How a tweetstorm can punch up your writing style

Jay Rosen via Twitter

Yesterday, we saw two incredible tweetstorms: NYU Professor Jay Rosen shared his thoughts on the unique challenges for journalists covering Donald Trump, while strategic analyst Eric Garland explained the rationale behind Russian hacking. Their tweetstorms reveal a new, disciplined way of writing, with no room for bullshit. Here’s what you can learn from writing a story in tweets.

Jay Rosen tells a tight story in 20 tweets

Here’s Rosen’s whole tweetstorm:

I think’s Rosen’s argument is persuasive in describing the terrifying danger that journalists face covering a Trump administration. But regardless of whether you agree with his points, let’s take a look at the tweetstorm as a way of writing.

How tweetstorms sharpen your writing

Tweetstorms are a formalized way of writing, similar to a speech in a Shakespeare play that’s declaimed in iambic pentameter. And like the bard’s blank verse, the discipline of writing this way transforms how you hear it.

In the case of Twitter, what you read is a staccato series of short, chained statements which, taken together, tell a story of what happened or what is going to happen. There is little room for digressions, equivocations, or qualifications.

Here are some key characteristics of this form of storytelling:

  • Each thought must be self-contained in 140 characters. For example, look at Rosen’s tweet 15: “DOJ guidelines (which aren’t laws) and norms in government that said ‘tread carefully around the press’— these will vanish overnight.” In one sentence, Rosen explains that a governmental tradition in place for decades — and easily changed — is all that stops the FBI from coming after journalists. Brief but chilling.
  • You can expand that thought, not by adding words, but with links. For example, in tweet 2, to prove that media is calling for Trump surrogates, Rosen links to a Washington Post article on the topic. That way, there’s no need to get sidetracked.
  • The logic from one statement to the next must be obvious. For example, tweet 16 follows directly from tweet 15, expanding the idea of assaults on the press to the visual of the Post’s investigative journalist David Farenthold on trial as a spy.

Obviously, this isn’t ideal for all writing. For one thing, context matters. If you don’t know what Rosen means by “culture war” or you don’t know what Farenthold has been writing (he did all those stories on the corruption in the Trump foundation), you don’t get the full story. Brevity always leaves something behind. But what a form like this loses in completeness, it gains in directness. If know the context, this way of writing is as deadly as a stiletto.

Eric Garland tells a much longer story in tweets

Eric Garland starts his story of geopolitical gamesmanship like this:

He goes on for 138 tweets, a much more winding and involved description than Rosen’s. But as with Rosen, his tweetstorm is made out of pithy, chained points. For example, this pair of chained tweets:

I think a storm of this length is problematic, but this guy is on fire. He tells an incredible story in 140 character bursts.

Should you write a tweetstorm?

Yes, you should. For the exercise of paring down your language to what really counts, you should try it. Although I haven’t done a tweetstorm like this (I will), I’m an experienced tweeter and storyteller. Based on that, here’s some advice.

  • Pick a short, single topic. A tweetstorm makes one point only.
  • Choose something about which you are passionate. Short punchy tweets go well with anger. Find a topic about which you can say “Look, let me explain this in simple terms, because nobody seems to understand.”
  • Should you write the tweets ahead of time? Probably. Unless you’re a 140-character genius, you’ll need to trim, edit, rearrange, and redivide your points.
  • Get rid of all extraneous words.
  • Use links to add context.
  • Tell the story sequentially. No digressions.
  • Explain what’s coming in the first tweet, and what you proved in the last one.
  • Use tools like Storify and Twitter Moments to make the story easily accessible once it’s done.

And if you do a tweetstorm, send me a tweet (@jbernoff) and I’ll point my followers to it.

3 responses to “How a tweetstorm can punch up your writing style

  1. This is really interesting, Josh. Without having thought it quite this way, I’ve taken to producing the final version of a business strategy using essentially the same form (I’ve been calling it a “strategy narrative”). Taking as a given the need for a rich understanding of the overall context and nuances of the strategy, the precision needed to boil it down into a series of step-by-step assertions and statements is really valuable. The strategy narrative framing is also a much better basis for translating a written strategy into a slide deck for when the time comes to deliver the strategy in a presentation.

  2. This is really interesting. I’d been thinking for a while that a process of encapsulating ideas in progressively smaller chunks, i.e. from blog post, to Facebook post, to tweet. The idea of doing this in a series of bullet-points (almost) makes the process less daunting, more malleable, and increases the chance of people encountering the thread (with judicious use of @ and # ).

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