Microblogging and writing error messages

twitter As you know, Aaron and I are posting fairly regularly on Twitter. And we’ve been noticing a number of blog posts about how Twitter can make you a better writer. Even a better tech writer.

It’s an interesting idea, and I have to agree with it to a point. When microblogging, you have 140 characters (including spaces and punctuation) in which to make your point. And you need to pack as much information as you can into that small space.

Applying this to error messages

Which brings me to writing error messages. You can definitely apply some of the concepts of microblogging to crafting error messages. Like a good tweet or a dent or a jaiku, a good error message must:

  • Be concise
  • Contain useful information, for both the person reading it and technical support
  • Be easy to read and understand

And a good error message might also contain a link or a code from which someone can derive additional information.

Concentrate, concentrate

Doing this requires that you concentrate. You have to think about what you’re writing and the words that you use. While that pretty much defeats the spontaneity of microblogging, you have to keep in mind that writing error messages is a different kind of task. You’re not looking for immediacy — as someone pointed out, people read tweets within five minutes of their posting or not at all. The error messages that you write, though, will endure for a number of releases. Or longer.

My advice when writing error messages? A few points:

  • Keep the 140 character limit of microblogging at the front of your mind
  • Use active language
  • If possible, embed links to additional information on the error within the message
  • Write tightly

Tech writing 101 …

A final thought

So, should you get an account with a microblogging service in order to improve as a writer or error messages (or anything else)? As I wrote elsewhere recently, maybe you don’t need to go out and do some microblogging. Just remember the main principle of microblogging — keep things short and interesting — when writing. If you do that often enough it becomes a habit. And your writing, along with your error messages, will definitely be tighter.

Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  • http://altmilan.blogspot.com Milan Davidovic

    Good post; thanks for this.

    The immediacy point reminds me of planning — an individual error message is one member of a larger family. Each message, therefore, should be the result of careful “family planning”, yes?

    • http://www.dmncommunications.com Scott

      @Milan “family planning” … never thought of it like that!