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 Twitter's character limit sparks new style of short-form writing

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Date posted: 11/07/2010

Twitter, the social media site founded in 2006, still has its share of haters. But more and more serious writers have embraced it as a viable forum for short writing. We're not talking about links, random shout-outs or celebrity spoutings, though those can all be fun. And you can keep the narcissistic navel-gazing that makes up much of the Twitterverse. I don't need to know what you did at the gym today, unless you're my personal trainer.

We're talking good, lean prose, the happy marriage between voice and format.

Look at it this way. Journalists count words to accommodate the news hole. Poets count syllables to make the meter sing just right.

Twitterers count characters: 140, including spaces. That's all you get for each tweet. So you make them count. This paragraph now has 138.

In "Hamlet," the long-winded Polonius tells us that brevity is the soul of wit. He would have been great on Twitter in theory, if not practice.

"One hundred forty characters in certain contexts is quite a lot," says Roy Peter Clark (@RoyPeterClark), senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of the upcoming book "The Glamour of Grammar." Clark, a relative Twitter newbie ("I'm not a Luddite, but I am the embodiment of an old-school late adopter"), points to the William Carlos Williams poem "The Red Wheelbarrow": "So much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens."

Eighty-eight characters, and literary immortality.

The goal is economy of style, accomplished, like most good writing, through vigorous editing. If you tweet, you know the drill: You've got a spot-on observation, deep thought or humorous nugget to get off your chest and onto the screen. You type away and you end up with, say, 220 characters. So you whittle, and you whittle some more. You work in a contraction or two. If you value the integrity of your writing, you avoid cute rhyme abbreviations ("Gr8!").

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