Proper Form Applies In 140 Characters or Less As Well

Twitter is often written about, often used and as often abused. Everyday, thousands of tweets fly by me at break neck speed due to the volume of people I follow. Many of these short form messages in 140 characters or less are eloquent and precise. Others constitute butchered English short form that demonstrates a lack of attention to detail.

The rule of “Say it in 140″ is critical. If you cannot convey your thought in 140 characters or less the first time, chances are your audience will miss the next tweet that continues the thought. Clearly, there are exceptions to every rule and often entire dialogues will erupt between two ore more twitter users. However, in general, a thought should be expressed clearly, concisely and entirely in a single tweet. It’s good form and it’s also good practice.

I’ve noticed that, since my adoption of Twitter in November of 2006, I have gotten much better at formulating these thoughts. Let me say, for the record, it’s hard! Very involved concepts take utmost care and effort to convey in short form.

As difficult as it is, especially when it comes down to cutting and trimming words, to not butcher the English language. Like prose, journalism or poetry, lack of attention to these details may earn the tweeter a bad reputation, and could be seen as unprofessional.

Does that mean that perfect sentence structure is required? Hardly. Shortened sentences are perfectly fine. However, choppy thoughts that are merely chopped to cram – maybe not so much.

Other areas of concern for me, as a Twitter reader, are:

  • Automatically pushed messages that simply consume an RSS feed and push tweets out into the ether. Generally, these are not well formed (being formed for a Blog post and not a tweet, and are cut off. Incomplete thought = FAIL.
  • Multiple streams of thought in a single tweet. Usually, with the intention of efficiency, someone might respond to two tweets at once. Though I suggest eliminating multiple tweets above, that rule applies to tweets around a single thought. If you have two thoughts you want to respond to, send two tweets. It’s a commodity.
  • Retweets are awesome. They are tweets from someone else that you think are valuable enough to “REtweet” to your own followers. Usually, retweets are indicated with a preceding “RT”. The area of concern here, as it applies to format, surrounds multiple retweets. Example: “RT @UTexasMcCombs: RT @statesman The House passed the $787 billion stimulus bill 246-183″. Retweets should be limited to the original poster. Everything else is simply noise and unnecessary. Plus, it removes available characterage.
  • Prolific use of “U” and other shorthand. The shortened form of “You” came from text messaging where it was more difficult to actually type a word out. Thus, we have tragic sentences like, “OMG WTF R U asking?” – Folks, we’re talking two additional characters. For the love of all that is good and right in this world, type the word out and make a statement about your intelligence.

I write this post because there is a new book coming out entitled “140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form” which seeks to help people understand this concept of form and style. It’s written by veteran Twitter users @dom and @adamjackson and thus comes from actual experience. Hat tip, by the way, to Jenna Wortham who covered this over at the New York Times Bits blog.

What are some of your Twitter form suggestions?