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July 29, 2014


Outside my study window, our garden is visited constantly by birds. Cardinals, redpolls, finches, doves, grackles, catbirds, downy woodpeckers, flickers, evening grosbeaks, bluebirds, owls, even two big gorgeous hawks. This week, they have become my muse, because they know how to do something that I needed to learn.

They know how to go “tweet.”

After writing last week about brevity being the soul of wit and Oliver Strunk’s famous Rule 17 (“Omit needless words!”), I found myself wrestling with a new opportunity to put Rule 17 to the test.

It turned out to be a pretty severe test.

A few days ago I realized that today is the day a new book comes out. Or more accurately: a new edition of a book. Today, July 29, is the release date for the mass-market paperback edition of The Red Circle, the memoir I wrote a few years ago with my buddy, SEAL sniper Brandon Webb.

Sis-Boom-Bah! I’ve never had a book go to mass-market paperback before.

(A few definitions: “Trade paper” is the larger-size paperback, the one they print with the exact same page layouts as the hardcover, typically a year after the hardcover’s release. “Mass market” is a whole new layout with smaller pages. You know: back-pocket format. For beach-reading.)

I decided I’d take the opportunity to do something else I’ve never done before: a Twitter campaign. I would condense the entire book into a month’s worth of daily tweets.

Actually, since I added two days’ lead time, into 33 tweets.

So two days ago, Sunday, I tweeted this:

“For the next 33 days: The Red Circle, condensed to 33 tweets. The Red Circle”

(If you want to follow the whole series, I’m @johndavidmann on Twitter. They post every night at 9:00 Eastern.)

The maximum length of a tweet is 140 characters. (“Characters” includes spaces as well as letters and all punctuation.) But I don’t actually get to use all 140 for my content. Because to make sense, each quote needs to be followed by the book’s title and a link where people can go get it and/or read more about it. As above.

So, adding “The Red Circle” to the tweet, that’s 14 characters subtracted from the 120. Plus the shortest URL I could make (using bitly) for the Amazon link is another 22. Plus a space between them: that’s a total of 37 gone.

But then, I’m told that if you want to leave enough room so others can retweet your tweet, adding their own comment, and even allowing the possibility of someone else retweeting their retweet, then you’ve got to leave another 20 characters free.

(Aha. So good Twitter is like good military strategy — it requires an understanding of the right conditions for a sound tactical retweet.)

So: 140 – 37 – 20 = … 83? Wait — eighty-three characters?! That’s it?

That’s it.

Which means the book’s subtitle doesn’t even qualify as a tweet: “My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen” — 84 characters including spaces. (Oops.)

The Red Circle contains 134,382 words. That’s nearly three-quarters of a million characters. (728,391, including spaces.)

When Brandon and I were nearing the end of our manuscript, we sought to capture the essential message of the whole book into the last page or two. It took us 367 words:


“I’ve thought long and hard about why I am writing this book and what I want it to say. I think the message I want my story to get across boils down to two words:

Excellence matters.

“Throughout my time with the navy and within the SEAL community, I’ve seen poor leadership and exceptional leadership. I’ve seen training that was simply good, training that was great, and training so transcendingly amazing it blew my mind. And I’ve seen the difference it makes.

“In political matters I have always been a down-the-middle-line person. When it comes to leaders, I care less about their party affiliation and more about their character and competence. I don’t care how they would vote on school prayer, or abortion, or gay marriage, or gun laws. I want to know that they know what the hell they’re doing, and that they are made of that kind of unswerving steel that will not be rattled in moments that count, no matter what is coming at them. I want to know that they won’t flinch in the face of debate, danger, or death.

“I want to know that they excel at what they do.

“A free society looks like it rests on big principles and lofty ideals, and maybe it does for much of the time. But in the dark times, those times that count most, what it comes down to is not reason or rhetoric but pure commitment, honed over time into the fabric of excellence.

“Why am I telling you this? Because it matters.

“You may never shoot a sniper rifle. You may never serve as part of an assault team, or stand security in combat, or board a hostile ship at midnight on the high seas. You may never wear a uniform; hell, you may never even throw a punch in the name of freedom. I’ll tell you what, though. Whatever it is that you do, you are making a stand, either for excellence, or for mediocrity.

“This is what I learned about being a Navy SEAL: it is all about excellence, and about never giving up on yourself. And that is the red circle I will continue to hold, no matter what.”

That’s the final 367 words of the book; 1948 characters. So I took that conclusion down to three tweets:

I want to know a leader won’t flinch in the face of debate, danger, or death.

Whatever you do, you are making a stand, either for excellence or for mediocrity.

What I learned: being a SEAL is all about excellence & never giving up on yourself.

… and then boiled those three down to one:

Excellence matters.

Two words. 17 letters.

Rule 17.



  1. Max House

    John, my friend… I have thoroughly enjoyed each of these blogs you’ve sent out over the past year or so … but, alas, I must take issue with one of the themes of this installment!

    While I agree wholeheartedly that “excellence matters,” I am of the persuasion that the “arena” wherein this excellence manifests itself is perhaps even more fundamentally the “matter” than the excellence itself!! To state that it doesn’t “matter” to your coauthor whether someone falls on one side or the other of such cultural battle-lines as abortion or gay rights (etc.) as long as they function under an annointing of strength and competence, is to lend credence to the philosophy that there is neither right nor wrong/good nor evil… only EXCELLENCE! And by that standard, many of the despots and tyrants through the ages would be elevated as those to be admired and emulated, for they certainly displayed excellence in their endeavors!

    So, yes, excellence matters, but the fruit of that excellence MUST MATTER MORE!

    Hoping I’m still your friend, Max

    • jdmann

      Max — Still friends? Absolutely! I am a firm believer in the freedom to voice disagreements — even strident and heated ones — without the repercussions of ad hominem attack or disintegration of the ties that bind. Seriously, I believe that’s one of the core threads of the cable that continues to hold aloft the American experiment, even after all these years.

      On your point — I do think Brandon would be the first to agree that there is most definitely a thing as good and evil. This is a dude who has seen a good deal of manifest evil up close and personal!


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