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How Twitter & Texting Saved Writing

The end of literacy as we know it? Get over yourself. These popular tools force people to write more clearly and concisely.
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The way some people talk about Twitter and texting, you'd think that the tools meant the end of literacy as we know it.

For example, Google the phrase "Why I Hate Twitter" and you'll get more than 38,000 hits. Here's a typical complaint:

Twitter and texting are killing the English language. English is a beautiful and complex language ... but our quick-hit communication culture is turning the language of Shakespeare (as the French call it) into a bunch of random symbols.

I couldn't disagree more. In my opinion, forcing writers to encapsulate messages into short sentences is the best thing that's happened to writing–well, at least to business writing–in centuries.

The problem with most business writing isn't that it's too short; it's that people stuff  documents with biz-blab, jargon, abstractions, weasel words, circumlocutions, misdirections, butt-covers, meaningless adjectives, and just plain old fluff.

Bloated verbiage was a problem in the days of the typed memo, too, but the fact that you had to physically copy that memo (and then schlep the copies around) formed at least some curb on logorrhea: People actually tried to write short memos, if only to get them to fit on one page.

Web-Enabled Wordiness

All of that changed with email and the Internet.  Since it's easier to write 1,000 words carelessly than to write 100 words carefully, business communications have gotten longer, more tedious and more boring every year.

To make matters worse, thousand of hare-brained pundits keeping egging people on by sprouting nonsense about "information" being a "resource."

Yeah, well, water is a resource, too, but you can still drown in it, and when it's polluted with garbage, it stinks.

I actually believe it's a wonderful thing to force people encapsulate what they've got to say into 140 characters.  Such restrictions force people to think about what's really important.

When was the last time you saw a tweet from anyone with an ounce of brains that wasted 16 characters on a piece of verbal idiocy like "state-of-the-art"?

Misguided Complaints

Another common complaint about tweeting and texting is that they encourage abbreviations.  For example, here's the same blogger quoted above:

There are too many weird symbols and abbreviations in Tweets....Something like "RT @leepender hates #Twitter #rant #moron" just looks like a jumble to me, but that's the way most Tweets look ... The long-forgotten "at" sign made a stunning comeback about 20 years or so ago thanks to email, but now it preens around all over Twitter as if it has been one of our favorite punctuation marks for generations.

I'm sorry, but the above viewpoint is profoundly misguided.

Far from being an innovation, the use of abbreviations to compress thoughts is thousands of years old. Before the invention of printing, abbreviations like "@" and "&" abounded in handwritten manuscripts. (The ampersand comes from "et", Latin for "and.")

As for hash tags (those # symbols), they're just another way of indexing–neither more nor less intrusive than footnotes, page numbers or any other method of categorizing communications.

More importantly, using abbreviations and hash tags, like the word limitation, tends to force writers to consider what they're really writing about and shorten it into as small a space as possible.

Smiley Overload?

Another much maligned aspect of Twitter and texting are pervasive use of emoticons, or "smileys."  Many people absolutely loathe them and certainly many consider them unprofessional.

Once again, I disagree.  The ability to inject emotional color into a sentence or paragraph using only two or three characters is incredibly valuable when it comes to communicating clearly.

Consider: How many stupid misunderstandings have occurred in the business world because a reader didn't realize that the writer was trying to be funny?  Words are subject to shades of interpretation; a smile (or a smiley) is universal.

So there you have it. As a writer who has to read plenty of business communications for a living, I'm overjoyed that Twitter and texting have become popular.  They're saving me time by forcing people to write stuff that's quicker to read and easier to understand.

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IMAGE: Flickr photo courtesy of the Office of the Maryland Governor
Last updated: May 25, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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