Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book Review: 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form by Dom Sagolla

(Please see disclosure at the end.)

Dom Sagolla was one of the digital doctors who helped deliver Twitter into the light, and was himself Twitter user #9. Dom’s 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form isn’t a how-to book — you presumably understand or can figure out how to create a Twitter account and how the interface works — but is instead a what-to book, and at times a why-to book. It was written to help steer you toward clarity, creativity, insight, and above all brevity in your short-form writing.

Some people have avoided Twitter altogether, denouncing it as a big waste of time. On the whole, these people have bought into the misconception that Twitter is simply a hangout for naive exhibitionists and mouth-breathing stalkers — those who post every occurrence in their dull lives (“Sitting on porch eating sandwich.”) and those who prey upon the too-open, too-trusting children wasting time on the Internet.
Anyone who has ever used Twitter knows that this simply isn’t the case. In 140 Characters, Dom dispels the fearful myths about Twitter, makes the case for the utility of Twitter and short-form writing, outlines what Twitter is, and sketches out what it could become.

The back cover of this book states that “What Strunk and White’s Elements of Style did for traditional media, 140 Characters does for the social media revolution happening today.” I don’t think this is a fair comparison. Elements of Style is, at its heart, a rule book, based on the linguistic beliefs, preferences, and foibles of its authors. EoS is supposed to show you what it means to “write well,” or at least what the authors believe “writing well” means. In the word-loving world, EoS is the fence that divides two authorial camps: either you love it or you hate it.

On the other hand, I don’t think 140 Characters will create as much controversy. Sagolla doesn’t create a set of “rules” to follow if you want to make it in the Twitterverse. Sure, there are some “rules” sprinkled in there — don’t overuse the exclamation point, customize your avatar, don’t proclaim yourself an expert — but so many of these are about what you tweet about, not how you tweet it. It isn’t about “the right way” to assemble 140 characters; it’s about finding your voice and your style within this small space.

Peppered throughout the book are, from Dom and from other Twitter users, words of wisdom, of idiocy, of inspiration, and of downright silliness. Dom inserts some of his favorite Twitter posts throughout the book to punctuate the ideas at hand. For example, after a paragraph about “[a]cronyms, Wiki-speak, leetspeak, and other nerdy frameworks,” you’ll find this tweet: “Zen and the Art of Prefixing Your Title with ‘Zen and the Art of’,” complete with the URL where you can find the original tweet (in this case, Or, in a section about being safe on Twitter, specifically about doing a “vanity search” to see what people are saying about you, you’ll find these words of Twitter wisdom: “A search in time saves nine.” (

The tweets in this book range from poignant to confusing, but there are some real humdingers in there. And they make for great browsing when you’re still standing in the bookstore wondering if you should buy.

Dom’s writing style — part Ernest Hemingway, part Dale Carnegie — is obviously influenced by his time on Twitter. His points are simple. His sentences are generally short. He gets right to the point, avoiding loquacity. (I guess it would be ironic for him to write this book any other way.) His ideas and observations are both simple and insightful, although he does at times stray into hyperbole, like when he follows the simply profound statement, “Become a better writer because one day you will need it.” with this:
We are heading toward a revolution, the effect of which will be to irrevocably change composition as we know it, to reshape it, to redefine words. As in the European Renaissance, or the American Revolution, we form small societies that transcend nation and corporation. Our societies bring us comfort, haven, news from the outside, word of the resistance.
It’s a bit much to equate Twitter with the Renaissance or the American Revolution, but this shows that Dom really is passionate about the future of Twitter, and of the short form in general. Plus, he knows his stuff.

Dom Sagolla is passionate about Twitter, he knows what he’s talking about, and he can write clearly. What more could you want from an author?

So if you got a bookstore gift card for Christmas, you could do worse than spending it on 140 Characters, regardless of whether your Twitter user number is only two digits long or you still haven’t decide whether it’s worth it to even sign up. And because it is a small book that is divided up into still smaller sections, it makes for great bathroom reading.

Just don’t tweet while you’re there.

Disclosure: 140 Characters was published by John Wiley & Sons, who is also my employer. I played no part in the publication of this book, and I am receiving nothing in return for writing about it here.