Obesity is rampant. And I’m not talking about body flab. I’m talking about obesity of language.
Much of what we read these days is bloated, flabby, supersized prose. I believe there are three reasons for that: 1) the death of the typewriter; 2) the end of length limits; and 3) the rise of the amateur.
Compared with writing on a PC, where you can easily correct errors, using a typewriter was hard and unforgiving. Concise writing was best not only for disciplined writers, but lazy ones, too.
Unlike old media, new media rarely comes with length limits. Want to write a 200,000-word blog post? Just keep typing! It’s free!
Participatory media, citizen journalism, blogs, social networking and social bookmarking mean untrained amateurs write more of what we read every day. Many are skilled. But unlike professional writers, amateurs may not have been schooled in the art of keeping it short. That’s what a professional writer does: He or she labors over language to make reading easier and better for the reader.
Amateur writers online tend to do the opposite. They bang out prose as fast as they can without taking the time to shorten and clarify. They save time for themselves but burden the reader. Because people typically read more than they write, the total verbal workload for humanity is greater.
A pervasive cult of wordiness and a blindness for and apathy toward the value of dense, concise language has formed online to the detriment of all.
I’ve had major blogs link to my own personal blog. I’ll write a few short sentences, and the blog linking to mine might post ten times the number of words to report the same information without adding additional points or facts — just fluff, blather and chit-chat.
On social bookmarking sites, such as Digg, longer articles are favored in the voting over the shorter, regardless of quality. Short pieces are dismissed as inconsequential, even when well written and information-dense. (I blame the public education system, which rewards the padding of essays with fluff to meet arbitrary length minimums.)
One glorious exception to this is the “microblogging” site Twitter. (If you’re unfamiliar with Twitter, learn about it by watching this video.)
Twitter imposes a 140-character limit on posts (including spaces and punctuation). Nearly every user I’ve spoken to about using Twitter admits to constantly revising each post to squeeze it into 140 characters. The habit and skill of revising for brevity and clarity is one of the secrets to good writing.
Like professionally written and edited material, Twitter posts are harder on the writer and easier on the reader. And that’s why Twitter’s popularity is growing. It’s one of the few places online where people on the brink of information overload can get a break from long-winded blather and read something concise for a change.
With practice, you can say a lot in 140 characters. That’s plenty of room for most e-mails I get, and even most blog posts I’ve read, especially the ones that link to other sites.
So why not put your prose on the Twitter diet?
The Twitter Diet
1. Get on Twitter. Sign up and participate. The trick to avoiding boring posts is to “follow” interesting users and stop following the boring ones. Start with the most popular users, and use Twubbleto find new people to follow. When you notice a user posts often but says little, stop “following.” And look for other users linked to or referenced — they might be worth “following.”
2. Get your friends, family and co-workers on Twitter. In addition to the default mode of broadcasting posts to all “followers,” you can send “tweets” directly to individual users. By communicating more with Twitter and less by e-mail, you’ll hone your concise-writing skills and protect yourself from bloated replies.
3. Get your workgroup or staff on Twitter. Instead of sending e-mails (and everybody using “ReplyAll” ad nauseum, use GroupTweetfor internal communications. The 140-character limit will prevent people from wasting valuable time on frothy chit-chat.
4. Send e-mail via Twitter. It’s ugly, but it can be done.
7. Use Twitter to blog. I did it, and created the only blog I’m aware of with zero clutter, pictures, columns, headlines, pages or archives. It challenges me to write one- or sometimes two-sentence posts. And, best of all (for the reader), each blog item can be read in three seconds or less. Here’s the blog.
If you want to write better, start by cutting the fat and slimming down your language with the Twitter Diet.