In writing an article, I know I’m done when I delete. The process leading to done is chaotic; it’s days, weeks, or months of aggregating writing where I collect and organize paragraphs and sentences. Over time, content creation becomes content shaping as I organize the thoughts into a pleasing coherence.
And then, in a moment, it’s done. It looks nothing like the final product, I still have hours of writing and editing to do, but I know that I’m done because I can see the arc and the shape of the piece. I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but, most importantly, I have the new ability to remove. I can delete. A line here, a paragraph there — I can let go of things of former importance.
It’s one of the biggest writing lessons I’ve learned in the past few years — the art of less — and the appearance of Twitter has only reinforced this lesson’s importance.
Two Tweets, Three Guidelines
There are two kinds of tweets:
Original material. This is you talking to everyone.
Retweets, quotes, and links. This is you forwarding a thing that you find interesting to everyone. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call these retweets.
There’s another type of tweet that I want to talk about briefly and that’s the conversational tweet. What does this tweet tell you?
@commanda No clue
Not a thing. As you’ll see with the three following guidelines, my Twitter expectation is that each time I glance at my Twitterstream that I can something of value in any tweet. While conversational tweets are interesting for you and the recipient, they leave the rest of us in the dark.
Say More with Less
Tweet material just shows up. I’m sitting there in someone’s office when they say something which is, well, twitterable. This identification process has become annoyingly front-of-mind over the past year to the point that I interrupt important meetings with the simple declaration, “That’s twitterable”.
With solid twitterable material on my hands, I ask, “Does it need an edit?” The editing of tweets started out as a practicality for me. I needed to know whether or not my rough tweets were more than 140 characters, so I’d fire up WriteRoom, which conveniently counts characters, words, and paragraphs. Yes, I know Twitteriffic counts characters and so does the Twitter web application, but writing happens in big, open places. I don’t like typing in boxes; I want a canvas.
With the rough tweet dumped into WriteRoom, I start cutting. First to get it under the 140-character limit, but, more importantly, to reduce the idea to the basics. The Elements of Style has advice here. They suggest: “Avoid fancy words”. Why utilize when you can use? My advice is similarly confusing: “Drop words to give them room to think”.
In my head, I’m cutting words from my tweet to give you room to mentally add your own:
BEFORE: If it’s 4am, I know how stressed I am.
AFTER: Stress is how well I know 4am.
Nine to seven words. Slight reorganization, but which says more to you?
The act of editing a tweet seems contradictory to the impulsive nature of tweets, which means this is a good time to remind you that I’m a repeatedly stated firm believer that Twitter is what you make of it. I want my tweets with a bit of art. I want each word considered. You want to share the intimate details of your Battlestar Galactica watching habits. Whatever works for you, but how about…
Don’t Say What You’re Doing, Say Why You’re Doing It
The question Twitter asks is, “What are you doing?” I can’t think of the last time that I followed that direction. Fact is 95% of my day would bore the shit out of you. Really. There’s a chance you might derive some meager inspiration from the fact that, right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing — talking to no one — but what is more interesting is why I’m here. Why I choose to do what I do. The tweet is, “Avoiding a meeting I hate”.
It’s just a mental step further from “What are you doing?” It’s a moment of introspection to transform the boring details of your day into delicious group therapy. This is why I think you should…
Add a Bit of Yourself
Twitter is you. I’m a big fan of the retweet, but I have the same fundamental problem with it that I have with literal answers to “What are you doing?” My question about the zero-add retweet is, “So what?”
Yes, the point of the tweet is the link and, yes, I follow some people because they are experts at finding compelling content on the Web that I probably care about. I don’t want just the content; I want to know what you think about it. Retweeting an article? Great, what’s the one line you love? Think that lolcat is funny? Me too, but why?
I’ve already got a bevy of sites that are scrubbing and prioritizing the web for me. I check them four times a day and they serve their purpose well. But these sites lack authenticity. I don’t need another list of interesting links.
In Twitter, you follow people, not content.
My brief research into the English language revealed the average character count of a word is eight. Throw together a bunch of a smaller and bigger words, some single spaces and punctuation and you roughly end up with the average 140-character tweet being somewhere between 14 and 20 words. Let’s call it 15.
In my opinion, the art of a good tweet is not just how much you can convey using extreme brevity, it’s also how you can take an idea, shape it with a bit of yourself, and give it to someone else who, if you’ve given them reason, will do the same.