How Twitter Finally Taught Me to be an Editor

I’ve been an editor for 20-plus years. But Twitter—that idiot desktop companion for the work-averse—has become my mid-career editing coach.

This may be due to how I use Twitter, at least some of the time: Less for top-of-brain me-spatter and more for tiny reports or editorials.

Fact is, it’s tough to convey any substance in 140 characters. You have to carefully weigh every word, letter and space. Even punctuation.

Here’s an example. I wanted to share a delicious, fantastically gross item of neighborhood gossip. But it’s not for this blog. So I Tweeted:

House that was site of mass murder 30 years ago–and where following owners’ dead body sat for 4 weeks in Dec–for sale in my ‘hood! Cheap!

Or this (unattractive) detour into moralizing. I Tweeted this after I observed the right-wingnuts’ tasteless glee at Kennedy’s brain tumor news:

The hate for Kennedy online right now is horrific. USAToday comment ref’d Kopeckne family. People can be so small. *That’s* the tragedy.

Okay, the prose is cramped, the comments elliptical. But writing substantial Tweets teaches a key journalism skill: Make every word count.

If I were teaching journalism (the academy shudders), I’d have students edit 500-word stories as Tweets. Not for the result, but the process.

I’ve edited miles of copy in my day. Nonetheless, I find that every time I sit down to write a meaningful Tweet I hone my craft a bit more.

Thinking about all this today, I decided to try a music review. It’s labored, I know. But I had my (brief) say about a song that moved me.

Nominate Tom Waits for Pulitzer: “Road to Peace” is growly, pounding, horrific news report on Mideast bloodwars. Quotes Henry Kissinger (!)

Yes, I may have lost it entirely. I’m writing in 140 word chunks and just nominated a musician for a Pulitzer. Go ahead. Tweet about it.


p.s. Every paragraph in this item is 140 characters or fewer. Whether it’s admirably tight, barely coherent or pointless, I leave to others.

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32 Comments on “How Twitter Finally Taught Me to be an Editor”

  1. Kristen Says:

    Excellent post, and I like the paragraph structure here. @ Everyone, you can follow Craig’s honed tweets here:

  2. Amy Gahran Says:

    Yep, I now think in near-perfect 140-character bursts. And I just bought the Tom Waits song, too!

  3. Sarah Says:

    Awesome post. I am a big fan of twitter because it takes the ah and umms out.

  4. Hi Craig,

    It was great to meet you this evening at the Capital Cabal event. This article on Twitter helping hone diting skill is so much on the mark.


  5. wilson ng Says:

    we use SMS text extensively for communication. and they say that because of the limit ( 156 letters I think), it made everybody’s english spelling bad….

    Your become UR.
    later becomes l8r., etc.

    It can go many ways!

  6. Jack Lail Says:

    Just think of Tweets as novels for the Attention Crash Age.

  7. Doug Fisher Says:

    Cool. Even before Twitter I started having my advanced editing students do a 150-character summary of every story. Rationale: I ‘d seen a “fill in the box to send an SMS” as part of a newspaper’s online CMS. It was on the same screen as the regular (shovelwre) dump text box, and while the paper — and many others — still aren’t using it, I figured if it is there, eventually it will become someone’s responsiblity, probably the desk’s.

    I’d really like to have reporters do it, because in the process it also gets them focused on the story and produces a pretty decent summary or refer line for the Web. Alas, I don’t teach the reporting/writing end of the class, only the editing.

  8. Jen Reeves Says:

    This is great. I used twitter for a while, left it and returned. I’m starting to integrate it into my newsroom and my journalism teachings.

  9. John McNary Says:

    How revolutionary!

    Wriiting news in broadcast style!

    OMG! Print journalism professor discovers brevity! Film at 11!

  10. I am a former newspaper writing coach and find myself, like you, weighing every word when writing a tweet.

    Twitter is a great tool to teach editing skills. But I fear that the LOL, OMG and IMHO abbreviations, and others like it, will slip into regularly writing as a result. It already has among teens who are even using them in school essays and other writing assignments.

  11. John Kelly Says:

    This reminds me of an English professor I knew who had his students write a news story at 1,000 words, then as a brief, then as a photo caption. That professor? One Craig Q. Stoltz. He wasn’t MY professor, but he described it to me. Brilliant. Craig, you invented Twitter! I invented MTV but damn if I get any royalties.

  12. […] as a tool to help focus your stories. The suggestion comes from former Washington Post editor Craig Stoltz, who says the discipline of writing substantive Tweets helps to reinforce the key journalism skill […]

  13. Stuart Franklin Says:

    Seems like you only publish positive comments, but just in case you don’t, I’d like to say, with all due respect, that this post makes no sense to me.

    I simply can’t agree that the purpose of good editing should be to make “every word count” Are you saying that good writing results from forcing yourself to express your ideas in the shortest possible way? That seems silly to me. There are dozens of forms of communication in the world, each one good at expressing ideas in different situations. So the moment you judge the quality of writing by how efficient and brief it is, it will lose one of its main advantages over many other, more efficient methods like pictures or videos.

    And what is the eventual outcome if we as editors encourage a society which sees writing as nothing more than a means of quickly and efficiency disseminating information? In the short term, we may sell more newspapers, magazines and blogs ads, but we’ll never compete with multimedia, and in the big picture, we may be perpetuating the very system which will be our demise. Just a thought 🙂

  14. […] the full posts here (and make sure you catch the fun p.s.): Filed under: Content Creation, Tools, Writing   |   Tags: Craig Stoltz, […]

  15. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Thanks, Stuart. You’re right: there are cases where richer prose is effective, even essential. They just need to be selected carefully.

    Craig (137 characters)

  16. Excellent Article! I had a similar experience when I made my first Facebook statuses.

    I think the Twitter phenomenon could not happen without a character limit. The limit lets one person quickly scan hundreds of sources from their timeline. This is because Twitter is a great for links. We must learn to write succinctly and use links for the rest.

    *Consequently, we’ve been here before. Brevity was even more pronounced when telegraph companies charged by the letter.

  17. Ralonda Green Says:

    I would have never thought of Twitter as an editing tool.
    I just always looked at it as a way to help minimize wordiness.
    I can see how it can help with creating/coming up w/ great headlines.
    But I have to say, I’ve been – “inspired,” it can especially help me edit my blog more effectively…maybe you can check it out and tell me what you think/ give me some pointers?

  18. Ralonda Green Says:

    Here’s my blog address:

    Please e-mail me what you think…

  19. Basam Says:

    In fact, at the present time the use of modern means of communication, including Twitter became him as his effective and positive impact directly on the individual and which is becoming more freedom to write what he wants without special supervision for journalists to publish news and photos also can press at the present time to establish an electronic journal without any cost to Elvis Facebook, Blog, Twitter, etc.

  20. Ahmed Says:

    Twitter a powerful tool in the transfer of information and opinions despite the fact that many of those who write in Twitter do not have skills in writing. However, the Twitter is considered a major gateway to improve the skills of people.

  21. April Lynn Newell Says:

    I’ll admit I was very reluctant to read this. I am a journalism major and it has taken me quite some time to even make a Twitter account and I still only use it to gain news, not to output anything.
    I cannot help but appreciate honing your journalism skills with 140 character “Tweets”. This is pretty genius, thank you.

  22. Ana Clarissa Rodriguez Says:

    Just recently became a fan of twitter, and I too agree. Twitter is a new-age form of blogging and journalism. The 140 character limit makes it faster and easier to write and release a story to the public while still getting your point across. Short and sweet, without the fluff.
    The idea of a class being strictly devoted to editing lengthy news articles and shortening them down to tweets is amazing! I would definitely sign up.

  23. Martha Jasso Says:

    I have to agree that Twitter has in some way honed our editiing skills whether you are a journalist or not. I never envisioned I’d have to tweet my twitter skills to become a better communicator! This however does make sense with the new media being the face of technology. I’ve had a Twitter account for about a year and only managed to post 3 tweets. After reading this, I will definitely start tweeting my little heart out. I’m sure my writing skills will be much better for it. Thanks!

  24. Martha Jasso Says:

    One more thought… I find this similar to writing scripts for broadcast.

  25. Bianca Says:

    I completely agree!
    Although I have recently created my own Twitter account, and also I’m not too much of a big fan of it, it has definitely sharpened my editing skills. Although I do follow more than tweeting, having that practice of tweeting short amounts of information is a great contributor to editing skills. I think using twitter is good practice in getting an important and perhaps slightly large amount of information condensed to where it is short enough with the key points of information needed. You might need that skill in the future.
    I think being able to condense large amounts of information is useful, and twitter provides excellent practice!

  26. Charlie Y. Says:

    The structure of this article is brilliant. IMO, the 140 character restraint is why Twitter became so popular. Trying to limit yourself is a fun challenge, I left the site and returned with a fresh perspective on what exactly I should be using my account for. This article is very useful for beginners and inevitably enhances every day user’s editing skills and helps them focus on key points.

  27. One hundred and forty characters per paragraph? Ingenious post. I believe the structure you’ve executed is one of the best approaches at communicating the new implementation we brand “Twitter” I’ve witnessed, thus far. I first utilized the micro-blog personally, noting the odd characteristics and findings of my mundane existence. The application didn’t last long. As a journalism major and an aspiring PR practitioner, I’ve come to realize the gross potential this contemporary, digital tool provides for the modern world–the mass opportunities available for the media to distribute and share valuable information. Yes, 140 words doesn’t come easy (or quickly, at that). But the restriction does restore the journalism constitution and significance of “keeping it simple,” concise, and (hopefully) accurate.

  28. Candice Rose Avila Says:

    I was wondering why each paragraph was only two lines long. Ha! This was a great way to explain twitter and show what it’s all really about. I however, did like the line “make every word count.” It really does count! You have to make the story fit in order to get the news out & by using 140 characters it allows for the “tweeter” to make the choice on the most important words to tweet. Being the most important words it creates for attention grabbers which draws in followers to your story.

  29. […] as a tool to help focus your stories. The suggestion comes from former Washington Post editor Craig Stoltz, who says the discipline of writing substantive Tweets helps to reinforce the key journalism skill […]

  30. […] see “How Twitter Finally Taught Me to be an Editor,” by Craig Stoltz, from May 2008, available: Stoltz’s blog entry on his experience with Twitter is written in 140-word (or less) tweets, or […]

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