Writing in plain English means writing in a simple and straightforward manner that lets you reach the widest possible audience. When you write in plain English, you avoid technical jargon and any type of specialized vocabulary that is likely to exclude many readers. The question is, how do you apply this principle to social media writing?
Social media has emerged as a major force on the Internet today. It has also changed the way people communicate. Along with mobile phone texting, social media is creating a whole new vocabulary. Consider the last text message, Tweet or Facebook status update that you wrote (or read). How does that compare to the type of English you were required to write in school?
Jargon-Free Writing is Good
There are some definite advantages to writing in plain English. Whenever you use jargon, you are making your potential audience smaller. People who can’t readily understand what you’re saying are unlikely to comprehend your message.
Social media is perceived as being popular with young people. While this is true, it has gone far beyond a youthful trend. Yet if you fall into the trap of writing like a teenager, you potentially alienate older people. In this case, “older” can be anyone over the age of 30, who can recall the pre-social media and text messaging era.
While text messaging is not social media, it has definitely had an impact on how many people communicate. The closest thing to text messaging in social media is Twitter, where your message is restricted to 140 characters. Yet even on Facebook and other social sites, you will commonly see people writing with abbreviations and misspellings.
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For example, you might see messages such as, “Thnx i will c u 2nite.” While this type of message is not hard to translate into plain English, it is not going to appeal to everyone.
If you are doing any type of marketing online, it’s especially important to reach the largest possible audience. Another factor to consider is that plain English helps you maintain a more professional image.
If you are trying to convince people to purchase your product or visit your website, you don’t want to be too casual with language. People may conclude that you are equally casual with your customer service or quality control.
Applying Plain English to Social Media
Is it even possible to write plain English in social media?
There is a misconception that the very format of social media demands that we change the way we write. This is not the case. You always have the option to write in plain English, even on Twitter.
While social media may seem different from print publications or even other types of online communication (such as email), there’s no reason to think of it this way. Social media is simply the latest platform for talking to people, so you need not feel obligated to change the language when you use it.
As I mentioned, don’t assume that all of your readers on social sites are young. There seems to be a certain curve when it comes to new technological developments. At first, they are embraced primarily by the youth, but older people quickly follow.
A good example of this is Facebook. It began as a site for college students. Even after it became a public site, it mainly attracted younger users. Soon after that, however, people of all ages began to join. Today, it is practically universal. The same type of trend can be found on other social sites.
What this means is that your social media audience is just as likely to be a 60+ grandmother as a 17 year old high school student. By using plain English, you can communicate effectively with everyone.
Writing Concisely on Social Media Sites
Let’s see how we can apply plain English to specific social media sites.
Twitter: I’ll start with this one because it would seem to be the most challenging. With only 140 characters, this site practically compels you to abbreviate—or does it? The fact is, you can write perfectly normal English sentences if you keep them brief.
The way you do this is by referring people to another site if you have more to say. For example, it’s common for people to tweet messages such as:
“U shud c this, u will luv it.“
This is not necessary, though. You could just as easily say,
“I think you will appreciate the information on this site: http://www.mysite.com”
The above sentence only contains 81 characters, giving you plenty of space. Even though Twitter restricts you from being wordy, it actually gives you more freedom than many people assume!
Even if you aren’t including a link and want to impart a certain message, you have room to construct a coherent sentence without abbreviating.
– OR –
Facebook: With Facebook you have no restrictions of character or word length. People often post status updates as though they were texting, but this is just out of habit. You don’t have to follow this pattern of behavior.
Since people are used to shorter rather than longer messages on social sites, you don’t want to ramble aimlessly with your status updates. However, you don’t need to abbreviate or feel that you have to cut off your message at a certain point either. A full paragraph is fine.
If you’re really picky about writing concisely, then this is a better example:
LinkedIn: Geared especially towards business owners, this is a rapidly growing site with a diverse member base. While they all share an interest in business and marketing, you will find people from all walks of life, and from all different locations.
Because LinkedIn is a professional business and networking site, your best approach is to use plain English and sound formal. Here some people are not so much tempted to write as though they were texting as to fall into business or technical jargon. This is something you should avoid, because you never want to assume that people have a background in a certain area or industry.
If you offer search engine optimization services, for example, you should not assume that everyone knows the benefits of SEO.
You could write, for example:
Tumblr: This is a popular micro-blogging platform where you can blog about any topic or use its free services to brand your business or message. Tumblr’s preference of using simple, responsive layouts as its default templates for all blogs actually encourages most bloggers to write short, terse posts, add 1-3 sentence status updates, or post images and videos.
I use Tumblr as an extension of my news reporting, posting 2-5 sentence news updates related to my industry. Because I write for a specific audience, I am at liberty to use a technical term here or there without alienating my readers. If I need to use jargon because it works better, I may decide to include a definition of the word enclosed in parentheses.
As with any type of content, you should make your writing easy to read, which means using short to medium-sized paragraphs. If you are writing for a general audience and need to sound formal, then adhere to a few of these plain English rules:
- Write in active voice when possible. Passive voice makes your sentences wordy.
- Be specific to make your writing sound more lively. Avoid generalizing information.
- Use everyday, simple words.
- Avoid run-on sentences.
- Don’t over stuff sentences with excessive facts and ideas.
- Avoid wordiness. For example, use “how” instead of “the manner of which.”
Other than that, you really have few restrictions.
Pinterest: This is a newer site that is image-based. When you “pin” an image to one of your boards, you can add information and a link if you want. If you pin items without writing a description, you are missing out on an opportunity.
What many pinners don’t realize is that you can include up to 500 characters of text with each pin. That’s more than 3 tweets worth! You can also pin videos as well as images.
Let’s say you are pinning a video about one of your services. You might include:
Google Plus: This is another social media site where you can share just about any type of content. Many people find that the best way to grab people’s attention is to post items that are visually appealing. If you do this, however, you should still follow the same rules I mentioned for Pinterest. Make sure you add a description or helpful commentary that invites readers to take some sort of action, such as visit your website or sign up for a free newsletter.
Use Plain English When It Feels Necessary
No matter where you are posting online, the best approach is to use plain English. This is equally true on Twitter, Facebook or your own blog (as well as any other social media site on which you are active). By avoiding technical jargon and abbreviations, you can reach the largest possible audience. The more clearly you can communicate your message, the more people will listen and understand to you.