If you follow the Twitterverse, you may know that recently there was a brouhaha over the decision of Twitter client, Tweetdeck, to include native access to so-called “long” tweets. It was exactly the kind of kerfuffle that inspires people to trot out words like “brouhaha” and “kerfuffle,” which is to say, it’s probably not really all that important in the broader scheme of things.
But as a writer, the discussion was more to me than just a fruitless debate about the “essence” of Twitter. It inspired me to start thinking about brevity in general.
For those of you who may not know, Twitter is a chat client that lets you post whatever you want to say as long as you can say it within 144 characters. That means that every letter, every punctuation mark, even every space, matters.
Having that kind of limitation forces you to focus on your writing. You’ll be sitting there looking at a tweet that’s just ten characters over the limit, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Which of these words can I cut out without damaging the overall meaning of the tweet?” And if you’re like me and you refuse to use abbreviations like “ur” for “your,” the challenge becomes even greater.
For some people apparently this limitation is a nuisance, but for me it’s like having a daily reminder to carve out the fat in my writing everywhere. And believe you me, there’s plenty of fat. It’s easy enough to throw words out onto an empty page, and to a point that’s okay. But now I’m in the process of editing, and I’m seeing that I’ve included words, sentences, even entire paragraphs that add absolutely nothing to my story.
Maybe you’re not a tweeter. Maybe you have no desire to become a tweeter. That’s fine and okay. But I believe that it’s a valuable exercise for all writers to participate in some form of limited composition. For instance flash fiction, which is fiction in less than a thousand words, is a great way to learn to limit yourself to the bare essentials of what is needed to tell the story.
It seems to go against the grain of the writer’s “free spirit” we all have within is, but in truth working within restrictions is a fantastic way to stir up our creativity. Because if you were faced with the challenge, “Tell a story about a robot” your mind could go in a million different directions, think of thousands of different scenarios. But what if the challenge became, “Tell a story about a robot in 100 words”, or, “Tell a story about a robot in 144 characters”? (Yes, It does have to be a story about a robot. There will be no argument on this point.) Now you’re forced to look at the problem in a completely different way. Those limitations help to focus the lens of your mind.
This isn’t to say that all stories need to be short. Plenty of stories need a lot of space to tell, and that’s fine. But even in writing those stories you should be cautious not to throw in piles and piles of words, just because you can.
No matter what king of writing you do, always ask yourself, “Is this really necessary to the story I’m trying to tell?” If it’s not, cut it out. It may hurt a little now, but in the long run it will make your writing far more focussed and powerful.