The thought of reviewing 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form excited me in several ways. Author Dom Sagolla is not only a respected Twitter user (almost 10,000 users) but he was one of the engineers on the original “twttr” project, so he has a trove of stories and insight into the creation of this brilliant media. I later learned he’s “an English major at heart,” having a writing degree from Swarthmore College. Besides these points, being a writer myself I was intrigued by the notion of “a style guide for the short form,” thinking this book could have something in common with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, one of the great rulebooks for great writing. 140 Characters could have been another timeless book….
Writing style breaks the book
…But I found 140 Characters to be ultimately a disappointment, a difficult book to read—too many random thoughts, not enough organization, and difficult to digest. I felt like I was reading a collection of quotations or sentences, each one making sense and seeming to be a valuable bit of insight, but not gelling together into a well-structured book. I wasn’t sure why I felt this way, but began to suspect that perhaps the book was rushed to publication. I later learned from Dom that this was true: in a direct message on Twitter, he told me he “wrote it from a sense of responsibility, in 3 months.” He also confirms this on page 68 of the book. 140 Characters could have benefited greatly from an extra three months of writing time.
But the book, despite its short writing time, suffers from something worse: the fragmented writing style itself. Only a sentence or two is devoted to an idea at any one time. It reminds me of the “stream of consciousness” method of writing, which can work well in fiction and drama but doesn’t do well with non-fiction and guides like 140 Characters. On page 68 Dom admitted to not just the short writing period but also some writer’s block, and described how he adopted a fragmented writing style (as he declared on Twitter):
“Fragment. Then there is a sentence. Sentences become paragraphs. Inch by inch, a book is written.”
It’s an interesting theory of writing but 140 Characters is a weaker book because of it. Some sections of the book are fully fleshed out in paragraph form, but most is a series of thoughts on a variety of Twitter topics: followers, retweeting, tweeting frequency, capital letters, “small society,” and a hundred other topics including writing for the short form, which is what the book is supposed to be about. Chapter 10 is about the only consistent coverage of this last topic, and it’s an interesting read, but the rest is a melange of random thoughts on related topics.
There were a couple other aspects of 140 Characters I found annoying:
- Sometimes a tweet is placed beside a paragraph, as if it is supporting the point, but the connection isn’t clear:
“Someone is always there to read and listen. There is always an audience for anything. Never doubt that.”
((supporting_tweet)) Shut up, or I’ll blog you.
“@DarthVader is the original gangster.”
((supporting_tweet)) “Away for a few days & when return I have 50K+ followers. Pretty meh for a backwater world. On Coruscant I’ve got 1.2 trillion.”
I’m sure the connection is clear to Dom, but not necessarily to me or other readers.
- 140 Characters is structured around chapters and sections titled with single words. “Value”. “Master”. “Branch”. “Iterate”. They are terms Dom uses for particular methods or actions, but they are not explained very well and are confusing. Sometimes the meaning is clear enough but the chapter doesn’t match the title. Chapter 17, “Iterate,” is a particularly weird example: the first couple paragraphs illustrate the meaning of “iterate” (which I think is a good process for any kind of improvement) but the rest of the chapter has nothing to do with improvements through iteration, focusing on unrelated topics as where to write, casual gaming, Threadless Twitter Tees, referencing one’s home state, and “being the change you want to see in the world.” And I had been looking forward to this chapter on iteration.
What I like about the book
I haven’t said much yet in favor of 140 Characters, but there are many small gems to be found in the text. They won’t always help you with Twitter (“Don’t lie”? “Exercise”?!) but some will make you think about what you use Twitter for, and may spark some personal insights. I am also glad to see a book in the field that attempts to look at Twitter from the writer’s perspective, because I do think there is something about the 140-character medium that has sparked some stellar online writing. I think Dom could have found far better examples to use throughout the book: several are tech bloggers or Dom’s friends from Twitter, and almost none of them approached poetry.
The fact that Dom has connections within Twitter also makes 140 Characters an interesting read, at least in the beginning where he devotes the introduction to a retelling of the creation of Twitter. This was a highlight of the book and describes in vivid detail how the social media phenomenon was created and engineered. Stories like these are always enjoyable for those who use the technology or make their living off of it. I’m reviewing another book right now, BlackBerry Planet, and the fact that I use a BlackBerry makes it very interesting for me. Twitter fanatics will want to pick up a copy of 140 Characters just for the Twitter connection.
140 Characters is a unique book: the subject material and the ambition is well-placed but the unorthodox execution weakened the book, making it an interesting collection of thoughts and meanderings on Twitter but not the well-organized style guide I was hoping for. If you take it for what it is, 140 Characters can be an interesting read, but I wouldn’t expect it to become the “Strunk and White” of social media writers. I would recommend it for Twitter aficionados who love the medium. For those who want to get more out of their Twitter account, 140 Characters may or may not spur some insights.