You may have an old copy of Strunk & White’s infamous book, The Elements of Style, cramped into your bookcase, or perhaps you’re using it to prop your window open on a hot summer’s night. Or possibly you’re like me, upgraded a few years ago and own a copy of the beautifully illustrated version by Maira Kalman. You have to wonder, if Strunk & White wrote the book today, what would they have to say about social media writing style–mobile communications, iPhones and the likes of twittering?
Roger Angell writes in the forward of the illustrated book, “How simple they look, set down here in White’s last chapter: ‘Write in a way that comes naturally.’ ‘Revise and rewrite,’ ‘Do not explain too much,’ and the rest; above all, the cleansing, clarion ‘Be clear.’”
I imagine Strunk & White would’ve been dumbfounded if they knew over one million iPhones were sold this past weekend; or if they had knowledge of the extraordinary numbers of people who are using cellular and wireless devices for mobile communication, web browsing and all sorts of online navigation in their business and personal lives.
Twitter’s 140 character limit, and the informal lower-case email style with its often omitted salutations and closings, makes you have to wonder sometimes. So what about this issue of social media writing style?
There’s an interesting story about a Twitter faux pas which occurred last year when one of my blogging heroes Steve Rubel wrote a tweet, “PC Mag is another. I have a free sub but it goes in the trash.” Unfortunately for Steve he didn’t make it clear that he does read PC Magazine, it’s just that he reads it online. Naturally, folks at the magazine were upset. People wrote on and on about the incident until Steve tried to put it to rest with an honest and sincere open letter apologizing for the comment “…it does not reflect my full media consumption habits.”
Not to rub salt on an old wound but I refer to this example because of the valuable lesson Steve (and many others) learned, “Post too fast without providing context and it can elicit an unintended response.”
Most of us can probably identify either as the giver or the receiver, and don’t have to dig down too deep to think of an incident when something was written too fast without the necessary context. The example that comes to mind for me didn’t have a public fall-out but it did make me have to stop and take notice.
A couple of months ago a friend emailed me back an answer to a question I’d sent her a few days earlier. Her reply consisted of five short words, and because of the brevity it had a certain je ne sais quoi--bite to it. Only recently my friend told me about the business trip and how she rushed to write and send the email as the flight attendant instructed her a second time,“Turn off your Blackberry, Mam.” Understandably, my friend thought an answer was better then no answer. However, from my perspective, the reply didn’t sound anything like my friend, or the way we usually communicate. I would have been more understanding if I’d known a flight attendant had been breathing down her neck when she secretly pushed the send button.
In deference to Strunk & White and all their good advice about writing naturally, being clear, do not explain too much– there are many aspects which warrant updating. Even though it’s 2008, and rules of usage and approaches to style are different, and most of us are feeling pressured for time, communicating on the go, and often limited by number of characters and screen size, it might help to remember — at least for now, there’s usually a human being somewhere on the other end.
Artwork by Maira Kalman from The Elements of Style, Penguin Press, 2005.