Recently, at a writing website I have been frequenting (BookCountry.com–and more on that in an upcoming post!), some one posed a question in the forum about Twitter. He didn’t understand its usefulness to writers, he said. Could we explain what we got out of it if we used it and whether we thought it was worth his effort?
I answered this with an enthusiastic endorsement for Twitter-for Writers and it occurred to me that others might be curious about it too. So for your edification, I share my Twitter story, here.
Like many a red-blooded, hard-bound-book-loving, long-form-blogging, overeducated, middle-aged U.S. American, when I first heard about Twitter I made an ick face. “What?” I thought, “Now we can’t be literate enough to even BLOG? We have to text-speak our way through 140 characters?” Not to mention “What? Now I have to be available all day, all the time, and see what 500 people had for lunch?”
No way. Twitter must be for the Kids These Days. Not for me. I had even signed up for it but subsequently found the website completely unusable. I didn’t know that to really use Twitter you needed a third-party program like Tweetdeck (there are probably better ones now, but it’s what I was first advised to try and I’ve been using it ever since) to really make sense of the tool that is Twitter. (Again, this may not be true anymore, but it was about two years ago when I started tweeting.)
Twitter was not for me.
Then I got H1N1–you remember, the “swine flu”–and I was in bed for a month. I was bored enough to try Twitter in a more earnest way and in a week I was hooked.
Here’s what I learned:
Sure, some people tweet about what they had for lunch. Some people tweet personal ads and tacky photos of themselves. Some people use a lot of TEXT-speak in their tweets.
But Twitter pretty much lets you build your own little corner of its world by choosing who you want to “follow.” By following someone, you make yourself open to their tweets specifically. You can go look at any tweet you want, but only the people you follow need ever show up in your “feed reader.”
I keep my follow number pretty low so my feed reader doesn’t get impossible to…well…follow.
I follow a few different assortments of people and not many who fall outside these categories. (But lots of my folks overlap more than one category. Twitter allows me to sort them into these categories and overlap too, as needed with “lists.”) One of my main categories is book people: they are publishing industry professionals like agents, editors, publishers and a few writers who are just a bit ahead of me on the path I’m on (traditionally published, middle-brow, popular books) or are about the same place I am on that path. I have a few high-tech, futuristic, e-literature pioneers on this list, too.
What I get from this is many, many things.
First of all, I get to be chatty with nifty people. You can be a successful whatever, but I am not going to follow you if you annoy me or are a jerk in general. (By this, I don’t mean if you don’t agree with me. I am happy to disagree with people civilly.) The main purpose of social networking is to be social. Twitter is a very casual, shallow social network in which your favorite writer of all time might tweet about the sandwich she just had in some city she’s touring with her latest book and you can say back, “Hey! I love that sandwich place in that city! I used to eat there all the time in the eighties! Try their cherry limeade, it’s the best!” and before you know it, you’re twitter pals.
I regularly chat in this friendly way with people who are not so rock-star famous I could never meet them, but might well have a pleasant chat with at a conference somewhere, sometime. Twitter means I don’t have to wait for a conference, pay for the cost of it and travel to it before reaching this warm friendliness with people I know of but don’t really know.
This is, first and foremost, just pleasant. It’s a way to get to know people who care about what I care about (even, again, if we disagree on the best way to go about our caring), and make acquaintances. It’s uplifting to touch base with people like that frequently–especially if you’re trapped in bed with the flu, for example.
Second, because I’ve chosen people carefully, I can learn a lot from most everyone I follow. In the realm of books, I learned, within two months of following publishing professionals, what to do and what not to do (and in fact, that I had done it very wrong when I tried it the first time) when trying to get a manuscript published.
I learned this through actual tweets, some hashtagged “#pubtips,” for example. (A hashtag is a term that starts with # and is a way to organize themes on Twitter. You can follow just tweets with certain hashtags at any given moment to see what everyone on Twitter (not just people you follow) is contributing to that conversation.)
I also learned this through scheduled “chats” (also using hashtags, but limited in time to a particular half-hour or hour or so and carefully moderated to stay on topic). One example is “#askagent” in which, of a given evening, writers can bombard literary agents for advice.
Most of all, I learned this by finding the blogs of agents, editors and successful writers, through articles in industry journals like Publisher’s Weekly or just the mainstream press, discovered via tweets with links to same. Twitter is an excellent way to index the news. Certain people are regularly linking news on certain topics. By following them, I can quickly keep up with the basics without having to read through everything myself. It’s a bit like a google alert from your friends.
A few of my warm, chatty acquaintances have become a bit more than chatty or a bit more than acquaintances and a couple, I’ve even managed to meet in person–mostly by chance, but Tweeters do often plan these things called “tweet-ups” to meet in person–at conferences or elsewhere.
I also learn from Twitter by being a fly-on-the-wall. If you follow two people and those people start speaking directly to each other, you can read their conversation. If all the literary agents I follow are all up in arms over the same Wall Street Journal article (or whatever) I can go look it over and find out what makes a literary agent tick–or ticked off, as the case may be–without having to ask a dumb question.
I have gotten a lot of other benefits from Twitter in other areas too, but this list is merely the ways in which it has helped me in the world of writing and publishing. I do think it is an invaluable tool for any writer. I think it could be used quite similarly for other fields too, and it often is. It is more than worth the learning curve it takes to get accustomed to it.
If you are interested in getting started, here’s a nice list of hashtags for writers. If you begin with those, you will soon find people who are tweeting the stuff you are interested in learning more about. Start following a few of them and before you know it, you’ll be an armchair expert.
How NOT to use Twitter: Like any other social network, if you try to use Twitter as some kind of free advertising service for your book, service or product, no one will like you. If you already have Twitter pals and you come out with a book? Tell them! They’ll congratulate you warmly.