For journalists, Twitter is a behemoth that has changed the way we operate. It has broken stories and careers, cast light on issues, and given voice to the voiceless.
But what if you are not a frequent user of and visitor to Twitter? What if it overwhelms you and you have chosen to stay away from it?
As a woman writer, I keep my distance from Twitter, partly because I am worried about trolling. At least, that is what I tell myself. The other reason for my muted Twitter activity is that I am overwhelmed by the platform and what it entails. I am not sure how to catch this particular tiger by the tail and use it for my benefit. You could argue that I am the poorer for it, quite literally.
For a writer, being successful on Twitter, accumulating followers, is a particular skill that has more to do with showmanship than writing. Provocative, controversial and funny content attracts followers. Can you do that?
Writing click-bait type tweets that offer headline-like copy helps. Can you do that?
Keeping a steady cadence of content is key. You have to keep putting stuff out there. Some folks tweet four times a day. Can you do that?
It involves being comfortable with what skeptics call “oversharing,” and stopping the censor in your head that says “nobody cares about your every inane thought.” Can you stop that censor?
If you can, and a lot of writers do, Twitter’s benefits are plentiful. Book editors like to buy books written by folks who have huge social media platforms because the assumption is that they will market and publicize the book through Twitter. Simply writing a good book is no longer enough these days.
A lot of authors and editors use Twitter for three things.
- To amplify their products (books and articles)
- Find story ideas
- Connect with editors or agents.
The first one is easy. When you have a book event or an article published, it is easy to share it on Twitter. It is the second aspect that we are talking about in this piece
Can you still use Twitter to find story ideas– even if you don’t have a huge presence or following? I asked around– on Twitter, of course. Here is what I found out.
Editors are prolific users of Twitter. Amanda Finnegan, editor of By the Way, a Washington Post travel destination says, “We use Twitter to look for trends among travelers but also have a list of companies and other sources that we check every day for ideas. We also use it to crowdsource. Like right now we have something out trying to get responses on resort fees for a story.”
If you are a journalist who covers one industry or issue, be it politics, food or travel, Twitter is a terrific source for story ideas. To elaborate on Finnegan’s point, most travel writers including myself, regularly check on companies such as Airbnb, and its growing list of competitors including Sonder, Landing, Blueground, or Plum Guide, to check on prices, complaints and trends.
Beyond companies, there are sources– industry voices who you follow because you like their take on things. As a wine writer, the obvious choices to follow on Twitter are magazines like Wine Spectator and celebrity wine critics such as the New York Times’ Eric Asimov, and the Financial Times’ Jancis Robinson. But going to the people they follow is a great way to find obscure labels and names. For instance, I found Cathy Corison, a self-effacing Napa Valley winemaker because she was followed by both Robinson and Asimov. I ended up profiling her for a piece on women winemakers.
The seduction of Twitter though is to find those intersections between areas that throw up offbeat ideas. To do that, you have to find and follow people who sit at that intersection. I found Mark Yarm, features editor at Input, in this way. I follow Writers of Color on Twitter because they post job and assignment listings and always ask for the fee on behalf of the writer: a useful question. When Yarm put out the below post on Twitter, it got featured on Writers of Color.
“Hello, freelance writers! Q3 is almost upon us, which means my features budget at @inputmag is about to be replenished. So please pitch me! firstname.lastname@example.org. .50 to $1/word. More details in the thread below.”
Now Input– “just Input, not Input Magazine” or anything, as Yarm says, stands at the intersection of culture, society and technology. It features interesting stories that are around and above my realm of knowledge. So I began following Yarm to enter into this world. When I direct-messaged him about whether he used Twitter to uncover story ideas, he had this to say– which pretty much sums up the attitude of many in journalism.
“I’m constantly on Twitter — mostly because I’m addicted to it. But I can also justify all the time I spend there because it is essential to my work. I get story ideas from Twitter all the time. For instance, last month I saw a Taylor Lorenz tweet about an “‘all female’ NFT project [that] was actually made by a bunch of men,” and I asked Chris Stokel-Walker, a freelancer we have on contract, to report it out. That resulted in this story, which did well for us. I know Chris also finds so many of his own ideas on Twitter.”
So there you go. From idea to assignment to publication, all via Twitter.
Following writers and editors in fields that interest you but where you have zero expertise is a good way to expand the surface area of your knowledge. This will throw up bits of news and information that you could potentially integrate into your work. It could feed into your writing by way of unusual connections.
Another approach is to use Twitter to network. Writers often network with editors via Twitter, but it could well work with other folks too. Freelancer Sonia Weiser writes for many publications and sends out an “opportunities of the week” newsletter for which she charges $3 a month. She has 16.9K followers and follows 5688 accounts. She says that she occasionally happens upon someone’s tweet about an issue that she finds interesting and will start interacting with them on the platform and beyond. “That happened with my piece about COVID and grad students—I saw a tweet from a grad student at the school I ended up highlighting and got in touch with her,” says Weiser.
Weiser also uses Twitter to test ideas. “There’s also definitely been times that I’ve shot off a tweet as a joke and then saw the response and realized it had story potential. That was the case for my Vulture piece on how the dudes from the Blue Man Group were handling COVID. One of the group members actually saw the tweet and replied and then an editor said he was interested in it.”
Some editors including the editor of Nieman Storyboard post information about writing workshops and events that improve your work. Twitter, it turns out is the best way to get time-sensitive information about opportunities if you know who to follow.
The power of Twitter as a platform is its agility. Lots of people have figured out ways to use it that are imaginative and unusual. To summarize my approach. I follow people in areas that are at the edge of my interests. I find obscure experts in my professional areas. I follow certain organizations like Writers of Color which throw up job and assignment opportunities.
What is your approach? How do you find ideas on Twitter?