Thursday, 3 May 2012

10 Reasons Why Twitter Is Great For Writers


Sure, Twitter might seem detrimental to writers, by dint of being a colossal, neverending Procrastination Circus From Hell.  This social network can indeed be extremely distracting, but like pretty much everything in life, it depends how you ration it out.  We writers have always been highly skilled at finding displacement activities.  Twitter is merely the new aiming-paper-balls-at-a-bin-across-your-study.

I've been on Twitter for over three years.  I love the place and believe it does writers way more good than harm.  Here are 10 ways in which Twitter is a force for good.  Apologies in advance if any of these involve teaching you how to suck eggs.  I’ll be using the word “script” a lot, so if that doesn’t apply to you, please substitute for “novel”, “journalistic article”, “poem” or “voodoo death sonnet”.

1) ECONOMY
No tweet can be longer than 140 characters (unless you employ the TwitLonger service, which arguably misses the point of Twitter, but can occasionally be very useful for making points which simply need more explanation).  This basic rule obviously forces tweeters to be economical with their wording.  I often find myself writing a tweet and discovering it’s over the limit.  It’s then a matter of editing it down, without losing the sense.  

I do exactly the same for every single line of action and dialogue in scripts.  Briefer is better.  I’m also quite particular about how my scripts look - I strive for them to be as clean and readable as possible - and so I hate ‘widows’ (a single line at the end of a sentence, containing only one word) cropping up.  Widows must die.  Kill your widows.  Hack at that script/tweet until it says what needs to say, in as concise a manner as possible.  It’s amazing how much a seemingly splendid line can be improved by boiling it down or completely rephrasing.  Thinking about it, it’s probably not a terrible rule of thumb to impose 140-character limits on your script action lines.

2) COMMUNITY
Writers are largely solitary beasts.  The process of writing, unless you're a sitcom duo like Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, is lonely by definition. Anything which fosters communication and social contact can only be a boon, and Twitter offers a wonderful sense of community.  Obviously, nothing beats meeting people in person, but I love the way Twitter allows us to effortlessly keep up with acquaintances, friends and miscellaneous contacts, with spending too much time doing so.  There are people I haven’t seen in ages, but who I feel like I see every day.  There are also good friends I’ve made through Twitter, who I’ve never met, but certainly plan to (with their consent, obviously).  It’s healthy for writers to form bonds with other scribblers who actually understand what they do for a living, who feel their pain when things go horribly wrong and can share information/contacts/pizza topping preferences.  It's also very healthy indeed to talk to people who couldn't care less about writing.

3) CHARACTER BUILDING
For the writer, Twitter can literally be a character-building exercise.  Your timeline probably contains hundreds, maybe thousands, of people from various backgrounds, ethnicities, lifestyles, political affiliations and so on.  It’s all so very good for the writer’s brain.  Vital fuel for the creative engines.  We don’t get out much, after all, so Twitter gives us a constant flow of wonderfully varied viewpoints and voices.  Soak them in, like a sponge, just as you would around a crowded pub table.  Some of these people’s sentiments, sentence structures and preoccupations may end up bleeding into your work, even if it’s on a purely subliminal level.  To my way of thinking, good writers need to be actively interested in other people (same goes for Twitter users, even though many celebrities provide exceptions to that rule, following a mere handful of people).  The more voices you take on board, the easier it will be to plant yourself in different characters’ shoes with some degree of authority and authenticity.

4) SELF PROMOTION
Here, I’m not primarily talking about pimping your work, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in moderation - I never quite understand why people get so self-conscious about their “gratuitous plugs”.  I certainly plug my How To Interview DoctorWho, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else ebook on a regular basis (look out, I just did it again), while mindful not to become a spamaniac.  

If you’ve done something and want people to know about it, there’s no shame in making that happen.  Twitter is way more than a mere forum for plugs, however: it gives you a platform, just as a blog does.  It gives you a presence, to use as you will.  People knowing you exist, and what you’re about, is half the battle.  For me, the ideal set-up is having both an active blog and Twitter account - you can, of course, embed your last few Twitter posts in your blog’s sidebar.  When posting on both platforms, if you’re a writer looking to be produced, I’d avoid writing anything which might make industry folk think you’re mad, rubbish or disgruntled.  Or all three.  But that’s a given, right?  Right?  You’d think so, anyway.  See Danny Stack's comment on this very post for further details.

5) WISDOM
There’s a vast tank of this nutritious brain-feed on Twitter, and it’s entirely free.  Follow the right people and you have an immediate hotline into as much of their working lives as they choose to reveal.  If someone’s doing what you want to do, take note of their attitudes, their approach to things, their thoughts on the industry, their flashes of insight.  Not in order to wholly replicate these people like some breed of Body Snatcher, you understand, but to absorb that wisdom, to use in your own way - even if you reject it.  See the end section of my recent blogpost here, for instance, to see a list of TV creators on Twitter.  I’m still amazed that some of them have comparatively few followers right now.

6) INFORMATION
Again, follow the right people and companies on Twitter and you’ll never miss anything, ever again.  Events, competitions, initiatives... it’s increasingly simple to stay abreast of this stuff.  If you miss someone flagging up an ideal date for your calendar, then you can bet someone else will post/retweet about it later.  Follow TV, radio and/or film production companies and keep track of what they’re working on.  Follow helpful bodies like the BBC Writersroom.  There is no longer any excuse for not understanding how industries work and ways into them.  And of course, Twitter will always keep you in touch with what’s happening in the real world, albeit through a prism of often violently conflicting opinions.

7) PRAISE
Here’s one of my many favourite things about Twitter: I can experience a TV drama serial, an episode of EastEnders, a film, a book or a comic, then immediately look the writer up on Twitter and tell them how much I liked it.  This can only be a good thing for scribblers, who are often so used to being sidelined and glimpsed in credits which hurtle past in one quarter of the screen.  If you like a writer’s work, tell them so.  I love the fact that we can now do this so easily.  Same goes, of course, for directors, producers and anyone else whose work you enjoy.  Positive feedback, where deserved, puts a giddy spring in the world’s step.  You can even connect with your all-time heroes.  I'd certainly like to know in which other universe I could tweet my admiration at John Carpenter and receive a reply within minutes.

8) IDEAS
Twitter dumps an avalanche of stuff on your head, every hour of the day.  News, opinion pieces, blogs, jokes, thoughts, indecent photography.  Some of these things can be filtered into your work, or make a huge cartoon light bulb blip into existence above your head.  Whenever something interests or inspires you, catalogue it safely away for potential future use.

Besides ‘favouriting’ tweets (which you can handily sync with Google Reader), I use Instapaper, which is integrated into my browser - I can save a page with a single click.  This method feels easier to manage than standard browser bookmarking.  There's also the excellent Evernote, which helps you keep virtual notebooks.  Another great technique lies in Twitter lists.  You can create a list - privately, if you like - without having to actually follow anyone on it.  A strange but useful loophole.  So if you’re researching a TV series about firemen, for instance, you can build a list of firemen/fire services on Twitter and receive a separate feed solely comprised of their tweets.  This can be gold dust.  Oh, and if you're a comedy writer, Twitter can be a decent testing ground for jokes.  If a gag triggers a slew of retweets, it's probably got legs.

9) NETWORKING
On the face of it, Twitter isn’t naturally set up for networking.  Chat with more than two or three people at once and there’s barely any room in a tweet to 'speak', because you need to begin with their ‘@’ usernames.  Certain corners of Twitter can also admittedly be quite cliquey, and it can feel intimidating to strike up a conversation with someone new in public (public, that is, provided people are following you both).  Yet somehow, while sailing on Twitter’s hivemind soup, it’s surprisingly easy to get to know new people.  It just happens.  Sometimes you follow them and they follow you back, naturally prompting a brief chat/hello, which can lead to banter.  Sometimes they’ll follow you first.  Sometimes a stranger will see a retweeted tweet of yours.  Sometimes you’ll join a conversation which includes strangers who become friends. 

Unlike Facebook, where both parties have to agree to befriending each other, Twitter is more open.  It’s perfectly possible to chat to people on a regular basis without mutual followage.  Twitter offers the opportunity to directly contact people who may be Good To Know and who, shock horror, may become Proper Friends.  The directness and ease of such contact is really not to be underestimated.  As with all networking, though, it’s worth bearing in mind that restraint and politeness are key (see Eight Ways To Annoy People Whose Help You Want).  It’s also worth saying that, if you have a hang-up about being ‘ignored’, Twitter may sometimes feel a little harsh.  Cold, even.  Just bear in mind that, if someone has a lot of followers, they may not even see your tweet on their timeline.  Also, only about five per cent of the people who follow you will read any one of your tweets.

10) PROCRASTINATION
Yes, that’s right - the very thing I initially said seemed bad can actually do you a whole world of good.  If writers stare at a script for too long, their brains implode and become grey milkshake.  We regularly need to switch frequencies and Twitter provides endless ways in which to do so, whether it’s getting involved in a debate about internet censorship or following a YouTube link to watch a marmoset play the banjo.  It’s easy to think this stuff is time-wasting and purely a way to avoid that blank Final Draft page (and God knows, it can totally be that), but sometimes we need to dick around.  Sometimes, the cauldron in the back of our brains needs a chance to hubble and bubble.  Sometimes we’re just not ready to write (see What Writers Always Forget).

Twitter can also warm you up for a busy day.  First thing in the morning, it can be difficult to launch straight into your writing.  Knock out a few tweets to limber up your fingers and brain.  I like to start the day by tweeting nonsense, saying hello to people, checking out the latest sources of excitement and outrage - the virtual equivalent of chatting to folk over breakfast, which is in fact exactly what I’m doing.  Get involved, get engaged, warm up... then, crucially, RETREAT and WORK.  If you love Twitter as much as I do, then returning to Tweetdeck or your app of choice will feel like a reward to save for later.  Or, you know, in five minutes, when you’re not quite ‘feeling it’...

I’m on Twitter under the cryptic name of @JasonArnopp.  I also have side accounts which deal with my various niche interests: @thrasherama (thrash metal) and @ArnoppVHS (watching and collecting mad, obscure films).  See you there!

What positive benefit does Twitter bring you, whether you’re a writer or not?  Tell me in the comments below...

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16 comments:

Danny Stack said...

Excellent run down, Rear Admiral, but I'd add a no.11: A WARNING. Any tweet or exchange can be seen publicly (unless you privately block your tweets). Producers & execs regularly check writers' Twitter feeds, which can be great, but often (I've discovered) they're not impressed with what they find. Even if someone is making a joke or offering a critique, it can be a minefield of miscommunication or tonal misunderstanding. Be judicious with criticism, offence, trolling, or ill-advised jibes!

It seems Twitter generates a fascinating psychology where people willingly let their guard down, and end up tweeting all kinds of damaging rubbish!

Rosie Claverton said...

In an awesome but roundabout way, Twitter got me a script reader, my first credit and my first paid writing gig. I would never have encountered any of the folks involved had it not been for Twitter. Sometimes, just chatting about what you're working on and making friends is the best thing you can do.

Ben Dutton said...

I joined Twitter for the first time about a month and a half ago - after reading your previous post about Twitter. I'm not very good at being on it, but it's helped me in interesting ways.

I agree with you on hearing all sorts of voices on there, so useful.

It's also given me insight into the processes of selling a script - all very helpful in assisting me approach people with my own work. It's also kept me abreast of industry news.

I treat Twitter as a very useful tool and a way to make friends with fellow scribes. I'm glad I took your recommendation and joined.

hell4heather.com said...

Excellent post Jason - retweeted! As an aspiring comedy writer I have reaped huge benefits from networking with commissioned, working writers and also picked up some work experience. It's been a massive kick for me to keep writing. Self promote - but YES! Follow me @hell4heather :-)

Anita said...

I found my agent through Twitter! (I also love the procrastination aspect...takes less time for the procrastination high, than, say, Facebook).

Stewart Ross said...

Best bit is procrastination - favourite part of my day, and probably the most creative.

gimenacampasso said...

Great way of viewing it..! Twitter gives us indeed a huge wave of information every hour, and that, if used smartly, can be very useful.
@gimcampasso

JNajah said...

Excellent piece! I joined Twitter after my site's developer encouraged me to do so, to market the site. While I really have not used it for that, I found it a fascinating experience for all of what you said. And since I am a former journalist and also a writer, I am fond of the character restrictions. It's good for writers to practice pithy sentences.

PS. Why did you publish your book by ebook?

Anonymous said...

Aside form prompting me to happen upon your blog.... Twitter makes my procrastination spells easier to explain away as productive research when I want to kid myself. Its like news for the ADD afflicted - every headline you could possibly want to read in a matter of minutes.

@writestuffaus

Marc Mordey said...

Thanks for this post - really enjoyable and interesting - I have RT it!
cheers
@marcmordey

Rosemary Kaye said...

I agree wholeheartedly about the need to be brief - I can witter on for hours, and Twitter has really shown me how to edit down to the bare bones - it's almost always an improvement.

Twitter has also made me realise how many aspiring/new/established writers there are locally - it's so encouraging, and keeps me going when I think 'what's the point?'

The only thing I find wearing is when people go on and on about some TV programme they're all watching. I do not want to know that much about Britain's Got Talent. However, you can of course ignore what you don't want to read, and I find a lot of the links excellent - as you say, saves you missing so much.

Thanks for an interesting article.

SamuraiCX said...

I actualy found a link to your blog via twitter from one of the many writers and writing tips accounts that I follow. I have to say that I have found this to be helpful in seeing things in a different view (besides just keeping up with the anime feed on twitter). It seems like everytime time I want to write, the timing doesn't feel right, but that comes with a case of procrastination that I endure in almost all the time. Thanks for the great post, I'll be sure to follow you on twitter. My twitter name is, @samuraicx. 1-)

P.S. Forgive my lack of grammar and missing punctuation. I'm just now getting back into the groove of things! Which is no excuse, I know. Lol!

Ross Mountney said...

Having recently joined twitter and still wavering and wondering you've convinced me! Like your site. x

Checkout Chick said...

great blog!

Darren Goldsmith said...

All of the points here (and Danny’s!) are perfectly put, with point 6 being the real key for me. It’s hard to imagine how it was before we had all of this information, not just at our fingertips, but being beamed directly at us, via our feeds.

Without Twitter I would never have seen the opportunity to try for the Big Finish Doctor Who Short Trips open submission... and be accepted!

Oh, and look, I’ve also made use of point 4, right there (Volume II – ‘Chain Reaction’).

:)

johannanield said...

An excellent, accurate, and informative piece. I hope you don't mind if I link back to this via my own blog?

Twitter feeds my procrastination habit, but I also love it for the diverse personalities and opinions that cross my timeline.

I use Twitter sparingly to advertise my work, for two reasons: firstly, I'm more interested in engaging with people than selling to them* and secondly, I don't want to gain a reputation for spamming. Others do it incessantly, and it drives me mad!

*I know that I need to find a balance there, if I'm ever going to achieve my goal of giving up the day job ;)

I have yet to meet my agent via Twitter, but I live in hope ;)