8 ways to write shorter tweets and subject lines

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short peopleThe world is full of sensible advice that’s hard to put into practice.

Do more exercise.

Reduce your stress levels.

Accept that salt and vinegar flavor chips are not, in fact, a mainstay of a well-balanced diet. (Damn).

Oh, and keep your tweets and subject lines short.

Actually you can argue about that last bit of advice. But if you have something to say and have two equally impactful ways of saying it, then pick the shorter one.

Often it’s just a question of practicality.

Shortening your Tweets makes it easier to fit the message within the 140 character limit. If you can get the length down further, then you leave enough space for people to retweet your message in its entirety*.

Shorter subject lines avoid the pitfalls of email software arbitrarily cutting off your words.

But…how do you actually keep subject lines and Tweets short?

I’m hoping you’ll offer your own suggestions in the comments, as there’s not a lot of practical advice out there beyond, um, “keep it short”.

But here a few tips I’ve picked up over the years…

1. Rewrite

The famous quote commonly attributed to Blaise Pascal runs something like this:

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

My biggest challenge with copywriting emails, for example, is not finding the words, but finding fewer words to express the same meaning.

Your first line of text probably does communicate what you want to say, but it takes rewrites to communicate it succinctly.

2. Synonyms are your best friends

Rare is the word with no alternative. We often fall into patterns and habits, where we favor particular words simply because they’re the ones we’ve always used. Perhaps you can find shorter synonyms? For example:

Excellent article on
Great article on
Top article on
Top post on (9 spaces saved)

Buy (5 spaces saved)

Hard (5 spaces saved)

Lots of
Many (3 spaces saved)

Last year
In 2011 (2 spaces saved)

A few
Some (1 space saved)

But take care…

Not all synonyms are truly identical and a different word can introduce a subtle change in meaning.

Even true synonyms can draw a slightly different emotional response in the reader. In subject lines, particularly, it pays to test variations to find the choice that elicits the best response.

These two concepts apply to many of the tips below, too, so keep them in mind.

3. Eliminate implied and unnecessary words

Do you have any words that are not contributing to the message? Words with no impact on the meaning, value, emotion, etc. of the tweet or subject?

These are common candidates for freeing up space.

If tweeting as an individual, for example, the “I” in “I love this article:” is implicit. “Love this article:” would be fine.

Where possible, scrap unnecessary modifiers like “that”, “which” and “who”:

The presenter who was after me
The presenter after me

New products that you’ll love
New products you’ll love

You can shorten phrases using contractions:

Tips for summer fashions
Summer fashion tips

People in New York love Apple
New Yorkers love Apple

This is an article that really engages:
A really engaging article:

4. Mathematical symbols and numerals

Styleguides typically say numbers up to ten should appear as words, not numerals. But you have more flexibility in tweets and subject lines:

Seven ways to win with words
7 ways to win with words

“&” or “+” or even “/” can substitute for “and”:

Email more popular than beer and chocolate
Email more popular than beer & chocolate

The “>” and “<” symbols can be used for “less than”, “more than”, “under”, “over”…with certain audiences:

Fewer than 10% of marketers test their copy
<10% of marketers test their copy

Try “=” instead of “equals”, “means”, “leads to” etc.:

Donut consumption shown to lead to higher risk of stomach ache
More donuts = more stomach aches

5. The active voice

Switching from passive to active voice simply reads better, but also means shorter text:

Half of marketers are using email design preview tools
Half of marketers use email design preview tools
50% of marketers use email design preview tools

6. Hashtags

Twitter’s hashtags, like many tools, are neither good nor bad. It’s all in how you use them.

A suitable hashtag might replace lengthier information explaining the context for a tweet:

Images lift clicks by 34% when used in marketing emails
Images lift clicks by 34% in marketing emails
Images lift clicks by 34% #emailmarketing

7. Abbreviations

Nobody is going to write United Kingdom when they can write UK. Abbreviations are great space savers, provided you follow two rules.

1. They must be understandable (audience)

Well, yeah.

Except it’s easy to use abbreviations you’re familiar with, and forget that your audience isn’t. “Promo code” for “promotional code” seems unarguable. “w/ free shipping” for “with free shipping”? Maybe.

2. They must be appropriate (context)

My wife is familiar with the abbreviation OMG. I’m not sure, though, she wants to see it in an email from her gynecologist:

“OMG, u r pregnant!”

(She’d be quite surprised, too).

Your choice of abbreviations says something about you as a sender / tweeter.

Equally, subject lines are not tweets and tweets are not SMS text messages. The medium alone changes what abbreviations are acceptable and that’s before we get into the context of the message itself.

Too many abbreviations are also difficult to read and interpret if you’re not familiar with that kind of writing.

“UNESCO says tnx FB 4 gr8 AIDS donation”


FYI, Social Media Today has a list of common Twitter abbreviations.

8. URL shorteners

Needless to say, anyone putting a link in a tweet should use one of the common URL shortening services out there. The popular tools used to send tweets should make this easy. So the Hootsuite tool turns:




Links in tweets posted through Twitter itself are also automatically shortened.

9. Colons and trailing dots

OK, this is your bonus tip with a couple of related techniques.

If space isn’t an issue and you have trouble getting important keywords near the front of your subject line or tweet, consider the colon option. Example:

Great advice on how to write shorter subject lines
Subject lines: how to make them shorter <– great advice

If you’re running out of space and want to imply there’s more information than you can reasonably fit into the subject line or tweet, consider using trailing dots:

Free shipping on top brands: Calvin Klein, Burberry, Coach, Trussardi, Fila,…

And finally…

In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote:

“Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood”

He could have said:

“You annoy me”

…and saved 63 spaces. But it’s not the same is it?

Short, concise writing can destroy style, humor, emotion and personality if handled badly. And these may be the very things that differentiate you from the competition or drive higher responses. Words matter and, sometimes, long beats short.

So…your tips please!

*You need two spaces for the RT, then a space, then your username plus a colon plus a space: so tweets by @MarkatEMR need to be 125 characters or less to be retweeted as RT @MarkatEMR: Blah Blah

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Permalink | February 22nd, 2012 | 36 Comments »
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36 comments on “8 ways to write shorter tweets and subject lines”

  1. Jean says:

    Interesting tips Mark, thanks for sharing. Identifying the most appropriate subject line length can be a little ambiguous.

    I agree that shorter subject lines are best. In fact our own internal report supports that theory, with a large majority of subject lines under 15 characters generating the highest number of opens.

    But on the other hand, sometimes you just need a few extra spaces to get your point across and make sure your message is clear.

    My tip would be to test, test and test again to identify the subject line length that results in the most opens/clicks.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Yep, I am still surprised at many test results. Which just proves how important it is to test and not rely solely on instinct/intuition/experience.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Less = more (1 space saved)

      You made me smile at the start of a difficult day – thanks Robin!

  2. Anna Yeaman says:

    Cheers, handy advice for writing blog posts as well. I keep to three line chunks (your fault). I end up having to rewrite and ditch content. Though it forces me to hone it down.

    I like how you do a paragraph of one simple phrase, “Often it’s just a question of practicality.” It breaks up long posts and adds a nice rhythm. I’m going to give it a go :)

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Thanks Anna. Writing like that takes some getting used too, but it’s worth it. Especially if (like me) you write long articles.

      I drew my line/paragraph length inspiration from Nick Usborne.

  3. Remy Bergsma says:

    A German quote is fitting here I believe:
    In der beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister – Less is more!

    Great post with handy dandy tips Mark. Especially part 3 is nice: there are so many times people include too much fluff in sentences.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Thanks Remy. I find using Twitter is very good training for subject lines. It’s not quite the same but it encourages a discipline that comes in handy for subjects (and vice versa probably).

  4. Great article Mark. I am a fan of less is more, and have made this compulsory reading for my eMarketing team.

    Just battling to get my head around why More donuts = more stomach aches. #unfair

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Thanks Alison. I’m in week 3 of a junk-food-free lifestyle myself. So far so good, but donuts…mmmm.

  5. It is a challenge not to exchange clarity for brevity (is/=)?

    Especially for scientists/statisticians/pedants!

    Your day WILL improve if you look at this.

    Space saving with letters started in the 70′s (http://bit.ly/zsCQB)

    Cheers Mark

  6. Tom Smith says:

    “Use” instead of “utilize”

    • nyexpat says:

      Okay people, especially “executives” and “marketers”…STOP, I repeat, STOP using (actually, here UTILIZING) the word utilize incorrectly!!!
      It doesn’t make you sound smarter.

      Here’s an example:

      I used my pen to write a note.
      NOT “I utilized my pen to write a note.”

      To properly USE utilize:
      I utilized my pen to wedge open the door.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Ah, yes, good one! Another one I see a lot in science (where I also work) is:

      “is capable of” = “can”

  7. Ed Hadley says:

    Great post! I’m guessing you’re a fan of The Elements of Style, as you’ve expertly adapted the lessons for 21st century communication mediums. Always enjoy reading your blog.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Thanks Ed. Have to own up that I haven’t a copy of Strunk but I’m flattered by your comment!

  8. One more for Twitter space saving:
    Use a question. So instead of ‘If you’re a service business, read this great article that tells you how to …’ write’Service business? Great article that tells you how to …

  9. PeterL says:

    Often, in English, a word derived from the Germanic side of our linguistic history will be shorter and punchier than one drawn from our French/Romance roots. Consider our most popular swear-words, for example.

    But I’d also like to suggest that longer words can be effective if they are especially powerful or evocative. “Utilize” brings nothing useful to the table. “Carbuncle” (as in your Shakespeare quote) is probably – in the right circumstances – worth the space it takes.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Thanks Peter – I can’t emphasize that point enough.

      The principle behind brevity is a good one, but it shouldn’t be confused with always choosing the shorter alternative.

      There is a balance to be struck. As I mention in the post, there is a danger that writing can have the style and personality sanitized out of it if you’re not careful.

  10. David says:

    Everyone will benefit from reading “The Dictionary of Concise Writing”(http://gtpll.in/x77Rii) by Robert Fiske.(http://gtpll.in/ApqdWe)

    Contains thousands of great examples to support the excellent list Mark has prepared.

    And, simply re-reading before you click *send* improves clarity & brevity.

  11. Bettina says:

    Great tips, articulately communicated.

    Just a note, though: when I use the “Tweet” button below the headline to share, it puts in the full web address. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, but, you know, #8.

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Ah, yes…fortunately it just looks like that Bettina. It shows you the full URL, but in the actual Tweet (and for the displayed remaining character count) it uses a shortened one.

  12. Is it not just the content of the tweet but also the words used?

    Compelling and engaging headlines that are short and precise work much better than the long winded tweets that we often see.

    Also in a junk free diet at the moment but did succumb to some maltesers yesterday that were “the lighter way to enjoy chocolate. I find it easier to indulge on a lot less of a level than “pigging out” :)


  13. Mark, your post on subject lines brings about a couple of thoughts from me. 1. Always ask, “Who do I wish to read this email?” and make sure you write to them. i.e ‘Attention… Only Serious Email Marketers Should Read This’ or ‘At Last! Email Subject Line Examples That WORK’ My second thought is to repeat or build upon your subject line in an Email Subject Line. i.e. ‘Attention… Only Serious Email Marketers Should Read This’ – in the email becomes – Hi (First Name) This email is only for serious email marketers – Let me explain… AND ‘At Last! Email Subject Line Examples That WORK’ becomes in the email..Hi (First Name) These four email subject line types work. Learn how you can use them in your email marketing today… Testing is crucial if you wish to remain in this game. It gives you a chance to follow up on winning or losing stats.

  14. Craig says:

    Keep subject length <45 characters.

    Here's a case study: http://www.pinpointe.com/blog/webinar-use-split-testing-to-improve-email-responses

    Distilled down from a sampling of 300 million messages.

  15. Carla says:

    Good article – but to your Point 4; I was under the impression that using symbols in your subject line will dramatically increase the likelihood of your email being marked as spam… any thoughts on this?

    • Mark Brownlow says:

      Hi Carla,

      The short answer is that using symbols like “=” will not dramatically increase your chances of being blocked as spam.

      The idea that they do dates back to a few years ago when subject line checks were basically the main kind of spam filter. Even then, it was more words like “VI@GRA” they were looking for, not whether you had a “/” in there.

      Spam checks today look at dozens of factors and the role of the subject line check has been downvalued considerably.

      Here’s a white paper I wrote on the topic of getting emails delivered which covers all you’d need to know.

  16. Adrian Kaule says:

    Gr8t article Mark, still love your blog, keep it up! :)

  17. Stanley Rao says:

    Great article. Even i agree to the fact that the subject lines mentioned in the email should be small. The smaller the subject line the more chances of attracting the customers..

  18. Crystal says:

    Thanks for the great tips. Tweeting is an artform that I am just learning and your advice is going to be very helpful.