The Elements of Style: The Twitter edition

Some longstanding guidelines, plus a few new tips for the 140-character world.

I have at least four copies of The Elements of Style. Written by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White and originally published in 1918, this book has 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 in place of 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 the 140-character limit necessitates).

Elements of style rules you won’t find in The Elements of Style

Neither Strunk nor White could have predicted so much communication would take place via 140-character messages. Although The Elements of Style holds up, 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. Doing so 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 helps you only 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 offers guidelines, though powerful ones, that 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.

Jeremy Porter is a veteran public relations professional with more than 10 years of experience developing and managing strategic public relations programs for clients. He is the founder of Journalistics.com.

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