Advice articles on writing better tweets often boil down to one inaccessible tidbit of knowledge: Just be brilliant and interesting. Easier said than done. Or is it?
I became interested in the idea of whether there's anything an ordinary person can do to learn to write better when all they have to work with is 140 characters. Becoming a better Twitter writer requires focus and diligence, but it can be done.
Be brilliant – but how?
What makes a Twitter post seem interesting, witty, or compelling? When it's not sheer genius, very often, it's simply relevance.
Twitter attracts a lot of users who join to discuss, share, and connect with people concerning a certain topic or theme. For businesses on Twitter, the theme is typically the same as the line of business. It's pretty self-explanatory. Individuals, however, don't always grasp this concept of having a theme. If you've joined Twitter and want to see your list of followers grow, you need to give people a reason to follow you. That reason is your theme.
It could comprise of multiple topics, like "computer science, women's issues, and humour," or something rather specific, like "Manchester nightlife." Whatever you choose, put it in your bio so potential followers can see it clearly. Think of your Twitter stream as a kind of "brand."
The only Twitter users who don't need a theme are those who keep a private account or only want their real-world friends to follow them.
By sticking to that theme about 80 per cent of the time, you'll attract and build an audience who is interested in that topic. People who use Twitter for business, whether to engage with customers or promote a brand, hopefully already know to stay on topic most of the time and to make their topic explicit in their bios.
Gina Schreck, president of SynapseConnecting, where she manages social media marketing for very large organisations, puts it this way: "Be helpful, be interesting, or be quiet."
Being "interesting" is hard to define. But being helpful is less vague. Your followers likely have something in common, so they probably also have similar problems to solve or kinds of information they want. Be helpful by giving this info to them when you come across it. You can also be helpful by answering questions that other people post, or directing them to better resources.
"Writing that perfect tweet is no easy task," Schreck adds. "There are times when I sit and craft a tweet to ensure it gets big retweet power behind it – from bringing it down to 120 characters for easy retweetability [more on that below], to adding a bit of humour in it. It is definitely a science."
And let's not confuse humour with sarcasm. Sarcasm can work in some circumstances, but be mindful that a lot of tone, context, and personality can be lost when you truncate your sardonic remarks to a few words. When it doubt, leave sarcasm out.
Twitter gives you only 140 characters to use in a tweet, but you'll see more mileage out of tweets that are only 100 characters. Shea Bennett, co-editor of AllTwitter.com, explains that you need to reserve 20 characters for a URL and another 20 characters of blank space. Those 20 characters will be eaten up the moment another Twitter user retweets your content. Leave your retweeters a little space to add something new.
Bennett says he thinks of tweets like newspaper headlines. "In many ways, [tweets are] very similar to the headlines street vendors used to sell newspapers. They have a limited amount of space and so are forced to maximise the impact in as few words as possible."
Headlines have to be short and punchy, and their purpose is to draw in readers. They're designed to entice people to read an article. The purpose of a tweet is typically to get people to 1) click a link, 2) engage with you, 3) retweet your post, or 4) enjoy what you have to say so that they'll stick around for more. Before you write your next tweet, think of what you want readers to do after they read your tweet, and then get creative with your word choice by imagining how the tweet might be phrased if it were a headline.
Hold a little back
Another one of Bennett's suggestions is to write with mystery by holding something back, especially when the desired outcome is for your followers to click a link. Pose a question rather than providing the answer in a tweet, for example.
But it takes skill to know how to withhold information or write a clickable headline without being dishonest. Bennett notes: "Much like an ad that you might place on Facebook or Google, there's a difference between enticing somebody with valuable information and BSing them. With the latter, they won't trust you again – you rarely get a second chance – and trust is arguably the most important thing in social media."
He adds: "There's no one-size fits all approach to writing good headlines for tweets, as it very much depends on who is sending the message. But I do think in nearly all cases (and perhaps wordplay/humour aside) honesty is, as they say, the best policy."
Questions to ask before you tweet
How do you know whether a drafted tweet hits all these right notes? "Before I hit send," Schreck says, "I usually ask: 'Can I make this more relevant to my targeted audience?' 'Is there something that adds more personality or fun to the tweet?' I tend to get more traction from witty content than just informational.”
Another of Schreck's questions: "'Before I hit send, can I hit delete?' Just because we think it is interesting, doesn't mean it will help our brand. I always ask: 'Are there filler words that I can remove to make this shorter and more succinct?' I think we become better writers by focusing on good tweets."
For a comprehensive list of Twitter guides and advice, see our business guide to using Twitter effectively.