Twitter has been around for a few years now, and as is typical, it takes a few years for a population to figure out new things.
The longer I use Twitter, the more I think about style. There are plenty of style guides out there for all kinds of writing – ask your favorite grad student about Chicago vs. MLA. And I sure love my copy of Strunk and White. But how can we make style decisions about tweets? The format is so limited compared to the texts these guides address.
My goal here is to create a first draft of a style guide for Twitter. Weigh in, let me know where you agree or disagree, and let’s create a living Twitter Style Guide together.
Rule 1: Spell it out if you can.
If you have the space to write it all out, there’s no reason to use “text speak”. Don’t substitute “2″ for to/too. This is pretty standard advice that people calling themselves “adults” have been giving to Millenials for years now. It makes you look uneducated, they say. It makes your writing hard to read, they say. If you want to be taken seriously, I agree, write it out.
However, I think that it’s perfectly valid to abbreviate your words in this way IF you’re a couple characters over the 140 allowed on the Twitter platform, and you can squeeze it all into one tweet by making some straightforward substitutions. My recommendation is to only make substitutions that are pronounced the same way as the intended words.
- “We r coming soon” is phonetically identical to “We are coming soon”; that’s not always the case with text speak.
- As a Wisconsinite,I might be tempted to substitute the letter R for the word “our”, but that’s unclear as not everyone pronounces those words the same.
- Words like “l8r” are confusing, as some characters are sounded out and some are named. (You wouldn’t pronounce it “ell-ate-are”.) I’ve even seen the ever-confusing “l8ter”, which doesn’t make the word any shorter, and in fact would contain two T sounds if you sounded it out.
- I’m on the fence about “<3″ as a substitution for “love”. It does save the author two characters, and it’s pretty recognizable at this point. I would avoid it myself but I don’t know how critical I would be of others who use it.
(Question: Would a later version of this style guide have a list of acceptable text substitutions? I feel some are better than others, and it would be nice to illustrate that.)
At first glance, acronyms may seem harmless. They should be alright, because depending on the acronym, most people should get it, right?
However, I have an aunt who thinks “LOL” means “Lots Of Love” and will often write it on tragic Facebook posts. “Sorry to hear your dad died. LOL.” Maybe it’s too soon to assume the meanings of acronyms are universally known.
One funny example of acronym disaster I’ve encountered had to do with a software company I’ve worked with, who selected an acronymous hashtag to represent them at a conference. Asking users tweeting about the conference to use this hashtag in their tweets allowed the company to search for these tweets online, and display them automatically on their website. Disaster struck when their conference hashtag was accidentally hijacked by a non-English-speaking European kink and fetish club, that shared the same initials. The tweets from this second group often referenced sexual acts not for the faint of heart, sometimes in photographic form. Quick action was required to fix this mistake.
Basically, avoid acronyms in any arena where professionalism or sensitivity is required.
Rule 2: The at sign is not pronounced.
I have puzzled over many tweets, wondering if the at sign (@) is pronounced, or if it’s redundant to put another “at” in there.
For example, if I want to tweet that I’m eating at Red Lobster, which of these is appropriate? Should I skip the “at” because of the at sign in the twitter handle:
I’m eating @RedLobster
…or, if we don’t pronounce the at sign, do we need to include another “at”?
I’m eating at @RedLobster
My vote goes towards the second example, of including the additional ‘at’, and the reason is this: The vast majority of the time, one would not pronounce the “at” in a Twitter handle, and if one did, the word wouldn’t be serving the same linguistic purpose as the word ‘at’ usually does. So to omit it would mean there is no preposition in the tweet, and could be confusing.
Rule 3: Keep it short.
I don’t see it often, but I see it occasionally: Users who can’t get it all into one tweet, who divide something up into multiple tweets and number them.
(1/2) Looking forward to a great weekend. Seeing friends on Friday, going to Six Flags on Saturday, followed by a bonfire at mom’s place…
(2/2) …and then a great Sunday morning with my sweetheart at the beach.
At first glance, this might be a great way to say all you have to say, without Twitter’s 140-character limitations. However, I have a couple of issues with it. You’re missing the point of the format if you don’t keep it short. My example might be a great Facebook post, or I could say even more and put it in an email or on my personal blog. (I could even post a link to that blog post, on Twitter!) Twitter is a great exercise in writing concisely.
This tweet could just as easily be written:
Great weekend coming up. Friends, Six Flags, family, bonfires, and brunch on the beach with my honey.
…and I still have 38 characters left over.
The other issue I have with splitting up tweets is that sometimes those tweets may appear separately from one another, and the reader will miss the context of the other tweet. At least numbering them, the way I did, helps the reader to understand there’s something missing, but I still don’t feel it’s ideal.
Your tweet may come up in search results. The tweets may appear separately in the stream of users who subscribe to a great number of Twitter accounts. Keeping your entire statement in a single tweet prevents any sort of confusion or missing information.
Rule 4: How to handle hashtags.
People get upset about hashtags. What started out as an easy way to mark keywords or tags in a post has become one of the biggest inside jokes out there. If I hashtag #cats in a tweet, people looking for information about #cats will see my tweet in search results, or if they click on the same hashtag on another user’s account.
If I hashtag #whyGeorgeRRMartinwhy, it’s much less likely anyone will ever search that exact term. The hashtag makes a statement, that I am so overwhelmed with frustration over George R.R. Martin killing off all my favorite Game of Thrones characters, that other users must be feeling the same way, even if they don’t end up using that hashtag.
I think funny hashtags like this can be great in the hands of people who know the medium well, but it’s certainly not professional and is easy to get wrong. I’ve read a lot of criticism of hashtag use on Facebook, where “hashtags don’t do anything”. (I’ve heard rumors this is changing.) Perhaps it’s silly to use hashtags for comic reasons if there’s no functionality tied to them, or maybe the joke is lost on the people complaining. In either case, it’s not clear.
My advice is to avoid funny hashtags when writing for a wide audience, or when your writing is at all tied to your profession. Stick to helpful keywords that will drive more traffic to your tweets. If you’re just tweeting with friends, and your Twitter handle isn’t tied to your professional life? Joke away.
My goal is not necessarily to clean up Twitter – too many people have tried and failed to tell teenagers to knock it off with the text speak. And I’m not sure what the purpose of cleaning up Twitter would be. My goal is to help people write clearly, communicate their messages, and be understood. We write to communicate, not to confuse.
What other rules would you propose?