No Excuses! Why and How Writers Should Embrace Twitter
9 Feb 2016
Paul Jones, author of several word trivia books, shows how authors can use Twitter to promote themselves.
“You should get on Twitter, I think you’d like it.” Or so said a friend of mine while we were catching up in our local, four years ago. Frankly, I wasn’t convinced. But partly out of curiosity (and partly to allay the constant badgering) I registered an account, picked my Twitter “handle”—the unique @name that identifies you, to the uninitiated—followed the usual slew of friends, family, and famous names, and tweeted my first tweet.
And that might have been that, were it not for the fact that all this took place in the same week as the 2012 Olympics. The hashtag #OpeningCeremony began trending, and clicking on it brought up a flood of tweets from all around the world—people I had never and will never meet, nor likely hear from again—all talking about what was unfolding live in London. There were the funny tweets. The clever tweets. The beautiful tweets. The appreciative tweets. The sarcastic tweets. And so it went on. Twitter was in its own unique way reminding me that, at its very best, social media can be wonderful. I was hooked.
Fast forward to today, and Twitter is now a huge part of my work and writing: I manage an account called @HaggardHawks that has been quietly tweeting facts about the English language and rare and unusual words since December 2013. From its somewhat humble beginnings as merely a means of publicising an etymological book I had written online, @HaggardHawks now has more than 16,000 followers, 2 million impressions (views) a month, a tie-in blog and YouTube channel, and its own spin-off book, Word Drops. Through it I’ve been approached to write articles for everywhere from BuzzFeed to The Daily Telegraph; been ranked alongside the CIA and the Mars Rover as one of the nerdiest Twitter accounts going; chatted to a former Doctor Who and the daughter of a Hollywood icon; and been told by Richard Osman that a quiz I put together was too hard.
Compiling all the material that @HaggardHawks tweets everyday now takes almost as much research and planning as any other writing project I’ve worked on, but it’s fun, stimulating, and immensely rewarding work. More importantly, it gives me an engaged and appreciative audience to talk to, interact with, and—crucially for an author—to point in the direction of all my work, both published and forthcoming, both online and offline.
That might be my experience with Twitter, but meeting with other authors I’m often dismayed to find that that it isn’t everyone else’s. If the conversation happens to turn to social media, the response is often muted. Twitter is dismissed as a waste of time, shunned without question as “not for me”. Just as frustratingly, I often encounter authors who have Twitter accounts, but never use them. “Oh, I wouldn’t know what to talk about…” “I tried it, but I got bored with it….” “I don’t know anyone else who’s on there…” “I’ve only 20 followers, it’s pointless…”
At the other extreme, scarcely a week goes by without either my personal account or @HaggardHawks being followed by a fellow writer or author (typically, it has to be said, one of whom I have never heard) who has a seemingly gargantuan 100,000+ followers, but scroll down through their timeline, and you’ll see that their output is falling on stony ground. Despite a multitude of followers, one tweet might have a solitary “favourite” here, a handful of “retweets” there. Wait a few days, and their account be gone—I am “unfollowed” because I didn’t choose to follow them back and swell their numbers even further. Social media gurus call this follow-for-a-follow-back technique “fishing” or “chaining”; it would be more accurate to call it folly. After all, there is little point in having legions of followers if your online audience simply isn’t listening.
So how do you do it? How can you find an audience, build an audience, and maintain an audience online? Admittedly, everything I have learned on this topic has taken a great deal of time and just as much trial and error—and in the larger world of social media, @HaggardHawks is still small fry, certainly—but based on my experiences, I have found a number of steps that writers and authors looking to build a profile online would benefit from taking.
IT’S MORE THAN JUST A BIO
Let’s start with the basics—for the uninitiated, long before you even tweet your first tweet, Twitter allows its users to add a brief bio (of up to 160 characters) to their profile, ostensibly to explain a little about who you are and what you do. It might seem a throwaway gesture, but it’s worth bearing in mind that those 160 characters are, in practice, part of your principal means of being discovered among the hundreds of millions of accounts online. So whether you’re setting up a personal account to build your own profile, a professional account for just your work or writing, or even an account for a single book or project, the rules are the same: compile a clear and concise bio, being sure to include any key words pertaining to you, your work, and your area of interest or expertise. Yes, “author” or “writer” are necessary of course, but be sure not to omit the specifics (“biographer”, “mediaevalist”, “food blogger”, “military historian”) to ensure that your account is visible to the right like-minded people.
If you freelance or contribute to publications, link to their Twitter accounts (@HuffingtonPost, @BuzzFeed) in your bio. If you’re a published author or are setting up an account to publicise a book, link to your publisher (@panmacmillan, @PenguinPbks), or else somewhere it received a rave review (@guardian, @TheTLS). There’s a field in your bio to supply a website—so supply one! Don’t have a website or blog? Link to your publisher, your agent, or your Amazon page.
REMEMBER: THIS IS NOT FACEBOOK…
So you’ve set up your Twitter account, written your bio, followed your friends, family, and Stephen Fry, and your friends and family (but not Stephen Fry) have all followed you back. You may even have tracked down and followed the usual assortment of Twitter accounts that are useful for writers, from the trivially informative and inspiring (@LettersOfNote, @mental_floss, @LiteraryInterest) to the downright useful (@OED, @guardianstyle). But don’t stop there—there are more than 300,000,000 active Twitter accounts worldwide, so take the time to look far and wide for those that share your interest.
Taking a look at who the accounts you are following are following themselves is a great place to unearth new and worthwhile contacts, but just as you have written your bio with the intention of being discovered by like-minded individuals, use Twitter’s search function to do the same yourself. Search for fellow biographers, mediaevalists, food bloggers, military historians, whatever your inclination may be, but remember: this isn’t Facebook. There’s no need to be acquainted with someone to “follow” them, nor is there any need to limit yourself geographically. Indeed one of @HaggardHawks’ most loyal and engaged followers is the Department of English at the University of Georgia.
Of all those 300,000,000 accounts, there are bound to be thousands that are relevant to you and your work, the vast majority of which you will simply never have heard of—yet they could prove the most fascinating or useful new contact of all. It goes without question that you will of course want to follow the big names that you read and admire (and a number of the world’s literary behemoths, notably Margaret Atwood, Paulo Coelho, Salman Rushdie, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman, are all prolific tweeters) but don’t ignore those further down the tree. Search for writers and authors, bloggers and reviewers, journalists and academics, YouTubers and podcasters who share your interests, regardless of their prominence. Twitter can be a superb resource for sharing and collaborating, asking advice from those who have achieved what you aspire to, and discussing experiences with those in a similar position to yourself.
THIS IS “SOCIAL” MEDIA, AFTER ALL
Now that you’re following an array of like-minded accounts—and your timeline is now a tailor-made live-feed of your own personal interests—chances are, as an author, you’ll be looking to build a following of your own. So how best to get noticed?
A great place to start is by simply talking to and interacting with the accounts you follow; this is, after all, a “social” media. And as the conversations and interactions grow, you’ll find that your audience will too. Retweeting other Twitter users’ material into your timeline can help to get you noticed and keep your timeline active, but don’t ignore Twitter’s neat “quote tweet” function: it allows you to share tweets from other accounts while adding your own comment above, which both helps to get you noticed by the author of the original tweet while keeping your own timeline focused on you. And if the original author reciprocates, by retweeting your quote tweet back into their timeline, you’ll be introduced to their audience, and so on.
TWEET, TWEET, AND TWEET AGAIN
Like any social media platform, the more you use Twitter the more you will get out of it. So keeping your account as active as possible—i.e. tweeting as often as possible—is perhaps the most valuable tip of all. But that raises a common anti-Twitter excuse: “Oh, I wouldn’t know what to talk about…”
To pro-Twitters like me, this is perhaps the most frustrating excuse of all, especially when it comes from otherwise idea-rich writers and authors! But admittedly, it’s an understandable one: Twitter (if not social media as a whole) finds it hard to convince its detractors that it isn’t merely full of cat videos, Star Trek memes, and everyone’s everyday inanities (“Time to walk the dog LOL!” “Back to work tomorrow sad face!”), and the desire to eschew these kinds of trivialities can lead to a point-blank avoidance of social media, or else see burgeoning social media accounts falling silent.
But being a prolific tweeter doesn’t have to entail imparting your entire life onto the Internet. If you’re struggling for talking points, how about passing verdicts on a film you’ve seen? A book you’re reading? A radio show you’ve head? An article you’ve read? As a writer, what are you working on at the minute? What research are you doing? What intriguing morsel have you unearthed in the process? What authors have you recently discovered, or rediscovered? What resources are you exploring? What are you struggling to find out?
Failing that, what’s in the headlines today? Not just on the front page, but in the arts section? The books section? The sports section, whatever interests you? As straightforward as that might sound, sharing and commenting on online articles—in particular articles that not everyone will have seen—is a great way to spark conversation and interaction. If you find it hard to track down articles online to suit your interests, there are plenty of third-party apps you can use to compile a personalized newsfeed. The tablet and smartphone app Flipboard, for instance, collates articles from hundreds of online resources to produce a daily, tailor-made bulletin that you can link to your social media accounts to make sharing what you’re reading easy.
YOU CAN DO A LOT IN 140 CHARACTERS…
There’s talk of Twitter upping the 140-character limit it imposes on tweets this year, but whether it does or not the fact remains that you can do a lot in a relatively small space.
The author Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat), another big name to have fully embraced Twitter, is a perfect example of just how much can be achieved in posts of 140 characters: among several other astute Twitter projects, she posts short stories, a line at a time, to her Twitter feed, with each tweet linked by a #Storytime hashtag so that readers can collate them all and read from start to finish. She tweets Top 10s of tips for aspiring writers, Top 10s of her experiences as an established author, Top 10s on libraries, book festivals, publishing contracts, all giving neatly potted advice and insight.
The poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan (@IMcMillan) often posts single-tweet poems, raiding his vocabulary to make even a train journey from Barnsley to London sound full of life and interest. The artist Moose Allain (@MooseAllain) tweets a staggering array of witticisms, unique artworks, and even short animations. The linguist and editor Stan Carey (@StanCarey) recently posted a light-hearted A-to-Z poem of language terminology that was picked up by and shared by a number of websites and blogs. Over on @HaggardHawks, I run a yearly search for everyone’s favourite words on World Dictionary Day, a yearly April Fool’s Day competition to spot an untrue tweet, and have employed Twitter’s new polling feature to light-heartedly pit the likes of beautiful words (mellifluous vs. ethereal), unpleasant words (verruca vs. phlegm) and linguistic pet peeves (would of vs. expresso) against one another.
Far beyond commenting on the headlines and tweeting about your work, original, sharable, interactive content like this can prove key to amassing and maintaining an engaged audience. The bottom line is simply to be creative: Twitter need not be a blow-by-blow account of your day, but a tool for new and intriguing projects, and the more creative and intriguing your output, the more likely it is to be shared, building your profile along the way.
WHEN 140 CHARACTERS ISN’T ENOUGH
Having a 140-character limit has its disadvantages, of course, and so alongside being creative with Twitter itself, it’s helpful to provide longer but no less sharable or interactive content elsewhere. If you write a blog, share your blogposts (or reviews, recipes, short stories, poems, essays, critiques, whatever it is you produce!) to your social media, but in light of the examples above, keep in mind what kind of content—Top 10s, “listicles”, A to Zs—might prove most popular, most likely to be shared, or most likely to “go viral”. Polls and quizzes are a perfect example of popular, interactive, sharable content, and websites like Sporcle and Qzzr allow their users to compile and personalize quizzes and games free of charge, which can then be embed into a blog or website. And who doesn’t love a good quiz?
Moreover, if you’re open to freelancing then writing for websites is an excellent step: not only does it provide contacts and flesh out your writing portfolio, but many websites give their contributors space to include a bio alongside their work, which these days almost always include a link to their Twitter accounts. And as these websites tend to have well-established social media followings themselves, writing for them can also help to drive an audience to you rather than waiting to be discovered. The Huffington Post is probably the most well-known of all platforms like this, and although they do not pay their freelancers, having something you have written—which links directly to your bio and Twitter account—posted onto a website with millions of hits a day is often reward enough.
SPREAD YOUR WINGS
Lastly, Twitter is now so firmly established online that there are plenty of third-party apps and websites that can help you to truly get the most out of it, and so spreading your wings to some of these can help keep your account active, 24 hours a day, without your constant involvement or management. Services like Buffer, Hootsuite, and Tweetdeck allow their users to compile and schedule their content days in advance, which is then tweeted out automatically at pre-designated times. Personally, as many of @HaggardHawks’ followers are in North America and Australia, I use Tweetdeck to keep the account active overnight, UK-time, while the rest of the world is online—because Twitter feeds are chronological, try reposting your content overnight or at unsociable hours to ensure it finds as wide an audience as possible.
Apps and services like these, however, are at the relatively more advanced end of the social media spectrum, and if you’re just starting out or are merely looking to establish a personal account as a basis for future work it is unlikely you’ll ever need them. But either way, the bottom line remains the same: Twitter is a fantastic platform for new and established writers, and the opportunities for career advancement and profile-building it offers are amongst the best in the social media world. By networking with other writers, tracking down new and unfamiliar contacts, being original and creative, sharing and producing original content—and, importantly, investing a little time and effort into the process—hopefully you will be able to build a worthwhile online profile and gain an engaged and attentive audience.