From the Front Lines: How to make Twitter work for you

Five guidelines that have worked for me – and will hopefully work for you, too.

Using Twitter
Tips for writers using Twitter. Photo by Irina Shatilova/Shutterstock

You will have heard from many people that writers need to be on Twitter. I don’t disagree. I’ve been on it for 11 years. I’ve also been the voice behind the handles of everyone from co-working companies to lingerie retailers to literary magazines, and, of course, I write my personal feed.

After all these years, I think I’ve finally figured out what makes Twitter work for me as a writer. And although I started using it with the idea of platform and personal brand, it’s ultimately not either of those things that makes Twitter the right medium for me.

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Back in early 2008, I was doing a lot of freelance writing that involved low-hanging fruit. It was stuff I was interested in and had expertise in already: writing about the environment or about corporations and their sustainability efforts. Writing about the places I had lived or my home city at the time – Chicago – was another. I fell into this strange hole, building a persona for myself so I could get more clients. I went to a good number of networking events. Conveniently, that’s when I started managing social media feeds for a living.

I enjoyed it: It fulfilled my ever-present curiosity, since I could get to know new fields of work, based on whatever client I was working with. I felt like I was getting to know new people, based on the interactions I had from posting to the brand’s accounts. I got good enough at it that I led workshops and helped companies develop their voices on social. But even while I was e-meeting people and their feeds and getting to know all these different worlds, there was always a wall up between me and the people I was interacting with, especially at my personal feed.

I blame this wall on something called Klout.

Klout has since died, but you only need to know that it was an engine that measured something called “influence.” (“Influence” is still a thing and is still measurable by other tools. It is exactly what you think it is: a measurement of how much you influence your followers to engage with you or take an action based on what you’ve posted.) Klout ranked your social media feeds on a scale of 1-100, and I tracked mine religiously, a daily automatic motion I’d make right after I checked the Klout of my clients’ feeds. It measured the effectiveness of the messages I posted for my clients. And I thought it measured how effective I was.

And then I realized how silly that was, even if I didn’t quite feel the blush of shame I normally feel when I ask for validation. Weirdly, because this was couched under “work,” I could feel fine about the good feelings I got when I saw I was performing by Klout standards. That I was considered an influencer, to a degree.

But by looking at myself as a personal brand, I was too focused on the message I was trying to convey and not really enjoying the content I was putting out there. In other words, I was negating the writing part of being a writer on Twitter.

So I stopped caring about Klout and started just talking. Just writing in the void, as it were. It turns out, that whole “being you” thing really helps, to make you feel more engaged on Twitter and to interest followers who might be interested in getting to know you. So I’m better now, and my convoluted Twitter journey has resulted in a few tips I want to share with you.

1. I always consider authenticity.

What do I mean by this? I just mean to behave as you would in normal, everyday conversation. If you have a question, ask it. If you have a thoughtful comment, make it. Remember, text is interpreted differently from speech, and you should always think and review and edit your tweets before you post anything.

2. I think of “engagement” as “conversation.”

Some of the most gratifying interactions I’ve had on Twitter have stemmed from things I’ve posted that I find interesting. But I never just post them. I give up a little of myself every single time, writing about how this particular thing resonates with me, or how it changed my thinking. (I also get really great interactions when I post about things my husband and I disagree on. My husband bites his string cheese instead of peeling it, which makes him a monster. Turns out, a good half of my Twittersphere is also monsters.)

3. I consider vulnerability an art form.

I don’t moan too much on Twitter, and I don’t engage in vague messages of ennui or unhappiness. (Usually I’m pretty obvious about my ennui, but I like to use my bad moods to give people a chance to tell me about their good news.) What I love to do is ask people for their opinions and about their experiences. One of my very favorite Twitter threads was about a disappointment I’d experienced. I asked Twitter how they got over theirs, and the result was a wonderful blend of advice and camaraderie. It had me high for days because a normally virtual community became more solid, suddenly.

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4. I no longer worry about the numbers.

I don’t have a huge number of followers, and I’m not overly worried about growth. (It took me a long time to come around to this.) The followers I do have engage with enthusiasm about the things that matter to them. Some of my followers are my former students, and some are colleagues, and some are writers and editors and agents I admire. And on the days I follow someone new, it’s because they’re working on something I’m interested in, but I don’t always seek out engagement with them unless it’s a truly organic situation. (See “authenticity,” above: It goes for conversational gambits, too.)

5. If the mood strikes you, explore outside of the writing world.

Someone once told me she thought writers were amazing because we are inspired all the time and that we have great imaginations. I don’t believe this for a second. Writers are great eavesdroppers. We are always listening in or paying close attention to something. This is where we get our inspiration, and this is how we learn about even tiny things like dialogue that rings true and how people act. For me, Twitter is a great place to eavesdrop. I learn about a million things that I wouldn’t otherwise have known if it weren’t for Twitter, and I also pay attention to the folks who are tweeting a lot about something I happen to be interested in. More than once, I’ve made great connections and friends on Twitter, too, people and brands I continue to keep track of and engage with in mutually beneficial ways. So don’t think that because you’re on Twitter as a writer, you need to stay in that lane.

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Now, here’s the tricky part: While I don’t disagree writers should understand Twitter and use it if they can, I also don’t agree that writers have to be on Twitter. I think you should use whatever medium works for you. If you love photos, try Instagram. If you prefer more networking, try LinkedIn. Want to stick with Facebook? By all means, if that’s where you’re comfortable, go for that. Just know that every medium has its own language.

Twitter is a terrific place for writers to meet and greet each other, for us to discuss the things we love to discuss, whether that be the #5amwritersclub or the broader #writingcommunity, or even some of the great chats that are hosted on Twitter at regularly scheduled times. (Anyone can pop into those.) There’s certainly a string of best practices, and you wouldn’t be remiss to study your favorite authors and see how they do it. I don’t believe that any one person follows every best practice when it comes to something as wide-ranging and quickly changing as social media. But find what works for you.

And have fun. Your readers are smart. They know when you’re enjoying the medium you’re using. You don’t even have to test this theory, because I did it for you, over 11 long years: When I send out tweets about politics, which makes me miserable and in which I regularly prove my lack of expertise, I don’t get nearly as many interactions. But oh! When I’m tweeting questions about dogs, artificially-orange crunchy cheese snacks, or inclusion and diversity in literature, Twitter just lights up.

Perhaps it’s this, then, that’s my favorite thing about this tool: Ultimately, it can be a reflection of who you are, and help you understand more about where you’d like to be.

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Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.