Before I left San Francisco for AWP, a conference of 13,000 writers in Seattle, I told my friend that I was going to start tweeting. I wanted to tweet as myself, my literary self, and cover the conference. My friend grimaced, said something about social media and evil, and appeared deeply depressed that an artist might feel an obligation to do anything, especially make use of a consumer product.
I said: “Maybe I’ll like it.”
I went to a panel on Twitter at the conference, hoping for a discussion about the role Twitter has come to play in the lives of writers and the literary community. I wanted to learn more about why it mattered, if it mattered at all, and why I felt compelled to use it. Throughout AWP, I heard people groan: “Yeah, I’ll start tweeting soon.” “I know I know: I should tweet.” They seemed resigned to it, and I suppose I did too, but I didn’t know why.
One of my friends is trying to sell her book. She knows people who know people, she’s had meetings with agents and publishers, and at each meeting, they asked how many Twitter followers she has. They ask because they know that a percentage of her followers are guaranteed to buy her book. Since she’s a new author, they want proof that people will read her, that her book will sell. “I suppose that’s why writers at AWP, looking around at the thousands of other writers, felt obligated to tweet — not for fame and fortune, nor literary discourse, but for a better chance at a book deal.” Why not join Twitter if it gives your book an even slightly better chance to live?
None of this was discussed in the panel. Instead, I heard how many followers each panelist had, Twitter success stories (the general themes of which were: “my famous friend retweeted me,” or “I don’t know how it happened”), and sat through what essentially became a Q&A session on how to use Twitter. One man in the audience said: “It seems ludicrous to dedicate myself to something called tweeting, but I know I have to get over that if I’m going to be a serious writer. My question is about hashtags…” There was no question about why he had to get over that if he wanted to be taken seriously.
Here’s the solid advice I discerned between answers to questions like “How do you spot fake accounts?” and “Whom should I follow?” (I’ve starred the ones that occur to me as solid life advice, as well.)
1. Use Buffer. A panelist said “I use Buffer…” and there were (almost sexual) moans of approval from the audience. “That way I know I’ll have a minimum of 5 tweets a day.” She chose quotes from her favorite books (because they were not time or date dependent) and scheduled them to be tweeted at regular intervals from her account via Buffer while she was away at a workshop.
2.* Be authentic. Follow things and people you’re actually interested in. Tweet the way you talk in real life. People follow those that give them information that is informative, inspiring, and funny.
3.* Use common sense. Don’t harass people, don’t over-promote yourself, and consider how others may feel reading your tweets.
4.* Start with a project or an event. If you’re not sure how to start using Twitter for your writing, attend a conference or reading and then tweet about it. Mention the people there and use the event’s hashtag. The writers at the conference, including myself, did this with #AWP14.
5.* Do the work. You can use Twitter to promote your book, your reading, or your MFA program, but you have to write a book, give a reading, or enroll in a program.
6.* Stay connected to your community. Find writers you respect and admire and get their work out there, too. Twitter can be a space for connecting people to art, literature, and literary news. Readers who are not writers will benefit from this, too.
7.* Set an intention for the kind of information you want access to. Twitter allows you to create an account and follow other people’s accounts. Tweets from those you follow appear in the stream on your home tab, with the most recent at the top. If you are following more than a few people who tweet more than a few times a day, you will never read your whole stream. Your job is to select what kinds of information might populate your stream, so that the random sample you get at the times you choose to check it might be worthwhile to you. Your job is also to make your tweets worthwhile for others. If you fail at this job, then people just won’t follow you, for better or for worse.
8.* Experiment. Each tweet has a short shelf life – you can make some bad ones and mangle some hashtags. No one will hold it against you and you can delete them.
9.* Be engaged. Enter conversations and make jokes. When you engage people, it encourages them to follow you.
10. I felt like a top 9 list was weird.
Though some would be quick to point out that your tweets may outlive you, I believe tweets are ephemera. I still don’t know what the implications of Twitter’s current role in the literary world are — AWP 2015 might want that panel — but it does seem to be something we’re figuring out together.
There are serious writers using it and serious writers not using it. It is free and accessible and there are so many writers already there. Twitter allows you to pull from sources you select, to create the kind of information flow that you want, contribute to that flow by tweeting your own thoughts, as well as retweet the thoughts and work of others. Through that you will see what sticks.
Twitter is like a blog and a collage and a newspaper, but easier and more immediate than all of those. It might make a publisher or agent feel better about selling your book, or it might open the door for them to talk to you, but that’s not a guarantee. I think #5 is the most important. Do the work and the rest will follow. #badpun
For more, follow me on Twitter: @ryanpittington. Just kidding. But really.