Instead of “this is a subject which”, use “this subject”. If you read and revise your tweets, you’ll be surprised how many words you can omit (which is often necessary due to the 140 character limit).

Elements of Style Rules You Won’t Find in The Elements of Style

William Strunk, Jr., or E.B. White for that matter, couldn’t have predicted so much communication would take place via 140 character short messages. While The Elements of Style has stood the test of time, there is a new set of rules (which I’ve completely made up) you should keep in mind for Twitter.

  • Don’t use more than one hashtag at a time. It junks up your tweets. Example: I’m at this #conference, in this #building, listening to this #speaker which is relevant to this #industry.
  • When tweeting shout-outs, such as #followfriday or #ff, there is no need to include commas between the handles. This will save you much needed characters. Example: #ff @userone @usertwo @userthree.
  • If you are replying to somebody, and you want people other than mutual followers to see it, don’t do a simple @reply. Example: instead of “@journalistics great post on adapting The Elements of Style for Twitter”, consider “I love @journalistics post on adapting the Elements of Style for Twitter”

This advice only helps you if you actually want your tweets to be represented as good writing. There are no hard and fast rules for what a tweet should be, or shouldn’t be. If you want to tweet “this post from @journalistics made me LMAO”, or “WTF were you thinking @journalistics?”, don’t let me stop you.

How many rules from The Elements of Style did I break in with this post? Exactly. The Elements of Style are guidelines, though some very powerful ones, which will help you improve as a writer. I hope at least one of these rules will help you improve the quality of your tweets, provided that is something you want to do.

There are large sections of the book I have ignored in this post. If you’re not familiar with the Elements of Style, I suggest you read as much as you can online or purchase a copy to keep on your desk. Feel free to add your adaptations and suggestions in the comments of this post.

(Image Credit: Elements of Style by Chris Drumm)

About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.

  • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

    Overall great adaptation of The Elements of Style to Twitter. I didn’t initially agree with your examples of “Put statements in a positive form,” but I can see it, I guess. I think it was the “I don’t…” in the second example that threw me off a bit.

    • http://blog.journalistics.com Jeremy Porter

      Mark, thanks for the feedback. In fairness, I got a bit stuck on an example for that one. If you can think of a better one, please share it here. JP

      • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

        “Example: instead of “her tweets are useless,” use “I don’t find her tweets useful.” Instead of “I don’t remember,” use “I forgot.””

        OK, let’s see:

        “Her tweets are useless,” = “Her tweets are not useful” or “Her tweets are superficial.” or “Her tweets make no sense” or “Her tweets irritate me.”

        “I don’t remember.” = “I forgot” ==> I can’t top this example!

  • http://blog.newswire.ca Amanda Laird

    This was a great way to adapt the Elements of Style for Twitter!

    • http://blog.journalistics.com Jeremy Porter

      Thanks Amanda, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://justinchick.com Just

    Way to breath new live into an already fantastic resource!

  • http://www.serengeticom.com Beth Harte

    Jeremy,

    Excellent job! Strunk & White would be proud!

    My favorite is “Omit needless words.” What drives me bonkers is when I see professionals (especially the ones I know are smart!) using things like u, ur, etc. because of space limitations. I just think it detracts from the message at hand. As well, I don’t think other professionals new to the world of Twitter/Facebook, etc. are ready for it. Especially when they know kids talk in that type of short-hand.

    Spell it out and say less. It’s not like us marketing and PR professionals couldn’t be a little less verbose and to the point, right? ;-)

    The overuse of hashtags is also a distraction… And really, do we think folks really search on all the hashtag variants? I am skeptical…but maybe Mashable knows better. ;-)

    Beth Harte
    Serengeti Communications
    @bethharte

  • Mary Danielsen

    This is classic. It’s time to read the good book again. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://twitter.com/MikeSaffran Mike Saffran

    These are some very good points, overall. I would quibble with only a couple:

    • While an overuse of hashtags could be irritating to some and occasionally make for difficult reading, your rule “Don’t use more than one hashtag at a time” is too rigid, in my opinion. A single, irrelevant hashtag is one too many; however, two or three salient hashtags could be quite useful. (While I realize it’s exaggerated to make a point, your examples of #conference, #building, #speaker and #industry would, in most instances, each fall into the irrelevant category.)

    • Beth Harte: You asked, “And really, do we think folks really search on all the hashtag variants?” Does everyone search every hashtag? Of course not. But do many people search a lot of relevant hastags? Definitely—especially as a “Saved Search” (try it!).

    • Under “Elements of Style Rules You Won’t Find in The Elements of Style,” your third point (about @replies that everyone can see) neglects to mention a new common practice: placing a period before the @ sign, as in: .@journalistics Great post on The Elements of Style for #Twitter.

    Thanks for the thoughtful article and forum!
    @MikeSaffran

    • http://www.journalistics.com Jeremy Porter

      Mike, great points all around. The hashtag ‘rule’ was a little tongue in cheek, but I’ll stand by my comment that it clutters things up. I see too many tweets like “Listening to @speaker present on #presentation at #conference in #city #state” – basically begging people to follow them, which has the opposite effect.

      People do search hashtags, which is why I prefer to have one when you want to extend your audience – or you want to associate your tweet with an event. Of course, a lot of users also search by keyword, so you’re covered if you use descriptive keywords. It’s a preference I get.

      Great point on the period before the @reply. I’ve noticed that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Twitter pushes another ‘rule’ to prevent that, because it goes against the grain of the algorithm, but a great suggestion nonetheless.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ArtseyC Amy Canada

    Thanks, Jeremy.
    Elements of Style is one of the trinity of books on my writing desk, alongside a dictionary and a thesaurus. Applying it’s guidelines to any writing is good form; however, as you say, breaking the rules for effect or clarity is not a sin.

    Beth,
    Are you saying that professionals do not understand inherently that “u” means “you”? ;)
    Many of us have been using such shorthand long before Twitter was hatched. In a more formal conversation with colleagues, sure, but when I’m passing notes with a pal, shorthand is appropriate.

    Also, while I don’t expect people to search every hashtag variant, sometimes I aim a message at more than one set of searches, as in “Please stop the #oilspill off the #Louisiana coast.” I want anyone searching for each of those terms to have my message in the search feed.

    Alternatively, I could tweet the same thing twice using only one hashtag in each, which is arguably just as annoying. Or, I could add hastags to the end of the tweet, where they are not “in the way” of the message, but considerably cut down usable characters. While I agree that adding a hashtag on every other word is disconcerting, limiting to one only can hinder the efficiency of the tool.

    Overall, though, these tips are worth reading and following, and I’ll pass along the link.

    Amy Canada
    NXT Media

    • Jeremy Porter

      Thanks for chiming in. People sure are passionate about their multiple hashtags. All of the examples mentioned seem perfectly fine. I think I was really thinking more about spammy use of hashtags.

      • http://www.twitter.com/ArtseyC Amy Canada

        LOL, didn’t mean to sound so passionate. We might even be on the same page actually; it was the “limit: 1″ that got some of us hung up. I think you can do more stylishly is all.

        But I don’t even think that was the most important part of your post. (I wish I’d have thought of saying it.) I should maybe put my comments in a more positive form. ;)

  • Randy Clark

    You used, 77 words, 425 characters, and 372 without spaces (that’s a lot of words, and characters) to explain omitting useless words. It is a good point. But, it was a little long. Since it was so long it was difficult to follow. Less words for example 200 or less may have been easier to follow, less redundant, and more to the point. Also, less characters (which I guess would come with less words) would be easier to comprehend.

    • Jeremy Porter

      Thanks Randy. For me, “Omit Needless Words” says it all. But not everyone is familiar with the concept, so I used a few more than needed.

      I tend to use as many words as possible, since they don’t cost anything. It’s a weakness (part of the reason I love Twitter so much – it forces brevity). Here I go again… I should have just said “Thanks Randy.”

  • Jeremy Porter

    Thanks for the suggestion Mark.

  • http://www.collegeofpublicspeaking.co.uk vince stevenson

    Hello Jeremy, it’s a very useful and thought provoking post.

    It makes some useful points. Many thanks…

    Rgds Vince

  • Susan

    Some valuable tips! Tweets with TOO many shortcuts (as in using “2” instead of “to” or “b4″ instead of “before”) are frustratingly hard to read quickly. Just don’t overload one tweet typing every other word with shortcut words.

  • Susan

    I am stubborn about omitting that final comma in a series. I like the comma after the second to last in a series. Without that final comma, it looks like the last two words in the series are some kind of ‘set’ or belong together, i.e., ‘yellow, purple, black and white’ sounds like
    1. yellow
    2. purple
    3. black/white (combined)

    instead of ‘yellow, purple, black, and white’
    1. yellow
    2. purple
    3. black
    4. white

    which is the true meaning in this particular example.

    I just won’t let go of that comma. I like it. :)

  • http://SkypeJournal.com Phil Wolff

    Writing strings ideas together. We flow sentences into paragraphs that build on each other. Tweet authorship abandons compound thought, a world of one story shacks where we might have erected skyscrapers. #resistanceisfutile

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  • Mededitor

    The proposed hashtag rule seems overly restrictive.

    I would revise it by saying, “Don’t be a hashtag whore.” You should be sensible and thoughtful with hashtags, and use them judiciously. Yet there’s also the humorous hashtag, like #igottagetalife and similar.

    They are a separate linguistic ecosystem in their own right.

    • Jeremy Porter

      Fair point. I still think too many #hashtags will make you sound like a #robot. Like so many things in style, it’s your right to do what you wish – it was simply a suggestion. Thanks for the #comment.