The real writer behind the fictional Will McAvoy’s Twitter account

Will McAvoy isn’t very Internet savvy. On the pilot episode of “The Newsroom,” he learns he has a blog.

“Seriously … I have a blog?” he asks, after talking with the young journalist who runs it.

It’s almost funny, then, to see tweets from @WillMcAvoyACN, an account that’s amassed more than 28,000 followers since the end of June.

“I have a fucking Twitter account?” read the first tweet from the account.

Will McAvoy is the main character in Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, “The Newsroom.” He’s played by Jeff Daniels.

Who is @WillMcAvoyACN?

The person behind @WillMcAvoyACN isn’t Jeff Daniels, Aaron Sorkin, or anyone from HBO; it’s a 28-year-old who started the account as a creative writing exercise.

I learned this after sending @WillMcAvoyACN a Direct Message and asking for a phone interview. He agreed to one, but wished to remain anonymous out of “dramatic necessity.” It’s an ironic request, given that McAvoy isn’t one to rely on anonymous sources and has described how much he dislikes online commenters who hide behind anonymity.

“Part of the illusion of the account would be ruined if my actual name and identity were revealed,” said McAvoy, as we’ll call him. “It stops being ‘some guy tweeting as Will McAvoy’ and it just is me tweeting, which takes away some of the charm of the account.”

We rarely grant anonymity in stories, but decided to make an exception in this case so I could capture the story behind the account and still preserve the mystique.

McAvoy, who shared his real name with me off the record, writes for an airline company and tweets (several dozens of times per day) on the side. He’s never worked in journalism, but was the sports editor and online editor for his college newspaper in the Midwest.

A self-described Sorkin fan, he’s also the person behind the popular @Pres_Bartlet account for the “West Wing” character President Josiah Bartlet. @Pres_Bartlet, which has gained nearly 41,000 followers since the summer of 2010, has been referred to as an “Internet cult figure.” Rachel Maddow and Robert Gibbs have each made note of the account, which is one of many “West Wing” accounts.

Lots of people have set up accounts for characters from “The Newsroom,” though many are inactive. The McAvoy character alone has at least five Twitter accounts, including @DrunkWillMcAvoy, @RealMcAvoy, @WillMcAvoy_ACN and @McAvoyACN.

But @WillMcAvoyACN stands out because the tweets sound like they’re coming from Will McAvoy himself. The writing is that good.

Using Twitter to capture Sorkin’s voice

McAvoy, an aspiring television writer, told me he’d been suffering from a bad case of writers’ block. Hoping to break out of it, he turned to Twitter, which forced him to write in character, write regularly, and write succinctly.

“I do think Twitter has made me a better writer because when you give yourself constraints it requires you to be stronger. When you only have so many characters to use, you have to think more about phrasing, about effective use of words,” he said.

“You might use one word when you would usually 10, you might find the adjective that works slightly better than the more common one you would usually use. … Some of my best tweets are the ones that were originally too long — because I had to revise them multiple times.”

Twitter’s 140-character limit forces McAvoy to avoid Sorkin’s lengthy monologues. Instead, he tweets sarcastic one-liners that sound like the McAvoy character. Sorkin, who’s known for writing long passages, isn’t on Twitter. One Reddit user said getting him to tweet “would be like asking Beethoven to compose on a Kazoo.”

Tweeting from @WillMcAvoy is more challenging, the fake McAvoy says, than tweeting from @Pres_Bartlet.

“You have to manage people’s expectations based on a character that is still being revealed to them,” he said. “Bartlet was complete. McAvoy is still very incomplete as a character because there have only been 10 episodes of ‘The Newsroom.’”

Interacting with other characters, journalists on Twitter

Bartlett and McAvoy sometimes interact on Twitter, retweeting and responding to each other’s tweets about politics. Their interactions are a good example of how Twitter can make fictional characters seem real and, in some cases, give them a voice in the daily news cycle.

Sometimes, we wish they were real. On Thursday, @AdParker tweeted, “If only we lived in a world where @WillMcAvoyACN and @Pres_Bartlet had “Verified” next to there names…”

When we see tweets from TV characters like McAvoy and Bartlet, it’s easy to become intrigued. Maybe we’re attracted to the voice of the characters, the idea of interacting with them, their staying power, or the unknown; rarely do we find out who’s behind these accounts. (I’ve often wondered, for instance, who’s behind the accounts for Sue Sylvester, Barney Stinson and Rory Gilmore.)

McAvoy said he’s exchanged a few direct messages with the other “Newsroom” and “West Wing” characters on Twitter, but doesn’t know who’s behind the accounts. He hasn’t heard from Sorkin, but did have a brief conversation with an HBO representative, who asked him to add the line “Not affiliated with @hbo or The #Newsroom” to his Twitter bio.

To acclimate himself to Sorkin’s writing voice, McAvoy watches a Sorkin show or movie at least once a week. He also reads a lot about Sorkin, who told NPR earlier this year: “I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that’s usually looked at cynically — the way journalism is now — you can get something fun out of it.”

Sorkin has also talked about the importance of making your audience feel connected to characters: The trick to writing a good script, he has said, “is to follow the rules of classic storytelling. Drama is basically about one thing: Somebody wants something, and something or someone is standing in the way of him getting it. What he wants — the money, the girl, the ticket to Philadelphia — doesn’t really matter. But whatever it is, the audience has to want it for him.”

McAvoy gets the importance of forming a connection with his audience. He responds regularly to his followers to let them know that “McAvoy” is listening to what they have to say.

“The mistake some people make is they don’t use Twitter to interact; they use it to send out tweets, but they don’t respond, they don’t reply. That’s something I’ve always done with these accounts, as much as I can,” he said, noting that his favorite “Newsroom” character is actually Charlie Skinner, not McAvoy.

McAvoy interacts with his followers the same way the gruff McAvoy character interacts with his critics and colleagues; he defends his points, tells them when he thinks they’re wrong and — in true Sorkin fashion — responds to their questions with witty retorts about politics and journalism.

This week, he’s been tweeting about the violence in Libya and, as he says, “attacking@AriFleischer for suggesting moderate Arabs should get between the Embassy and the protesters.

He thinks it’s important to give McAvoy a strong voice in the news of the day.

“My job is to try and find snippets of [McAvoy's] character that, as a whole, show someone with something to say,” McAvoy said. “The theme of the McAvoy account is holding people accountable for the things they say — and encouraging people to demand that the real media do the same thing. Considering the number of followers I have from the real media, I think it’s something they want to do as well. Or maybe they just enjoy a program about their profession.”

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Hi @facebook-1034031964:disqus, thanks for writing. You bring up a good point. My intention was to point out that while he worked for his college newspaper, he hasn’t had a job in journalism.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenntomasch Kenn Tomasch

    I’m guessing anyone who is sports editor of their college newspaper would take issue with your characterization of such a person “never having worked in journalism.” Just sayin’.

  • http://tailieumienphi.nhatnghe.org/ btk1902

    so cool

    Tai lieu mien phi 2012

    so beautiful

    Thu vien tai lieu 2012

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    Leigh, this is a great story and bravo. danny in taiwan. love your stick to it tiveness! we need more copy desks like you! the other day my paper in taiwan, English expat daily, 24 pages, well done, usually. quoted Mark Zuckerberg as saying “We will try our best to keep Facebook looking good and it is incumbent on U.S. to always do our best…”
    paraphrasing of course, but he said “us” not USA or U.S. but the auto correct spell check system turned all the words spelled “us” into “U.S.” four times in the story, and it was an AP wire story. Sigh. Leigh, ever heard of an atomic typo? It’s when a word is spelled correctly but out of context and wrong, such as Atlantis or Atlantic, both are spelled correctly. google “atomic typo” or see my blog on it. Cheers, i love YOUR attitude. I had originally thought the channel was called ATLANTIC, that is what i heard on TV here…. now i see.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    Bravo, great interview and story, and good for McAvoy aka to remain aka until the time comes to come clean, for now, as others have said, it works best not knowing his real name. Keep going and never tell us who you are. Great scoop, MT!

  • http://twitter.com/DogDriver Leigh Hogan

    @WillMcAvoyACN helped me, a real journalist, catch,
    confirm and correct a factual error in a real Associated Press story.

    I first became aware of him on the day Anderson Cooper
    came out. He tweeted several disparaging comments about copy editors supposedly
    writing bad headlines about the revelation. Offended, I engaged him in a lively
    debate about what copy editors at real newspapers actually do.

    At the end of the night, I tweeted him, “BTW, what
    does ACN stand for?”

    “Atlantis Cable News” was his reply.

    Several weeks later, I was editing an Associated Press
    story about actress Olivia Munn, who is in the cast of “The
    Newsroom,” which said the characters worked for the fictional
    “Atlantic” Cable News.

    I tweeted @WillMcAvoyACN because I thought I might have
    caught him making, if not a factual error, at the least a typo. He replied that
    he was certain it was Atlantis.

    While I was searching HBO.com in vain for some text that
    would clearly indicate which spelling was correct, @WillMcAvoyACN sent me a
    direct message with a link to HBO’s online store. Rather than use his link, I
    used my computer to navigate from HBO.com’s home page to the store’s “The
    Newsroom” mousepad image, which clearly showed the on-screen logo with the
    words “Atlantis Cable News.”

    I was able to correct the spelling before it went to
    print in my newspaper and notify the AP reporter via email of it also.

    Leigh Hogan, senior copy editor

    The Tampa Tribune

  • Anonymous

    Fake Steve Jobs lost its charm once Dan Levy was revealed. I enjoy both the Will McAvoy and Pres Bartlett (he has even responded to my tweets in a manner I expect of Pres Bartlett). Keep up the good work!