Some letters are bigger than others, but not on Twitter

Twitter was on the minds (and fingertips) of many in attendance at the recent conference of the American Copy Editors Society. The Twitter feed was one element that gave the conference’s site the feel of social media.

That makes sense. Many copy editors take to Twitter because using it feels like writing a headline. You get 140 characters per message to transmit to your readers. That’s it.

Of course, not all journalists are excited about Twitter. It’s seen as a waste of time, or worse. The terminology of the service (“followers,” “Tweet” and “Tweeple”) probably puts off some people too.

Twitter needs to go old school. Before computers, copy editors wrote headlines with pencils and paper, counting letters by hand. They then sent their headlines to the composing room for typesetting. Choosing certain letters helped headlines fit because some letters are bigger than others. An uppercase W, for example, takes up more space than a lowercase i.

For example, a headline would allow for 18 space units. The challenge for the copy editor was writing a headline that fit that space by counting letters, punctuation and spaces. Here’s how an old edition of an editing textbook describes this counting practice:

  • Numerals and most lowercase letters count 1.
  • Lowercase f, l, i, t and j count 1/2. Lowercase m and w count 1 1/2.
  • Spaces between words and punctuation count 1/2.
  • Most uppercase letters count 1 1/2. Uppercase M and W count 2. (Ouch!)

That idea still holds true for editors writing headlines using CCI, Quark or InDesign. W is still bigger than i, but the effect is more subtle on screen because the computer is counting letters.

Twitter could use the old system to appeal to copy editors who recall this era of headline writing. Call it Throwback Twitter, with certain characters counting more or less toward the 140-character limit.

Perhaps adding this challenge to Twitter will bridge the gap between old-fashioned headlines and Tweets. It could also help novice headline writers get a feel for how different letter combinations affect how a headline fits. Advanced users would install the “kern” plug-in.

So, Twitter, what do you say?