Why Twitter’s new 280-character limit is the end of the world

by Rhys Williams on

Twitter has extended its 140-character limit to 280 characters and I am cross about it. I don’t see a character count as a restriction. Sometimes I even set my own – because I know it makes my work better.

This new character count has taken everything that was good about Twitter – brevity, scannability, punch – and made it half as good. It’s taken everything that was awful about Twitter – people filling up space with their unsolicited, half-formed rants on subjects about which they know very little but which make them inexplicably furious – and made it twice as awful. Not only am I not going to take advantage of the new limit, I am going to block people who do. Probably.

Less is more. Everyone knows this.

Designers demand more white space on pages.

Coco Chanel advises us to remove the last accessory we put on.

MasterChef judges complain that there are too many ingredients on the plate.

They’re right. Lose the tempered chocolate deer. It’s fighting your lemongrass reduction.

I live my life by rules like this. I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and then threw away half my house. It’s made me lots happier, even if I do run out of socks by the middle of every week.

I have also dedicated my professional life to chucking away stuff that gets in the way, whether that’s a word that clogs up a sentence, a line of copy that confuses the message, or a pillar of the strategy that gets nobody anywhere.

I learned all this while writing 60-word album reviews for the magazine Metal Hammer. They may not be keen on cutting hair, but they are buggers for cutting words. It was one of my first professional writing engagements, and it was a baptism of fire. Not only did I have to conquer my revulsion of cod Tolkien and daft time signatures, I had to learn how to make the most of the almost military word count I was given. That meant squeezing maximum utility out of minimum space, like a Swedish furniture designer making a bunk bed that is also a desk. I loved it.

My favourite job in twelve years at Quietroom was writing 55-character messages to go on people’s pay slips. It was tough, much tougher than Metal Hammer (in your face, rock pigs). But I said afterwards that I would cheerfully have done that job for free (albeit quite quietly). It was like a brainteaser, the kind of puzzle you’d do on a long train journey.

That’s why my favourite part of Twitter has always been those moments after I’ve written what I want to say, before I post it. In that time, I have to hone my thoughts, whittle my words, boil down my message to something my 1,379 followers can digest in one mouthful.

And that’s why I would like to object in the strongest possible terms to this new limit.

The old character count never stopped me expressing myself. It just forced me to do it better. Limitations are your friend. Limitations force you to make choices. Does this word add anything? Has this paragraph earned its place? Do we even need this brochure? I’ve even started setting myself arbitrary limits of my own. I’ll say – this has to be 20 words, this is a maximum of three lines, we can’t go over one page. This makes me tougher on myself. And that makes my work better.

I’m aware of the irony of having used up 585 words to say all that, so here it is again in 139 characters.

Set a word count. It’ll force you to make choices that get you closer to the nub of what you’re trying to say. Then, cut stuff you don’t need. What’s left will work harder.


Other things you might like

Our attempt to cut an annual pension statement down to a single page

Why jokes can be good for business

Four signs we spotted, and then improved by making them shorter