It’s been almost four years since I first set up my Twitter account. I joined in August 2007 as part of a story I was writing about the implications Twitter could have for journalism.
“I never thought I’d be a Twitterer who twittered tweets” was my lead. (Clearly, the word “tweeted” wasn’t yet part of my vocabulary.)
After I wrote the story, many journalists told me Twitter was just a passing phase, and that it didn’t hold any promise for journalists.
A lot has changed since then.
Twitter is now my primary source of news, as it is for many journalists. But it’s also been an important tool that’s helped me strengthen my writing skills.
Twitter teaches me to write succinctly.
As a writer, I’ve always had a tendency to be wordy. I was the student who wrote longer essays than I needed to, and the newsroom intern who had to be reminded to stick to her word count.
Twitter forced me to change.
The social networking site taught me that in writing, every word counts (literally). By limiting myself to 140 characters, I have to be strategic about how many words I use and how I use them. Training myself to write succinctly on Twitter has made me more aware of extra words in my stories.
I’ve cut down on the clutter, but still tend to be wordy when I’m unsure of what I want to say, or when I’m tired and preoccupied. I recently started a new experiment to help with this. As time allows, I read through my stories before submitting them and read every sentence as if it were a tweet. How would I write this sentence if I were tweeting it? Are there words I could cut that would save space but not change the meaning of what I’m saying? If so, I start trimming.
Twitter gives me confidence as a writer.
When I interviewed author William Zinsser last year, he said a lack of confidence is one of the biggest obstacles to good writing. Confidence, Zinsser said, comes from trusting your instincts as a writer and learning to advocate for the stories you want to write.
I believe confidence also comes from tweeting.
Prior to joining Twitter, it was difficult for me to gauge the impact of my work. I’d finish a story, it would get published online, and then maybe it would get a comment or two. I didn’t have a sense of who was reading it, or how they were reacting to it.
Now, I see people responding to my stories on Twitter and retweeting links to them. Every time someone retweets my stories, I feel validated as a writer. Twitter helps show us that our work matters, at least to the people who retweet it.
Twitter offers me a sense of what my audience wants.
I first joined Twitter as an experiment — to see which news organizations were on it, how they were using it, and how Poynter might benefit from it. I started following the few journalists who were on it at the time and now follow about 1,100 people, most of whom are in the media.
As a media reporter, I use Twitter to see what other journalists are covering, and what they’re saying about the news of the day. What unanswered questions do they have about the event? What resources might they need to continue covering and advancing this story?
By perusing tweets and keeping these questions in mind, I’m able to get a better sense of what my audience wants. This in turn informs my reporting and makes it easier to come up with related story ideas.
Twitter shows me the value of capturing reaction.
I love how Twitter becomes a stream of reactions when news breaks.
After the Associated Press changed its style from “Web site” to “website,” I was struck by journalists’ reactions on Twitter. I can’t recall ever seeing so many capital letters and exclamation points in journalists’ tweets before. Clearly, this was a big deal.
The tweets prompted me to write about the style change and capture people’s reactions in my lead.
I wanted to show that, for people who care about language and style, this news mattered.
Twitter makes me feel like I’m part of a community of writers.
I’ve never met the majority of writers I follow on Twitter, and yet I still feel connected to them. I regularly see their tweets, and sometimes I send them a reply or direct message.
I offer feedback on their work, and I share my own ideas and stories with them. Having these conversations with other writers makes me feel as though I’m part of a community that cares about the written word. And it gives me a chance to strengthen my voice as a writer by contributing to the discussion.
Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark has often said that to be a better writer, you have to read, write and talk about reading and writing. Twitter is one of the best places to have this conversation.
Twitter reminded me that, sometimes, it’s OK to be funny and sarcastic when writing.
It can be tough to incorporate humor into writing without sounding insensitive or too over-the-top. Because humor is so subjective, a lot of writers avoid it for fear of making light of a serious subject or having their jokes fall flat.
On Twitter, the tone is more conversational and you can have more fun with writing. While I don’t usually write humorous or sarcastic tweets, I’m inspired by other journalists who do. Gene Weingarten, Jennifer Weiner, Frank Bruni, Katie Rosman and Rachel Sklar all strike a good balance between being witty, fun, humorous and serious on Twitter.
There’s Weiner’s recent tweet about old guys in Speedos sweating during yoga. Weingarten’s snide remark about people’s ignorance of the English language. And we can’t forget Frank Bruni’s tweet about how the heat made him feel like rigatoni — “rather gigatoni — left to boil too long.”
After writing my first draft of this story, I went through it and removed all the words I didn’t need. Every sentence in this story — except for one excerpt — is now 140 characters or fewer.
Whether we’re talking about a 700-word column or a 3,500-word narrative, there’s value in paying attention to the words we use and the way we use them. Twitter helps us do that.