It’s time for microstyle (well, almost)

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized

Advice about language lags behind the verbal demands of everyday life. It tends to be conservative and to focus on form rather than content. Maybe you want to know how to get attention with a blog post title, or how to write the perfect tweet. Reach for a style guide, and it’s more likely to explain the proper use of the semicolon or the differences among hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

Social media have changed the way we write, and it’s time for style guides to catch up. There are reference books geared toward the web, such as The Yahoo! Style Guide, but they tend to be about tailoring longer written content for websites.

One book that tackles the kind of writing that social media demand is 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form, by Twitter founding employee and original power user Dom Sagolla. Dom understands that Twitter requires a new kind of writing that poses its own challenges, and his book is a big step in the right direction. But I think there’s room for a linguist’s take on the new verbal landscape, and that’s why I wrote Microstyle.

Twitter isn’t the only place we need to be brief with language. It’s part of a much larger and more fundamental phenomenon: now it’s easy for everyone to share messages with the world! That means lots of messages are competing with each other for attention, and that means the price (in attention) that people are willing to pay for a message is going down, down, down. So it’s important to be brief. We’re all, in a sense, facing the same challenge that ad copywriters and newspaper headline writers have faced for decades. We all need to know how to make miniature messages grab attention, communicate instantly, stick in the mind, and roll off the tongue. It’s time for microstyle.

Microstyle, alas, will have to wait until July 2011.

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