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

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I was dubious of 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form by Dom Sagolla (available in print and iPhone formats) after reading the author’s claim that it “demonstrates the effect of hypertext on literature by redefining the concept of ‘the book’ using Twitter and iPhone to start”. Reading the book’s opening chapters, I realized it was nothing of the sort.

It’s pointless to hold the book to this standard, or what its publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., says is a Strunk and White for those of us who use social media. The author too liked the comparison to The Elements of Style.

In an interview, Sagolla says, “I have that book,” and he wants his book to be a “compliment, not a replacement— it’s an update.” To this, let Strunk and White respond,

“When you overstate, the reader will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in his mind because he has lost confidence in your judgement or your poise.”

The Elements of Style, Part Five

To be fair, these overstatements of 140 Characters value are drawn from marketing statements, so I’ll return to the book where Sagolla will “place Twitter within a larger context of the modern short form of composition.” This is an overstatement, yet his definition of style is rather modest and squishy, “Who is anyone to teach you about style? Style is the sound your words make in the mind. It is the tone taken when you are read aloud by someone else. Style is the ineffable, immeasurable spark of life in the text. Style is a mystery.”

Like the Elements of Style, 140 Characters is separated into five parts. The first two parts of the book, on the surface, are about style. The first part discusses how to make your tweets more interesting and descriptive. The second part explains how to make your Twitter style unique, how to expand your Twitter audience, how to repost (retweet) other tweets, how to use hyperlinks on Twitter, and how you can invent your own words and style on Twitter.

The later three parts are less about style and writing. Part three, Master, is about how to be successful at Twitter.

Part four is hard to summarize: it discusses programming, imitating other Twitter users, and a chapter about iterative writing, which is a confusing topic. (Sagolla explains how software programs are improved in small iterations, which are tracked and versioned, not unlike the track changes feature in a word processing application. This notion can apply to writing, but is more helpful with long form writing that is produced by several writers and editors. This metaphor is dropped after being introduced, and the rest of the chapter is about experimenting with other short form writing and playing with words, which is confusing.)

The final part is about creating series of tweets, the value of using words and fragments instead of sentences, and how Sagolla created an iPhone framework for books, including 140 Characters.

Much of this book is about how be an interesting person to follow on Twitter, or how not to be annoying. There are etiquette suggestions: Would you send it in a letter? Does anyone really care what your eating? Most of these suggestions can be reduced to considering how what you write will be received by your followers, before you write it. Beyond suggestions for tweeting, the book gives advice on how to measure your relevance on Twitter, which is gathered from how many people follow you, repost your tweets, and other statistics. Some of the tools discussed, such as TweetEffect, which shows when people have followed or un-followed you on a tweet-by-tweet basis, are quite interesting.

It’s worth mentioning that Sagolla sold the idea for this book after writing and article about the early history of Twitter, How Twitter Was Born, which is reworked as the introduction to the book. It’s this history and Sagolla’s thoughts about Twitter that I found to be the most interesting part of the book, but this content is also the most audacious. For example, here’s why there needs to be a style book for Twitter:

We stand at a frontier in writing. This wilderness grows wilder and less civilized as more writers create ever more content. We must establish a form to this frontier, and develop 140 characters as a standard worthy of the word literature.

Or, what does Twitter mean for other forms of writing?

Short messaging services, and the rich media applications that magnify them, are augmenting society one layer at a time. Superfluous, outmoded forms of communication and consumption are rapidly being replaced with new models. This is happening so rapidly that the old guard barely has time to report on the fact of its own demise.

I’m guessing, since it’s not clarified, that the old guard is newspapers and printed forms of communication, which actually spend quite a bit of time reporting on their own demise. But, those who are losing their jobs at newspapers need not worry; They can become Twitter journalists:

You think you want to be a Twitter journalist? You’ll need to check your facts, provide a truly unique perspective, and most of all lead with action. Do this with fairness, accuracy, and freedom from bias, and you will always have a job.

Finally, how will short form communication make us more free?

Democracy travels in wee packets of ideas, words shaped for speed and accuracy, arriving in moments of need. Now is the best time for free speech; it is blooming all around us. Letters packed into the crannies of text messaging programs, traded between friends and lovers, are the seeds of hope for a more literate generation.

If I wanted to argue that Twitter and related forms of communication are bad news for the future of reading and writing, I would use 140 Characters as a example. This is hardly my contention, nor do I believe this book will influence how people compose words outside of Twitter input boxes. Still, if Sagolla’s method of writing were widely imitated or if his writing instructions were taken seriously, this would be really troubling. Sagolla's advice for people who have too much to Twitter about is to make their tweets into a book. That’s what he did,

Once you have a phrase, simply adding action to that phrase (or a subject) will provide sentence structure. Review The Elements of Style and pick your sentence apart. Perhaps your phrases merit separate sentences. Soon you’ll discover a paragraph has grown around your word.
This entire book was written using a similar system derived from the short form: Fragment. Then there is a sentence. Sentences become paragraphs. Inch by inch, a book is written.

Indeed, the author’s style reads like a collection of fragments. While the author done more than copy a bunch of tweets together, the organization of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters is sloppy and disjointed. There are many sentences like this, “Plant words like seeds. Increase is not about excess, but about proliferation.” As in this example, the book’s advice is rarely expressed with concrete English. The sound this language make is your mind is that of marketing catchphrases and self-help maxims: “Speak like a leader. Your aren’t merely describing something, you are commanding it to be so. Write yourself out of a stuck situation. Write your conscience.” Moreover, I would guess that there are more fragments- or words-as-sentences than there are sentences in the book. As Jeremy Schultz writes, there are not many complete thoughts in Sagolla’s writing,

“I found 140 Characters to be ultimately a disappointment, a difficult book to read—too many random thoughts, not enough organization, and difficult to digest. I felt like I was reading a collection of quotations or sentences, each one making sense and seeming to be a valuable bit of insight, but not gelling together into a well-structured book.”

The overall organization of the book is just as scattered as it’s paragraphs. The sections and chapters seem like arbitrary markers and, as the book goes on, the sections get shorter and less cohesive. As mentioned in a summary of part five, the final “bonus” chapter does not sum up the various decisions the careful writer of short form must make; rather, it becomes a advertisement for Sagolla’s new business, Dollar Apps.

For as much as the writer may lack lucid style, my inkling was to a greater fault: a writer who wants to be taken seriously, but does not take the time to seriously write.

Again, holding the author to the claim that 140 Characters would mean something new for electronic books, the 140 Characters hypertext edition iPhone application has some nice features, but it’s not novel or great. It has copy and paste, hypertext, web browsing, multimedia features. However, It’s lacking features that are commonplace in most electronic book applications, like a search feature. And, it’s also missing technology that most dusty, old books have, i.e. a bibliography, a notes section, or an index.

There are a few extra features. There’s a recommendation page that recommends the author’s favorite iPhone applications. Two books are listed, but these too are applications, not books!) There are links to three videos and about 30 pictures. The Twitter feed for the book, @thebook, is included in application, but, unlike any other Twitter application I’ve used, the messages are truncated.

The use of hypertext in the book is bland. Many things in the body text that should be linked, such as Twitter usernames, are not. When navigating from the text to the web and back, your place in the text is often not anchored correctly, so you return to an earlier part of the text. The links in the table of contents don’t link to chapters in the book, which is really annoying. Most of the links are to tweets and other links are often to uninteresting places on the web, like Wikipedia articles, or to the author’s website and businesses.

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