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I Did Not Have Time to Write You a Short Tweet, So I Wrote a Long One Instead
Tuesday, 24 May 2011 00:00

Before I ever asked myself, "What makes a good tweet?" I had to be convinced of a more fundamental question: Why tweet at all?

It is the most natural thing in the world for a former journalist (such as myself) to hold up Twitter  as a symbol for all that is wrong with America. We have short attention spans. We can digest information only in sound-bites. We do not deal well with complexity. We value the ephemeral over the permanent.

I could go on, but it's not really how I feel about Twitter. Two years ago, yes. But not now.

Now, I tweet for work and on behalf of clients. I tout the value of Twitter in reaching out to journalists and advancing marketing goals, disseminating content, building brand – pretty much all of the above. But the surprising thing is not that I have come to value Twitter as a communications tool (any time 200 million people use something to communicate, you should probably pay attention), it's that I've come to value Twitter as a writer.

Wait. Let me explain.

I truly value complexity and nuance. So it was when I was first hired as a daily newspaper reporter that I chaffed under strict space limits. Old lady gets robbed while walking her dog? 15 inches. County sheriff charged with embezzlement? Still only 15 inches.

No matter how complex, interesting, or nuanced the news, I still had roughly the same amount of space in which to write it. The newspaper was only going to print only so many pages, and number was determined long before the news broke for the day.

For a while, I thought this situation decidedly unfair, nay, tragic! How could the public be expected to grasp nuance and complexity if I didn't have the space in which to explain it? And then my editor gave this newbie reporter one of his first lessons in daily newspaper journalism: it wasn't up to me to write it long. It was up to me to write the nuance and the complexity in as little space as I could.

If I hadn't figure out how to write it short, I wasn't trying hard enough. I remembered my college English professor, who enjoyed quoting a letter that Samuel Johnson allegedly wrote to James Boswell. It began, I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead. (Others have attributed this quote to Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and others, but the point is the same.)Samuel Johnson

Yes, it is a talent to write short. In high school English, I was trained to write and complex sentences. (Yes, Mr. Gould: reading Dickens' Bleak House did indeed send that message to your students). In College, I learned to write directly and simply and began to break rules. In grad school, I again began writing long and complex sentences and broke still more rules.

Then I graduated and became a reporter. Then Twitter was invented. And then I became a communications professional and had to learn all the lessons all over again. At first I chaffed at Twitter's 140 character limit, until I remembered the same lesson: if I hadn't figured out how to write it short, I wasn't trying hard enough.

On the one hand, Twitter may indeed be training an attention-deficient world to become even more so, but Twitter could also be doing something quite different, and that is training a world of fudgy, sloppy thinkers to become headline writers, which is actually a difficult and, dare I say, important task.

Cross-posted from RMS Strategies.