Tech Life You follow people, not content

The Art of the Tweet

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?

BEFORE: NYTimes Graphic: Home Prices in Selected Cities: (@khoi)

AFTER: Ouch. Phoenix: (@khoi)

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.

15 words.

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.

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44 Responses

  1. Chris 15 years ago

    So twitter = the haiku of net2.0?

    Brevity, pithyness, wit, allusion.

  2. Scott Rosenbaum 15 years ago

    stress => 4am, still working

  3. Ryan Fox 15 years ago

    BEFORE: If it’s 4am, I know how stressed I am.

    AFTER: Stress is how well I know 4am.

    Maybe my mind is malfunctioning, but neither of these make sense to me. The ‘after’ tweet sounds like a Markov chain.

    If there’s plenty of room left in your tweet, there’s no point in confusing people.

  4. Enjoyed the essay. There is an art to conversational tweets as well, though. My rule of thumb is that half of my @replies should make sense to other followers. Not just “@commanda No clue”, but “@commanda No clue, because…”. The second part of that tweet is hopefully strong alone.

    Because of Twitter’s default settings, many followers won’t see the reply, so it’s kind of a like a free “bonus content” tweet, expanding on an idea without overflowing its original 140 box.

  5. I’m with Manton; conversational tweets can (and should) be intriguing enough to draw other people into the chat, if you welcome them. If not, DM.

  6. KiltBear 15 years ago

    And sometimes, sometimes, twitter is simply a great way for friends to stay in touch. Sometimes it is the rss feed of several other social tools. It can be more about being social and less about being a tool.

    Life is interesting enough, that even if you do miss a couple of really important things, you’ll “be okay.”

    The best analogy for twitter for me is to think of it as walking through the room of a cocktail party.

  7. It could just be me but that second before/after example looks like overediting to the point of, well, losing the point. “NYTimes Graphic: Home Prices in Selected Cities” might not be the best phrasing possible but it’ll make me want to click on the link to see what useful or interesting stuff might be found. But “Ouch. Phoenix” is more or less meaningless and almost certainly something I’d ignore. It drops any clue about what the link references as well as taking a national story and making it seem like it has only regional relevance.

    Too many tweets like that and I start thinking of the author as a series of non-sequiturs. Or if I’m not following them already, posts like that don’t stoke any interest in adding them to my list.

  8. @tom – that might be true; Rands example is a little short, but I appreciate a tweet that gives me credit as a consumer of news elsewhere in the world.

    I don’t typically follow people as beacons of headlines I could easily find in my news feed, or on other news sites. I follow people because I want their take on it.

  9. This is a rather nice description of the process of writing poetry.

  10. This is a rather nice description of the process of writing poetry.

  11. @patrick: It’s not about being interested in news from other parts of the world, or about whether the link could have shown up in your RSS reader. It’s about whether the tweet includes enough information to make sense, and about whether posting a link includes even a basic clue as to what the link is about. I’m not defending the initial wording, I just think the replacement has so little information that it becomes useless.

  12. Well, I wouldn’t have clicked on a tweet just linking to house prices by city, but I *did* follow the link to find out what was so “ouch” about Phoenix… and subsequently found those graphs interesting.

    As for the poetry thing, well, I’d say we all need a little more poetry and a little more art in our lives.

  13. You mean, like this:

    “Sometimes, I think about a tweet all day until I got it all ripe in my head… Thank god I am not the only crazy one:

  14. Thank you.

    You made me realise the mistakes that made me stop twittering.

  15. Re: Agreed. This is the second thing I tell friends who ask me to explain Twitter. That’s not because I’m wise. It’s because I am going to have to follow them and I don’t want to read a play by play.

    But also: You’ve helped me realize that there’s room for magic in articulating the “why.” I’ve spent the last couple of hours reviewing the financials of a project. I could tweet, “Trying to make ends meet on this project,” but that would just depress everyone, especially me. Tweeting “Clearing up cash flow so I can focus on getting things done right” gets my own head in the right place for actually working. Useful.

  16. Nicely put, rands.

  17. Chris 15 years ago


    How are you scrubbing and prioritizing the web? I’m in dire need of something more effective than google reader 🙂

  18. The “Ouch. Phoenix.” tweet was one that I ignored, for precisely the reasons Tom mentioned above. It was over-edited and no longer conveyed any sensible content the link was about — reinforced by the fact that “Phoenix” is a very ambiguous word to use. Was Rands referring to the city, the bird, the X-men universe archetype? I didn’t care anymore to find out due to the lack of information in the tweet.

    The essay was useful nonetheless, because just a little bit of thought put into these things can prove invaluable. What I’m trying to say is simply that there is such a thing as too much thought as well.

  19. I agree with several commenters that some of the examples here were… a bit too abbreviated. As Ryan Fox wrote “If there’s plenty of room left in your tweet, there’s no point in confusing people.” The way I put it in my twelcome page is “You have 1430 characters. Use them.”

    That said, I agree with the spirit of the article if not the specific examples. Think. Consider. Edit as necessary. Make the thought come alove. Help your audience to see or feel what you do. Try to stay positive (who wants to follow someone who is always down?) I liked John Fishback’s example of getting your own head in the right place.

    Personally, I try to make my @replied be understandable for anyone who missed the other half of the conversation. I try to tack a comment on to a retweet (why did I think this was worth passing on?) I try to add value. I hope I succeed.

    I want my tweet stream to be one I would enjoy reading if it wasn’t my own. 🙂

  20. Dmytro Malenko 15 years ago

    Haiku was the first thing that came to my mind after reading this. Twits are short so it is more important what reader thinks and feels after reading it, not that it literally has to say. But I guess what you say should only be one step further than what you mean. Two steps and no one (almost) will get what you mean.

  21. Tired of Twitter talk…

  22. Thank you.

    Your readers might enjoy a piece on Twitter etiquette about making replies relevant to your network and about filtering yourself.

  23. rusty gifford 15 years ago

    I hope I never use the term ‘twitterable’, let alone stop a conversation to utter such nonsense.


  24. It sounds like the issue isn’t necessarily brevity, but relevancy.

    I changed my Twitter settings to address this. Now, I only see @ replies to people I’m following. So I either get all of the conversation, or none of it. It makes for a better beacon. Or at least a narrower, more focused one.

  25. Loved your thoughts about spicing your twitters with your flavor. Great examples too. Let’s also remember that Twitter IS NOT Instant Messaging nor a to the minute update of how your day is going.

  26. miltoncontact 15 years ago

    Don’t twitter. Tweet!

  27. Smart, simple, and straightforward. This reinforced many reactions I have had but had not really thought about to now. Thanks for the informative tips.

  28. its a practical mental exercise, say why are you doing what you are doing in only 15 words!

    I’ll give it a try!

  29. I’ve struggled with the whole “what” thing. “Why” makes so much more sense. Thanks.

  30. Roger 15 years ago

    Rands: you’re a superb writer, and I await your new posts with trepidation.

    But if I read another post about that useless purulent boil on the Web’s ass that is twitter, my love for your writings will be irreparably dented by what I perceive to be a chink in the force field I felt surrounded you and made you impervious to faddish hogwash.

    I want the Rands who writes 1,200 words about notebooks and conducts shootouts of rollerball pens. The free-thinking, fuck-you-I’m-an-anteater Rands.

    For mundane chronicles of the useless, overhyped, and ordinary, I go to cnet and techcrunch. You’re way better than that.

  31. Would love to see where your research into the average number of letters in the English language comes from.

  32. Rands,

    You are a terrific writer! Witty and refreshing.

    I pretty much blast through blogs, speed-reading to extract information on a schedule. Rarely do I stop and become engrossed.

    With your site, I paused, read, clicked. Paused, read, clicked. Paused, read, read, read, clicked.

    30 minutes later: Bravo.

  33. I hate to nitpick, but the mean/median/mode problem seems to have infiltrated into your research regarding the average English word length. In the average modern English corpus assembled for language study (ie: newspapers, AP articles, bestselling books), the average English word is about 5 letters. I know that when calculating how many words a person can type per minute, they use the measure of 5 characters and a space as a word.

    This automated survey of international literature archives suggests 5.10 letters per word in English.

  34. uppee 15 years ago

    Uhhh dude. U right lik real kool about the tweety bird. r deez othr ppl like so super smart r sumting. odor ppl stop it hatng.

  35. It’s refreshing to come across a blog with such cool content and witty writing style. Thanks for that. I’m just beginning in the twitter world and need more of your insights. 🙂

  36. I’m always reminded of Hemmingway’s shortest story.

    “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

    Packs quite a lot into 6 words.

  37. Things that I like after watching web 2.o, blog, IM motivation in youtube is really inspiring.It’s like giving a boost to your adrenalin and when you feel down it sparks like fire.Anyway about tweet , in my humble opinion is not the only Social Media you can depend on, it’s only a tool.The more important thing is yourselves Passion in this business.

  38. “a glimpse and a hook” was forwarded to me in an email from along with a link to your blog. I found your definitions of tweet and retweet very useful. I know very little about twitter, but perhaps I will learn more soon.

  39. Mike Grace 15 years ago

    Improving communication by using twitter more effectively. I like it. Thanks.

  40. Niklas 15 years ago

    My take on this: #smalltalk80 Twitter is RSS with brains.

  41. christmasrush 15 years ago


    nice content..

    thanx man for sharing

  42. I just follow people generated content

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