Character Limits

A purple reverse negative photograph of a vintage clock by Angela Bonilla

Ornate Vintage Clock in Deep Purple by Angela Bonilla

A few months ago I wrote a post called #DraftingIsHell. The title pretty much says it all. I’m one of those writers that drafts just to have something to edit. It’s only in edits that I find the threads that pull a story together.

In that post, I compared my writing process to sculpting, with drafting being the equivalent of making the clay. Recently though, the way I think about writing has changed. Working on my current project feels more like building a clock. Drafting is like digging through a big box of parts. Revision is figuring out how to assemble them and editing is the process of fitting them together and making sure they work properly.

Which brings me to my point. Twitter has made me a better editor. Or rather, it’s made me a more efficient writer.

I realize that efficient is a cold-sounding word. It doesn’t carry the throbbing creative impulse that fills your doc with a promising, fresh-faced draft. Efficiency is a different form of creative, more about refinement than creation. It’s the difference between drawing a clock and making a clock. When you draw a clock, you want to let yourself dream of the clock’s potential. But when you build the clock, you need efficiency to make sure the damn thing works.

So, back to Twitter. Have you ever gone over the character limit on a tweet? When you do, you get this little notification:

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 3.21.51 PM

It’s that “you’ll have to be more clever” that makes me smile. Not long ago, I realized how applicable that is to writing – not how clever are you? per se, but rather how cleverly can you say something?

Balancing your content in the most effective way is a sort of cleverness. It’s how you slide under a reader’s skin, rather than appealing to their brain. That’s what makes flash fiction such a pleasure to read – those little punches that make you feel before you think. Therein lies the beauty (and cleverness) of efficiency.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t great advantages to expansive prose and rambling, evocative imagery. That’s some of my favorite stuff. What I have found though is that it’s good to be able to choose what sort of style serves a story best, and then execute on that choice.

Sometime over the past year or so, I began to think of every post and every story as a puzzle box that I fold up as tightly as I possibly can. Then, in the reading (if I’ve done it right), it’s meant to unfold and reveal more than the word count might imply. If a piece of writing is going to work like that though, the parts have to be balanced. It’s my job in editing to weight them out correctly. Every word, rhythm and pause has to have a purpose. There isn’t room for anything that doesn’t serve the design that came from that first creative burst.

There’s great freedom in boundaries like word counts and character limits, even when those boundaries are largely self imposed. After all, I could write a 5,000 word post but that wouldn’t feel as satisfying as saying in 1k (at least to me), just as I wouldn’t want to write an essay in an endless string of tweets. Context and form shape style and voice, even when (or especially when) the influence is a happy accident. Blogging and social media have taught me to say more by writing less. They force me to be efficient, and to figure out ways to say more than what is, strictly speaking, on the page.


  1. Thank you for that, M – it makes me realise that I need to think more about my editing and put more thought into my writing process…to be a little more considered about whether I’ve found the most effective way to put across my point. As you know, editing’s my least favourite part of the process but I need to up my game – it’s great to get an insight into how another writer approaches it, so hopefully I can learn from it. 🙂

    • Thank you, T. One of the reasons I write about process is to understand why the hell I do things. I run on instinct to such a degree that I wouldn’t understand how I write at all if I didn’t. I often think of you when I’m wrestling though plotting and pacing as you are so naturally good at it. Every writer has her sweet spots, and I love learning how to strengthen those areas that aren’t quite as sweet from reading other writers who manage them well. xxx

  2. There’s absolutely an art to this. You’re right Malin.
    Each word needs to earn its keep.

  3. How come I don’t get cute messages from Twitter? It just highlights my overflow in pink.

    Reading this: “…expansive prose and rambling, evocative imagery…” I was all, yes, dammit! I want to ramble and spread out and annihilate any word count that dares to even whisper in my presence!

    Then I got to “What I have found though is that it’s good to be able to choose what sort of style serves a story best, and then execute on that choice.”…. and I was all, Okay, she’s right. Once again, Malin knows best.

    • “I want to ramble and spread out and annihilate any word count that dares to even whisper in my presence! ”

      You are awesome. (I totally do to – I just bore the hell out of myself. Seriously, the less of me to push through the better).

      Oh! As for Twitter..It’s choosy about when it gives you the clever message – only when you’re trying to share something directly from a site. I’d love more variety, like fortune cookies. “Your tweet will be seen by millions is you shave off three characters”. That would be rad.

  4. Building a clock? Careful now.

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