Estimated reading time: 15 minute(s)
By now, you’ve probably heard the news about Twitter doubling its character limit from 140 to 280. For some reason, this seems to have ruffled a lot of feathers. Rather than celebrating the fact that they now have more characters to express themselves with, most users just want the old Twitter back. They enjoyed the challenge inherent in working with such a limited number of characters. (Plus, it will now take twice as long to read a tweet—like six seconds instead of three.)
As word-enthusiasts and connoisseurs of the concise, the Twitter announcement sparked a lively debate among our ‘Smiths. After all, we pride ourselves for cutting through the fluff and getting straight to the good stuff in everything we write, from the smallest tweet to the most robust website copy. And we’re here to prove to you that it only takes 140 characters (or less!) to say anything worth saying at all.
And as an example, let’s look at Caitlin Kelly’s merciless edit of Twitter’s 280-character announcement.
Longer Doesn’t Always Equal Better
To break the news of the extended character limit, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey constructed a needlessly long and rather rambling tweet.
Enter Caitlin Kelly, Senior Features Editor at Vice, who quickly busted out her red pen to show how Dorsey could have said what he needed to say in under 140 characters (139, to be exact). In fact, Kelly’s edit is even clearer and more straightforward than Dorsey’s original 280-word tweet!
Let’s take a closer look at Kelly’s edit to see how she achieved such clarity in only 139 characters.
139 characters pic.twitter.com/WkfdXL8oLh
— Caitlin Kelly (@caitlin__kelly) September 26, 2017
First things first, Kelly eliminated all the filler words. The opening three words in Dorsey’s tweet (“this is a”) don’t really contribute anything to his meaning. In the words of George Orwell, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” (He would have loved Twitter.)
In the same vein, the next two words Kelly crossed out (“but a”) are also filler—and redundant. The word “but” points out the contrast between “small change” and “big move,” but that’s already implicit in the contrasting words “big” and “small.” And when you remove the words in between, the sentence instantly becomes more forceful: “Small change, big move.”
If you’re wondering about that “en,” it means Kelly inserted an en dash here, between “move” and “140.” The new sentence reads: “Small change, big move–140 was arbitrarily based on SMS limits.” Here’s another great lesson in editing: punctuation is your friend. Often, you can replace needless filler words with a single punctuation mark. And when you’re trying to write clearly in as few words as possible, punctuation can help make your meaning clearer for readers. Take the Oxford comma, which cues readers in that there’s a pause between two words, or the en dash, which creates a short break but still links back to the previous thought.
Passive Voice Isn’t Powerful
Let’s skip ahead a bit and talk about that passive voice. In place of Dorsey’s bulky “Proud of how thoughtful the team has been in solving a real problem,” Kelly has put “Proud of the team for solving a real problem.” Not only does this shorten the sentence by cutting out some more needless filler words, but it makes the phrase active and therefore more compelling.
Then Kelly gets really ruthless—striking out no less than 11 words in one move. Since Dorsey’s announcement pertains to Twitter, and since everyone reading Dorsey’s message presumably knows this, the clause about solving a problem that “people have when trying to tweet” is unnecessary. And cutting it makes the sentence flow more smoothly.
“And at the same time” is also a little awkward. Following Orwell’s rule for taking out words wherever possible, Kelly has replaced the whole thing with the single word “while.”
Cut to the Chase!
So why take out those last two adjectives? Certainly you don’t absolutely need all three of them; but there’s an even better reason for taking out “brevity” and “speed,” and just leaving it at “essence.” When you start stringing unnecessary adjectives together, you tend to lose your readers. Dorsey isn’t really saying anything at this point: he’s just listing his company’s attributes. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way to promote your brand is not to list all the great things about your company. It’s much more effective to use just a few memorable words or thoughts. Twitter is already known for its trademark brevity and speed, so using those words to describe the company is redundant.
By contrast, simply stating that the Twitter team has solved a real problem while maintaining its essence says all that in one powerful word. Ask anyone what the essence of Twitter is, and they’ll tell you, “brevity and speed.” OK, they may not express themselves quite so eloquently. They’ll probably say something like “saying as little as possible” or “reaching people right away,” but it amounts to the same thing. (We also can’t help but wonder if crossing out the word “brevity” was a little bit of a joke.)
Notice, though, that Kelly has left the final exclamation mark intact. See what we mean? Punctuation really is your friend!
So if Twitter hasn’t yet bestowed the 280-character limit on your account, never fear! You now know how to say everything you need in 140 characters or fewer. And if you’re wondering, yes, I second-guessed my choices throughout this entire article.