140 Characters = Poetry

Blaise Pascal

The philosopher Blaise Pascal supposedly said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but didn’t have the time.”

I thought of this today when writing a Facebook update about our family’s home teardown and reconstruction adventure.

I’m really excited about our new house. The old house is getting knocked down next week. We spent four hours there this morning. We threw out, donated, or stored the stuff that remained. And in the midst of the excitement, some melancholy slipped in the back door.

Hey, I never adored the house – hence the teardown. But it’s where my two baby girls turned into wonderful young women. It’s where we had great times with our family dog Matisse, who died recently at age 16. The back yard was his kingdom, and mine.

The old house saw nine Thanksgivings, nine Christmases, nine Easters, two First Communions, nine summers of balmy nights with the crickets keeping time. Great whiffle ball tournaments. Bats swoop around at dusk, at about 30 feet altitude.

Paradise, in a suburban lot measuring 177 feet by 85 feet.

So how to convey these thoughts in Facebook’s 160 characters, or even Twitter’s 140?*

When I wrote for TV newscasts back in the Ice Age, I learned how to say a lot in a 10- or 15-second script. I learned one trick from my late father, a Shakespeare teacher. He always read his writing aloud. I did the same when I went to TV, and it helped. Bad writing hurts the ears. I keep it up today. (It may not always work, but it helps.)

I’m re-reading one of Jakob Nielsen’s usability books. He talks about how web users don’t read online; they scan. Cynthia D’Amour understands this. Her blogs are brief and rich and fun.

Facebook and Twitter impose this discipline. I swear, sometimes, it’s poetry.**

Listen to a conversation next time. Notice how short the sentences are. Notice how they don’t use clauses. Notice how powerful the verbs are. Notice how complex the communication is.

Now, write that way, especially if you’re writing for the web.

If you have the time.

* here’s how I did it:Frank spent the day storing stuff from the old house. Mix of excitement (new house) and melancholy (lots of good stuff happened there).”

** Like this tweet from David Gammel today: Went for a run then had two helpings of turkey and stuffing. And a piece of cake. Oops.


One thought on “140 Characters = Poetry

  1. Glad you liked the tweet!

    The best writing exercise/lesson I ever had was in a creative writing course in college. The prof had us write a five page short story. After critiquing the stories in class, the next assignment was to tell the same story in one page. MUCH harder to do well. It’s stuck with me ever since.

    Brevity with impact is a great writing skill.

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