I deleted this long ago.
Thanks to Lanyard for saving a copy of it! Somebody told me that it was a mistake to post when it first came out and I got spooked & pulled it. Big mistake. If you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust? So…without further ado:
This week I answer a few questions about how I tweet, and the secret is that I know surprisingly little.
Excerpt from an email sent recently in response to a thoughtful query about anonymity, inspiration, tweet construction, quantity, the scientific approach, etc.:
I realize, starting in, that this will be something of a disappointment. You have a large, detail-oriented, reasoning mind and mine is a bit more mercurial and untidy.
As to the question of anonymity, it probably hurts as much as it helps. It gives me writing freedom in many ways, but it also means I’m not an identifiable quantity. I’m not a total cipher, true, but it does put me in the Hey, You carriage of the train for a lot of established people. Not all, thankfully. Some people won’t reply to me in the timeline, thinking (I’m guessing), “He’s not real. It’d be like responding to Mickey Mouse, or a spambot.” Well…no. My avi may not be a picture of my face, and my Twitter name isn’t the one on my fishing license, but I’m flesh and blood just the same and I do have a track record. I’ve got other constraints too, because if something’s a complete departure from the “Uncle” personality, say, and reflects more the sentiments of the real me, then people are discomfited by it. They expect a certain whatchamacallit from Uncle Dynamite tweets and if they don’t get it, then they begin to cool as readers. I understand that. It’s fine, and it’s actually a nice problem to have.
Now, as to how I keep tweeting? I am this way. In conversation I’m rarely the engine that drives things. My allotted role has always been to interject, or speak in asides, and I’ve been rewarded for it from childhood on. Just not at home.
Here’s where this note gets really disappointing: the “how I get inspired” section. I tend to get little lightning strikes of inspiration. They are not wholly logical or break-down-able. Parts of a joke equation come to me, usually when prompted by something around me, or what I’m reading or seeing. I’ll think about it and say to myself, ye-es, that could be funny. If I rush to tweet it, it’s never very good, unless it’s short & sweet and there’s something musical in the wording that grabs people. So I’ll try to remember the gist of it but table it for a while and let it marinate.
The ones that people like are 70 characters. The ones I like are exactly 140 characters.
Quite often the original premise of one of these inspirations must be folded back on itself in some way, plus be made to tie to a prompt that the reader will hopefully understand and react to. Straightforward presentations of jokes are not what appeal to me as a writer, though I think they’re generally fine to read, if a bit untaxing. If they take two or more steps and test the pop-culture, comedy or straight-up intelligence quotient of people, then I feel I’m probably standing on the ledge of the cliff I’m supposed to be on.
I only like formulaic tweeting when it works against itself ironically. I tend to avoid it, myself.
I usually check Google to see if my tweet has been done before and if it has I’ll forget about it. But I also hold the opinion that if I go for the easy-pickings joke in order to strike in the moments after an event, say, then I won’t bother checking, trusting (and hoping) that my own particular style will be sufficient proof of authorship. I don’t often have people steal my jokes and part of the reason for this, I suspect (aside from their debatable merit), is that the prospective joke-thief knows beforehand he’ll have trouble fencing the goods because everyone realizes it could never have been his in the first place. I do consciously try to write jokes with an identifiable me-ness about them. I realize this is a luxury some people don’t have, but I have acquired it over time and have seen many others come to create their own only-them tweets, too.
As for wording, I write at my level of thought, keeping in mind that some words are funnier than others and that other words, though possibly just out of the reach of the average reader, are self-explanatory if the reader will sleuth through prefixes and suffixes, or I’ll use words if they’re funny-arcane.
I’ve heard a lot of very good Twitter writers say that their best tweet is the first inspiration and that messing around ruins it. This is almost never the way with me. I usually write tweets that clock in at 170 characters. That’s when you learn what’s really essential to the meaning of a 140-character joke. As an email joke, or a blog paragraph it may be gold but Twitter has no use for it. Then you carve out delicious phrases and substitute shorter, uglier words for longer, more elegant ones and decide that words like “that” are not required. And when you read the new tweet out loud after rearranging things you realize that nothing’s been materially lost in communicating the original premise and, even better, much of the pretense has been struck from it, too. I used to resent this kind of editing, feeling I was dumbing my writing down, but now find it rewarding. And educational. People who want to laugh don’t mind being put through their paces a bit but ultimately have no desire to sit in on a comedy webinar from William F. Buckley, Jr.
I’m more prolific than I ought to be. It’s cost me some very cool followers, usually people who only follow a small pool of tight-lipped Twitter accounts and immediately (and sadly) come to the conclusion that, out of nowhere, I seem to have become their entire timeline and that I must therefore, as a defensive maneuver, be jettisoned. Almost everyone else realizes that comedy writers on Twitter write a hell of a lot of tweets and are subsequently more understanding, for which I’m very grateful.
There’s a science of subtext in all writing, but also specifically on Twitter. I haven’t consciously spent much time aligning words and sounds so that they land extra-pleasurably in the mind or mouth of the reader, but I have noticed that I sometimes will do so at a subconscious level, probably because it’s what I like to read. When someone’s longer-form tweet really succeeds you’ll notice, if you examine it closely, that it often has an endoskeleton of sibilances, breath-pacing, repetition of specific sounds and a hidden lilt that kicks the tweet into another gear entirely.
What’s funny is like asking “What’s a jellyfish?” We don’t know at the gut level what it is, really. We can’t or don’t want to hold it long enough to find out. Some of them sting, after all. It shouldn’t be overthought - it’s only a jellyfish, after all - and yet we don’t want to to under-think it - because, God Almighty, look at it, it’s a JELLYFISH! - but it does bear some watching. How much watching is entirely up to you.
Hope this helped.
Your affectionate uncle,