Less Is More: Using Social Media to Inspire Concise WritingBy Shannon Doyne and Holly Epstein Ojalvo
Overview | How can online media like Twitter posts, Facebook status updates and text messages be harnessed to inspire and guide concise writing? In this lesson, students read, respond to and write brief fiction and nonfiction stories, and reflect on the benefits and drawbacks of “writing short.”
Materials | Slips of paper with brief stories (see below; one per student), computers with Internet access
Warm-Up | Before class, select six-word love stories from The Times’s Well blog, in the post itself and in the reader comments, to share with students. (You can find more stories in the same vein at the Web site Dear Old Love and Smith Magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs.)
To use fictional stories instead of or alongside memoirs, include the following “short short story” by Ernest Hemingway, along with stories posted on the Web site inspired by it, Six Word Stories:
For sale: baby shoes, never used.
Print your selected stories on slips of paper and distribute them to each student. Whip around, with each student reading aloud the story on his or her slip. Tell each reader to pause before beginning, to allow classmates to absorb what the previous reader shared.
Then lead a discussion, using questions like these: What do these stories have in common? Which one caught your attention most? Why? Who are the speakers? What tones did these stories strike? How did it feel to hear stories that are only six words long? Do you think it would be easier or more difficult to write a six-word tale as opposed to a more developed memoir or story? Why?
Next, have students get into pairs and rewrite a familiar story, like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, a classic novel, a popular film or a text they read in class, in six words. Can they do it? How many words do they need? Ten? Twenty? Are their creations humorous, or direct summaries?
After five minutes, have the pairs share their writing with the whole group. Wrap up by discussing the process and the effect: What is lost, and gained, by adhering to strict and brief word limits? What skills are engaged in writing concisely as opposed to developing an idea? What choices did they have to make? How is the effect different on the reader? How easy or difficult was this task? Why?
Related | In the Op-Ed “Teaching to the Text Message,” Andy Selsberg of the Dear Old Love blog writes about the importance of mastering concision:
I’ve been teaching college freshmen to write the five-paragraph essay and its bully of a cousin, the research paper, for years. But these forms invite font-size manipulation, plagiarism and clichés. We need to set our sights not lower, but shorter.
I don’t expect all my graduates to go on to Twitter-based careers, but learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students’ daily chatter, as well as the world’s conversation. The photo caption has never been more vital.
And in “How Do I Love Thee? Count 140 Characters” by Randy Kennedy, the focus is on the literary potential of the Twitter post:
But there’s evidence that the literary flowering of Twitter may actually be taking place. The Twitter haiku movement — “twaiku” to its initiates — is well under way. Science fiction and mystery enthusiasts especially have gravitated to its communal immediacy. And even litterateurs, with a capital L, seem to be warming to it.
Read the articles with your class — both of which are brief! — using the questions below.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- How does Andy Selsberg propose that colleges should change their writing courses? Why?
- How long has Twitter been around?
- How has the literary writing produced or inspired by Twitter evolved in this time?
- What are some examples?
- What do you think about Twitter as a general means of communication and as an outlet for creative writing like poetry and fiction?
Personal Writing: Students write a series of Twitter-esque personal “essays” (140 characters maximum, including spaces and punctuation). Topic ideas include the school year, life lessons, relationships and personal goals. Each one can be stand-alone, or each post can be part of a series. They might do this, for example, for personal writing or in the context of developing college essay ideas. They then develop one or more selected posts into a longer piece. Afterward, debrief: How did starting off by writing brief expressions of their ideas contribute to their writing process?
Authentic Writing: Taking a page from Andy Selsberg, students find ways to contribute meaningfully and authentically to the world of the Web. Ideas include, as Mr. Selsberg suggests, writing descriptions to “sell” an item of used clothing on eBay, commenting on a YouTube video or contributing a product review on a site like Amazon, as well as participating in our daily Student Opinion discussions. Establish guidelines for good Web citizenship. Have students read each other’s posts and provide helpful feedback. How was this activity different from writing academic essays that only the teacher reads?
Poetry: Students read the Twitter poems by Billy Collins, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Alexander and Robert Pinsky. They then write their own original “Twitter poems” or rewrite a classic poem or one of their own poems in 140 characters or fewer. They can also look further into the history and impact of brief poems, like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and William Carlos Williams’s “So Much Depends.”
Creative Writing: Students write pieces inspired by so-called Twitter novels and cellphone novels, either by writing the equivalent of an original story or novella 140 characters at a time, or by “crowd-sourcing” the work, by having each student contribute a line, in turn, to a class novel.
Literature: As they read a literary text, students compose and share brief related online posts. To do this, have the class sign up for Twitter (note that they can “protect their tweets” so that only approved Twitter users can see their posts) or use a class blog, like a Ning, or Facebook page. Options for how to do this include the following:
- Each student or pair posts in the voice of an assigned character, sharing the character’s thoughts and feelings as the story progresses.
- Students use this format to do a “quotes, questions, comments” activity, in which they regularly post favorite or notable quotations, questions they have about the text or comments or observations on the material.
- Students hold an ongoing informal discussion in this format, sharing personal responses to the text and responding to one another.
Going Further | Students continue to experiment with how to use Twitter, Facebook, text messaging and other digital resources as writing format, writing fodder or both. Sources of inspiration for this might include The Times’s “Missed Connections” series, in which posts on Craigslist are presented as found poems.
And for more ways to integrate technology into your practice, see our page on teaching with and about technology.
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
3. Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
6. Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of literary texts
7. Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of informational texts
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
10. Understands the characteristics and components of the media
3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society and the individual
4. Understands the nature of technological design
5. Understands the nature and operation of systems
6. Understands the nature and uses of different forms of technology