Writing, thinking and why you should use Twitter

I recently came across an article on writing ambitiously titled “The secret about writing that no one has the balls to tell you“. It’s a pretty decent article and I suggest you go read it, but the main point can be summarized as below:

If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts. That’s the secret: people who don’t write, are people who don’t think.

It seems like a pretty ballsy statement to make and like all such statements that don’t necessarily agree with your mental model of the world, they can be rather hard to accept. Though I agreed with the writer’s general train of thought, it took me a few seconds to decide whether or not I agreed with this particular piece of insight. And the answer turned out to be yes, with reservations. I agree that if you’ve never written something deep and meaningful then the chances are pretty good that your thinking hasn’t been really deep or meaningful either. But at the same time, just because you haven’t written anything powerful doesn’t mean that you haven’t written anything at all. After all there are millions of college papers being turned out every year, most of which are probably pretty bad. It’s very possible to write pages of complete and utter drivel. And thus we get to Twitter.

If your writing is a good reflection of your thoughts, then Twittering is like applying a chisel to a block of marble. Twitter, and more specifically the 140-character limit, forces you to condense your writing to it’s bare minimal essence. It forces you edit your thoughts until you get to the very core, mercilessly cutting away all the flab. A friend of mine remarked a few days that he really liked my Facebook status updates because I managed to pack so many interesting trains of thought into so small a space. At the time I didn’t mention that it was mainly because my Facebook status is a reflection of my tweets and Twitter’s limit forces brevity. It’s only now that I realize that the limit has actually helped me make my thinking sharper and cleaner.

It’s easy to think that there’s something inherent about Twitter and its limit that will make you a better writer. We’re all looking for silver bullets in one way or another. But from what I’ve seen from Twitter, especially from a number of writers on Twitter, it’s very easy to miss the point completely. One mistake that I see a lot of people making is splitting their message across multiple tweets, in essence ignoring the limit. That is completely self-defeating. You can only practice brevity and clarity if you follow the rules that enforce them. Readers also see the Tweets in reverse chronological order meaning that they will have to read your message backward, not a very good way to make a point. If slightly longer messages (200-500 characters) are your thing, then get a Tumblelog.

The Internet has made a lot of people very unhappy. One of the common complaints that I receive is that it has drastically reduced our attention spans. I’m not entirely convinced that this is true, especially since everyday I read a growing number of reasonably lengthy blog posts (700-1000 words) and many of them have pretty long comment chains attached to them. But even if it is true, I’m all for making an opportunity out of a disaster. It’s true that it will be a great disaster if we lose the ability to read, comprehend and argue long essays, but we can at least make the best of our situation by trying to cut our thoughts to the minimum that is necessary to express the thought without any actual conceptual loss. I like to think of it as a parallel to modern mathematical notion. It may seem strange and impossibly brief to the untrained, but for professional mathematicians the notation lets them express complex mathematical ideas and thoughts in a compact, communicable form. And life goes on.

This is not to say that all human knowledge and thought can or should be compressed to 140 character chunks. And perhaps more importantly, much of what needs to be said is in non-textual forms (the reason I also keep a media-centric Tumblelog). I don’t want Twitter to become the predominant method of communication and I think people who abandon longer forms to go all-Twitter are making a mistake. But I do want the core idea to be more broadly acknowledged and accepted. And the best phrasing of that core idea is to be found in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (fittingly enough):

Omit needless words.

And you should follow me on Twitter here.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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