6 ways Twitter has made me a better writer

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.

“When the AP Stylebook announced via Twitter that it was changing the style for ‘Web site’ to ‘website,’ some users let out shouts of praise: “Finally!” “Yes!!!” “Yeeha!

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philip-Claysin/100002732168601 Philip Claysin

    I just paid $22.87 for an iPad 2-64GB and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $657 which only cost me $62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from, http://to.ly/aRG4

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philip-Claysin/100002732168601 Philip Claysin

    I just paid $22.87 for an iPad 2-64GB and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $657 which only cost me $62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from, http://to.ly/aRG4

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, @Rajean! My Twitter handle is @MallaryTenore.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Amanda!

  • http://twitter.com/rajean rajean

    Agreed. Twitter is the best editor I’ve never paid. Great post. I’ll share. Now I’m searching for your twitter name.

  • http://twitter.com/TimSullivan11 Tim Sullivan

    My sentiments exactly.  I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t immediately realize the journalistic implications of Twitter.  But for someone who always has to add that extra sentence to his radio news copy, Twitter has helped me better realize the importance of brevity, and that a greater impact can be achieved by using shorter sentences and writing shorter stories.

  • http://kindleworld.blogspot.com/ Andrys

    In some ways, for that reason, it also has the draw of a multi-player game…

  • http://kindleworld.blogspot.com/ Andrys

    Also, your ‘tweet’ about a linked story competes with thousands of others in that stream at that minute, so you need to make clear why this one is worth a click.

  • http://www.khaledscorner.com خالد

    nice post thanks

  • Sheila Matsubara

    Great post, spot on.
     

  • Pingback: This Week in Review: Design and the Times, Google+ growing pains, and the extinction of the mogul » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

  • http://twitter.com/AmandaEyer Amanda Eyer

    Great tips Mallary! I love how inspiring Twitter is for finding new topics to write about or get a pulse on whether there’s interest in a certain topic. 

  • Anonymous

    I am registered with twitter but only know how to follow peopleHow can I write on their “wall”
    http://aquascoopreview.com/

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for clearing that up. The slope is less slippery.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=858470857 Enrique Mendizabal

    Very timely read. I just posted these 5 ways in which it can help researchers and think tanks: http://wp.me/pYCOD-e3 (filter, announce, search, network and argue)

  • http://yeastrol.posterous.com/yeastrol-review-an-effective-natural-cure-for Yeastrol

    He deleted it and apologised for any offence caused but I’ve no idea what it was. Anyone?http://yeastrol.posterous.com/yeastrol-review-an-effective-natural-cure-for

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Hi Bruce,

    I can see what you’re saying. Twitter is just a starting point, though. It’s the place where I get my headlines and links to stories. I get my news from the stories that people link to — not so much from the 140 characters they post.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Glad you’ve found Twitter so useful, Michele. A lot of people thought Twitter was stupid when it first came out. Reminds me of something The New York Times’ Jacob Harris said when I interviewed him for that story I mentioned in the lead. Twitter, he said, is “the right kind of stupid.” http://nyti.ms/omrzzb

    ~Mallary

  • http://twitter.com/micheleweldon micheleweldon

    I also started a Twitter account in 2007 at a conference because the speaker made us. Tweeted just twice in more than two years; had no idea what to say or how to use it for journalism. I wrote a column about how stupid it was with people talking about their cats. I was wrong. I require students to have a professional Twitter account– no “Vodka Boy” or “Dancing Girl”– and require them to follow journalists, media sites, key bloggers. They get news, find sources and develop story ideas. Not everyone gets the gravitas of Twitter ; one student accused me of requiring a Twitter account so I would get more followers! I get breaking news on Twitter, ideas and insights from all over the world. I am more informed than ever about the issues I follow. I also tweet my stories, signings, speeches, workshops. Staying off the Twitterwagon is not just old school, it’s detrimental to your professional life.  

  • Kim Gilliland

    “Write tight” were the first words out of my editor’s mouth as a cub reporter years ago.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I shudder to hear that Twitter is anyone’s primary source of news. I can’t imagine how a person could get a grasp of the world and all its complexities in serial bites of 140 characters or less.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001603828333 Little Bit

    goood

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001603828333 Little Bit

    goood