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1,500 Words on Writing a 5-Word Tweet – Love Your Work, Episode 301

May 04 2023 – 07:30am

how to write a tweetWriting a tweet is a microcosm of writing a book. If you think deeply and carefully about every word in a tweet, and what the tweet as a whole communicates, you can extend those skills to all your writing. In this article, I’ll break down how to think about every word in a tweet, nearly tripling its performance.

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Step 1: The first-impression tweet

The tweet we’ll work on came to me like most tweets, a thought that popped into my head. It was this:

Ironically, strong opinions are the ones that are easily argued against.

I could have just tweeted that. But I’ve made a habit of instead writing down my first-impression tweets in a scratch file, and later working on them before publishing. Here’s what my thought process looks like.

As a tweet, this phrase is a little wordy, and weak. It starts somewhat nonsensically with an adverb: “Ironically.” What action is being performed ironically?

Step 2: Improving word economy

There are also some extra words that could be cut out. Do we have to refer to “strong opinions” again, by using the word “ones”? The word “that” is often not necessary, and it doesn’t seem necessary here.

If we cut out all those extra words, we end up with:

Strong opinions are easily argued against.

Step 3: Adding back in meaning

That’s shorter, more elegant, and economic. But now it’s weaker. It’s a simple statement of fact, without presenting what’s remarkable about that fact, or how anyone should feel about it. At least when it said, “ironically,” it pointed out the irony that strong opinions are those that are easily argued against.

Also, since I’ve removed the second reference to “strong opinions” by removing the word “ones,” the statement no longer pits “strong opinions” against other types of opinions. Before, I was implying the existence of opinions that weren’t strong, and describing what was different about opinions that were.

Our shortened statement is also in the passive voice, which makes it weaker. “Strong opinions are easily argued against,” by whom? Who is doing the arguing? It would be more direct to say:

It’s easier to argue against strong opinions.

But still, this statement doesn’t pit strong opinions against other types of opinions. Fixing that, we could instead say:

Of all opinions, strong ones are easiest to argue against.

Finally, I think we at least have an improvement over the original, “Ironically, strong opinions are the ones that are easily argued against.” It’s more direct, and pits strong opinions against opinions at-large. It also has the important quality, in tweet format, of delivering the most surprising – or ironic – thing about the statement at the end.

There’s a bit of misdirection in this statement. We’ve addressed all opinions, homed in on the strong ones, which primes you to expect them to be lauded in some way. Instead, the statement points out the irony that what makes an opinion “strong” is that it’s easy to argue against.

Step 4: Tweaking for the audience

But this tweet is still not ready. The most glaring problem is, nowhere in the tweet is the term, “strong opinions,” and, as a tweet, that’s where its potential lies.

“Strong opinions” is a term in the parlance of some sections of Twitter. This term became popular after Marc Andreessen appeared on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, where he advocated for, “strong opinions, weakly held.”

By trying to be economical with words in our tweet, we’ve broken apart this term. In our latest iteration, “Of all opinions, strong ones are easiest to argue against,” it’s simply referred to as “strong ones.”

Depending upon how prevalent the term “strong opinions” is in the minds of our audience members, we could stick with that more subtle hint. Sometimes that’s more effective. In my experience, on Twitter, you have to bash people over the head with what you’re saying to cut through the noise.

So we could instead say:

Of all opinions, strong opinions are easiest to argue against.

We’ve replaced “strong ones” with “strong opinions.” It’s less economical, but includes the term “strong opinions,” pits them against opinions at-large, and delivers the counterintuitive element at the end, like the punchline of a joke.

Step 5: What are we trying to say?

This is probably as economically as we can write this, meeting that criteria. But it’s still not ready. Now it’s not clear from this observation how the author wants us to feel about strong opinions. It’s, ironically, not a strong opinion.

Is the upshot that you shouldn’t hold strong opinions? Is it that when you hold strong opinions, you have to be comfortable with the fact they are easy to argue against?

What makes an opinion “strong,” anyway? Is it the force with with which you express the opinion? If so, the statement, “strong opinions, weakly held” would mean you express the opinion with force, but are quick to change it if presented with contrary evidence.

Or maybe it means that you should take decisive action on your opinions, and if that action presents you with contrary evidence, you should change your opinion and act accordingly?

Now we’re starting to get to what I, as an author, really think – which is like an excavation to discover, Where did this idea come from in the first place?

My personal opinion is that to hold a strong opinion, you have to be faking. There are few things any of us are qualified to have opinions about. Having a strong opinion is a very “hedgehog” way of being, and hedgehogs are scientifically proven to be wrong.

Yet if you express your honest opinion – which is to be more like a “fox” than a hedgehog – you’re essentially expressing no opinion at all. Instead, you’re exploring thoughts around a potential opinion. Given the mechanics of media today, few who see what you have to say when expressing your fox-like opinion will interact with it. And because few will interact with it, fewer will see it.

So in a way, to be fox-like in media is doing oneself a disservice. Your message doesn’t get seen, and since nobody can disagree with your non-opinion, you learn less. It’s beneficial to masquerade as a hedgehog on social media, but be a fox in your private intellectual life.

What’s our angle?

It’s at this point in revising a tweet, where I often step back and write plainly the sub-text of what I’m trying to say. One angle is, In your pursuit of learning, you have to pretend to have strong opinions, because strong opinions are the easiest to argue against – which helps you collect information.

Another angle is that When you express a strong opinion, be ready to be disagreed with, because strong opinions are by definition the easiest to argue against.

So now I have two potential angles:

  1. “You should pretend to have an opinion.”
  2. “When you express your opinion, be ready for criticism.”

Since this is a tweet, the sub-text of the tweet is very important. Because of the social mechanics of Twitter, people will not like or retweet something that makes them look bad.

The “You should pretend to have an opinion” angle is weak, because to retweet something that espouses being inauthentic is to admit to being inauthentic, and that’s socially repugnant – even if our angle has merit. Also important, it’s not socially-repugnant enough to get people to argue, which would be another way of driving engagement.

The “When you express your opinion, be ready for criticism,” angle is somewhat stronger. It would be a small flex to like or retweet this, because it would show that you’re a person resilient enough to expose yourself to criticism, a quality which has social clout in some circles.

Moving forward with that best angle, in the clearest way possible, we could say:

When you share strong opinions, you will be criticized. Because strong opinions by definition are the easiest opinions to disagree with.

Besides the fact it’s much longer, there’s something weak about this tweet. I think it’s that it makes strong opinions not look good. Why have them if they’re so easy to disagree with? As someone with a fox cognitive style, to me it doesn’t feel right.

So ultimately it seems, I believe a third angle: “Strong opinions aren’t good.” If we put that simply, we’re back to “Of all opinions, strong opinions are the easiest to argue against.”

That still doesn’t express clearly how I feel about strong opinions. It’s just a statement of fact.

Step 6: Applying rhetoric

Maybe we can make this more economical, while also expressing more clearly my feelings about strong opinions, if we use a rhetorical form. Rhetorical forms are time-tested structures in language that add meaning beyond the simple content of the words.

“Antithesis” is a good rhetorical form for tweets. Mark Forsyth in The Elements of Eloquence describes antithesis as “X is Y, and not X is not Y.”

We won’t use that exact formula, which would essentially be “Strong opinions are easy to argue against, and weak opinions are hard to argue against.” Instead, let’s pit the word “strong” against its antithesis, “weak” – which is part of why the phrase “strong opinions, weakly held” is so memetic.

As it happens, the idea of a “weak argument” is a commonly-used metaphor, so we can add extra power to our phrase by tapping into that existing idiom.

With those elements in mind, we end up with:

Strong opinions are weak arguments.

That’s about as good as we can do. We’ve reduced the phrase from eleven words to only five. It’s now clearer what I think of strong opinions, and it presents the irony I wanted to point out in the first place.

Was all this work worth it?

So, how did this tweet do? I published it, making sure to record a prediction that I was 70% sure it would get fewer than 1,500 impressions (in 48 hours). It actually got 1,081.

One month later, I published the unedited tweet I presented at the beginning of this article. I was 70% sure it would get fewer than 1,000 impressions. It got 384.

The data suggest that through all that excruciating detail – more than 1,500 words about writing only five – I nearly tripled the performance of this tweet.

The tweet still didn’t go viral, which isn’t the point of thinking of language in this level of detail. The real point of this exercise is that if you make a habit of thinking carefully about language, you internalize much of this process, which makes all your writing better.

Image: Flower Myth, by Paul Klee

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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