Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Google may make us stupid, but Twitter is making me more succinct

By Molly Boushell

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As a writer, I’ve never met a comma I didn’t like. Using them to flow from one aspect of an idea to another, I had a tendency to find myself at the end of the sentence, needing to look up. I found myself searching for where the unruly agglomeration began, rereading what I had written and realizing that perhaps there was a comma where a period should be.

I do not think I’m unique in this respect. As a young student I remember being introduced to the dreaded MCAS English and Language Arts “Long Comp,” diligently trained by well-meaning teachers trying to give their class the tools needed to score high on the test. What I learned from this experience, was how to make a Writer’s Web and to write absolutely as much as one could.

Looking back on guidelines for the scoring of these exams, I understand that what teachers were actually passing along was “rich topic/idea development,” or the way to score a 6 in Topic/Idea Development on the test. What they were giving us was the best chance at a 4 in Standard English Conventions, imposing that “length and complexity of essay provide opportunity for students to show control of standard English conventions.” These teachers were preparing students to write an essay on a topic unknown to them. They could not be sure that it was a topic they had covered over the year, or that it was not one whose instruction had been cut short in an effort to educate students rather than cover all of the bases.

And so, with this in mind, their advice made sense. Write as much as you know and as long of an essay as you can.

Unfortunately, prioritizing length over other aspects of writing is a demand that still remains with us. Students are asked to write papers rich in content as well as of a certain length. Demonstrating a command of the English language, intricate sentence structures and what is politely called BS are viewed as important factors in getting the grade, often even a better grade than the content warrants. The “Look I Can Write!” strategy dies hard, but sentences drowning in adjectives, littered in commas and that seem to go nowhere are not appreciated in the real world. Employers are significantly less impressed than the person who scored your fourth grade MCAS.

I was able to gain an interesting perspective on writing from an even more interesting source – Twitter. I was late to join the Twittersphere, mostly because I hated words like Twittersphere. I thought Twitter was shallow with its abundance of hashtags, self-indulgent content and 140 character limits. I bought into the idea that reducing thoughts, feelings and ideas into 140 characters or less was ridiculous and reductionist, and that it was further corrupting the English language with ‘words’ like “srsly” and “omg.”

By actually using Twitter instead of listening to the negative hype, though, I have found that I am more careful and creative with my writing.

Writing becomes more difficult when you have something to say and a set amount of characters to say it. Getting a message across becomes a puzzle of deciding what words are most important, which details to add to your Tweet and which are extraneous. While writing a six page paper, however, I am not under the same constraints to pare down my language as I am while composing a Tweet. I do not have to worry about that unnecessary modifier I used in the third paragraph. It is much more likely that I won’t even notice it.

While Tweeting, I become a harsh editor. The low stakes medium of Twitter trades the minimum length requirement of academia for a maximum length that encourages ruthless cutting of the unnecessary. I feel myself thinking differently while writing Tweets than while I am writing an assignment, but essentially one is just a longer, dressed-up version of the other. Writing varies depending upon the format and the audience, but good writing skills are universal. I am not suggesting that we reduce all assignments to 140 characters, but examine the contradiction in being handed a length requirement and, at the same time, being told to be concise.

Twitter has taught me just how sparse I can make my writing while preserving its integrity, a valuable skill often discussed but rarely rewarded in academia. I understand the resistance to Twitter and the alterations the Internet is making to the way people think and write, but some of these changes, vilified as the ‘stupidification’ of our generation, are actually skills we have been told are important all along. When used intelligently, Twitter has taught me how to edit my writing in a way no teacher has ever been able to do. It has changed the way I think when I write, regardless of whether or not it is 140 characters or less.

Molly Boushell is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]


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