The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Writing Practice Edition

A friend of mine who has published a small pile of books made a really good suggestion recently: why don’t you use Twitter to really practice your key phrases? In other words, if you’re trying to find a sharp way to say something, work on honing that sentence yourself, then toss it out there on Twitter on its own to see what others think.

So I’ve started doing that. As I work on my book, there are certain phrases and sentences that I work on carefully – the ones that really need to express a single idea very well. If I get one that I like, I often share it on Twitter, whether or not I think it’ll wind up in a book or in a post or something else entirely.

My favorite example of this? I was working on a freelance article about, well, freelance writing. I wanted a visually expressive and very playful lead-in sentence. I worked through several iterations, then finally tossed it out there:

Writing is like eating mashed potatoes: you need to finish up while it’s hot, but you’re tempted to spend your time sculpting.

It was a hit. Multiple people wrote to me asking what my source for that “quote” was.

I think the challenge of fitting an interesting idea into 140 characters or less forces you to be a better writer.

Anyway, on with some personal finance links.

Learning to (Un)Love Leverage Why is the “conventional wisdom” in business practice completely disastrous in day to day life? I think it’s disastrous in business, too – look at the myriad of failures in 2008. (@ megan mccardle)

Will Forced Frugality Last? I don’t think it will. Many, many people have their behavior steered by popular culture, and I think (to a certain extent) popular culture is promoting frugality. It’ll go away, like any other fad. Sadly enough. (@ wisebread)

Winning on the Uphills Challenges are what make you. You don’t get better when things are easy – you get better when you’re pushed hard. This applies to pretty much everything in life, from personal finance to exercise. (@ seth godin)

Emergency Fund Is For Emergencies ONLY – 6 Ways To Leave It Alone We tend to go to the opposite extreme. I try as hard as I can to avoid touching even a dime of our emergency funds. In fact, I probably go too far. (@ debt free adventure)

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  1. Alan Schram says:

    I loved the article from Debt Free Adventure. The first tip: define what an emergency is for you, is especially important.

    I’m building an emergency fund for the first time, and while I have it in an online bank account so I don’t see it as often, I still find myself tempted to use that money for other important – but not emergency – activities.

  2. Damester says:

    Trent writes, re Twitter:
    I think the challenge of fitting an interesting idea into 140 characters or less forces you to be a better writer.

    Not necessarily. If that were the case, there would be a lot of brilliant stuff on Twitter. Most is just junk, not to mention a lot of stupid abbreviations. Truly good writing on Twitter? NOT!

    Being concise and brief? Always worthwhile goals, in general. But if you look at some of the greatest writers (fiction and non-fiction, contemporary and historical) in all genres, few, if any, could survive in a Twitter generation. (Of course, the fact that so many people have severely limited attention spans might also have something to do with the decline in reading and reading skills for so many.)

    It’s not how many characters you use, Twitter or not, it’s what you say and how you say it. Content.

    One of the problems today is that people can text and Twitter, but they can’t compose a sentence, are clueless about grammar and have limited vocabularies. Life cannot always be condensed into a headline or 140 characters (and, I wonder, why 140???? Not 130 or 145 or 160? I mean come on, who made this arbitrary rule and why are so many unthinking people following it?)

    Verbal and written communications skills are lacking in the general populace. Twitter and texting do nothing to grow these skills. If anything, they take away from them.

  3. Tyler says:

    I see your point, Damester, but I also believe that testing yourself as a writer leads to improved content because it is through challenging ourselves that we grow and improve. Using Twitter does not automatically make one a better writer, but, by aiding us as writers in thinking about condensing and getting to the essence of our message, its conscientious use can help us to become better writers.

  4. jay says:

    My browser crashed when I tried to submit this, so forgive me if it shows up twice.

    Twitter has the 140 character limit because it was designed to be used with text messaging in mind. Text message has a 160 character limit. Twitter allows you to have up to 20 characters in your screen name, so you can easily send and receive twitter message through your phone.

    Here’s an article about why text messages have the 160 character limit. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2009/05/invented-text-messaging.html It’s not arbitrary at all, as a lot of thought and research went into that.

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Verbal and written communications skills are lacking in the general populace. Twitter and texting do nothing to grow these skills. If anything, they take away from them.”

    That’s an incredibly sweeping generalization, one that puts blame on the tool instead of blaming the writer.

    Saying that Twitter and texting do nothing to add to written skills is no different than saying paper and pen do nothing to add to written skills because people use notepads to doodle and make lists that are useless to anyone else.

    People Tweeting about their lunch or texting “LOL” are poor reflections on the communicator, not on the tool itself.

  6. What Trent said at 12:40. Word-for-word.

    Twitter forces you to eschew the useless adverb, and to look a little harder to replace a 3- or 4-word phrase with a single nugget. Plus it gives you instant feedback. If I drop what turns out to be a particularly memorable line (@GregVegas, by the way), reTweets tell me something that I’d never be objective enough to learn on my own.

    Which ties into the “Winning on the Uphills” link. Being forced to type in 140-character strings isn’t quite the same as being forced to get by on a 40% pay cut, but it does make you do more with what you’ve got.

  7. Johanna says:

    I think it’s important to realize – as maybe you already do – that writing for Twitter is just one small aspect of writing in general. A five-page article or a 200-page book is not just a long string of Twitter-length soundbites – and even if it is, you need to know what order to put them in.

    Also, I’m inclined to disagree with the mashed-potato comparison (or maybe I just don’t understand it – what does “finish up while it’s hot” really mean?) A piece of writing that expresses a complex idea can really be improved by meticulous sculpting – especially with input from people whose grasp of that idea is different from yours.

  8. Lenore says:

    Outstanding sentiment, Trent! I may never over-edit my writing again without picturing a Devil’s Tower of mashed potatoes and murmuring, “This MEANS something!” Thanks for the reminder to strike while it’s hot.

  9. Amy says:

    I didn’t really get the mashed potato thing either. The only sculptor I thought of was Randy in Christmas Story…

  10. Karen says:

    I loved the mash potato – yes I spell it without the e – quote. And I understood your meaning. Keep it up! Now I have to go and get me some mash potatos that you made me crave!!!!

  11. Noelle says:

    Trent, just wanted you to know that your mashed potato quote struck a chord with me. I retweeted it and it was quite popular with my writing friends.

  12. Fern says:

    The 140 character key phrases will also be useful for on-line book promotion – meta descriptor tags (the info Google shows on their SERP for each website) have a 160 character limit.

    Alas, we’re all going to end up writing like they did in the book “Brave New World”, instead of like John Milton. The first line of his epic “Paradise Lost” has 135 WORDS, and goodness knows how many characters.

    Frondly, Fern

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