June 23, 2020 § 13 Comments
You have ten minutes, so you open Twitter. No notifications. Your inbox has an auto-message from an author you don’t know, thanking you for following (delete!). You scroll for a few minutes, note the level of political outrage, like a few tweets advertising books (that you’ll never buy but you want to be supportive), retweet a couple of “safe” posts (author quotes, an agent’s advice) and a “writer lift”, and exit, mildly disappointed.
How come nobody talks to me on Twitter? I have #writingcommunity in my bio, I like all my friends’ tweets…maybe I’ll just never be cool enough to get attention on social media.
First, let’s get one thing straight: You do not have to be popular on Twitter to write or sell your book. Twitter is most helpful (but isn’t mandatory!) for how-to/self-help/narrative nonfiction. For memoirists, Twitter can help reach readers, but email newsletters, public speaking, published essays, and Facebook groups (not pages) are all better ways to connect with your audience. For novelists, Twitter is a place to build community, not show how you’ll sell books.
So what do writers do on Twitter?
- connect with writing idols and industry professionals in a low-stakes way
- practice writing tight, focused sentences that provoke and engage readers
- meet other writers and have fun
But Twitter has plenty of unwritten rules, just like every other social arena. Breaking the rules requires deep understanding. For example, if I walk into a Star Trek convention dressed like Henry VIII, I am breaking the rules. If I’m cosplaying as Captain Kirk experiencing historical monarchy in a holodeck, at least some fellow attendees will love me. You don’t have time to learn all the rules, let alone parse that previous sentence, because you need to be writing. So here’s a guide to why people aren’t engaging with you, and what you can do about that.
Are you following too many people? “Writer lifts,” in which everyone who responds to a tweet follows everyone else, give us inflated statistics. If Bob Writer has 14.1K followers/15K following, he’s following too many people to meaningfully interact with any of them. Bob’s followers never see his tweets either, because they’re all following too many people. Writer lifts are randomly following to build numbers, not genuinely sharing interests. Follow people you want to read.
Are your followers active? Every time you log on, check ten people on your followers list. If they haven’t tweeted in a month, unfollow. If you value the connection, find where they’re active and meet them there.
Are you active? Twitter’s a weird, bitter, funny, ridiculous community, but you truly do get back what you put in. If you aren’t responding and/or tweeting for a few minutes 3-4 days a week, other people aren’t seeing you.
Think of your audience. Better yet, think of a specific person you interact with on Twitter, and what they react to. We don’t have to be laugh-a-minute, especially right now, but people interact with tweets that move them. Comedy or tears, a moment of thoughtfulness or joy.
Tweet like a writer. Tweak your first draft. Is the question phrased well? Is your joke funny? Do your sentences that begin and end with strong verbs or nouns instead of prepositions or pronouns? Do your best sentence-level work.
Stay positive. Avoid whining about publishing (or anything else). Ask, “Is this complaint because I personally feel hard-done-by, or is there a larger group or principle at stake?” Then decide whether you want to express rage, bring up a legit issue to discuss, or quip about knowing you’re riled up over something silly. If you can, suggest a solution, or ask for information, instead of just venting.
Take part in conversations that mean something to you. Avoid begging for attention. Tweets like “is anyone out there?” or “I guess I’m not important enough to get likes” are unappealing. Start a discussion with a question.
Skip the ads. Sharing your newly published essay (with a quote, or a sentence about your process or motivation) is great. Sharing your great review, or “hey I published a book today!” gets likes. Posting repeatedly about your book for sale is tedious, and people will unfollow. Spend that time submitting articles or essays that tie into your book, and brag about those instead of another commercial.
When you retweet, comment. It’s fine to just RT, but try to more often have something to say about what you’re sharing. Why you liked it. What makes this author or article important. How that joke made you feel. Even an emoji helps connect.
Find a couple of accounts that are just for fun, like reading the comics pages. I’m a fan of @AITA_reddit (some adult material), and I see other online friends in that feed. Responding to their comments there gives us a low-stakes interaction, and they’re more likely to see my other tweets. Literary agents and high-profile, fascinating writers like Chuck Wendig, John Scalzi, Tayari Jones and C. Spike Trotman often have regular commenters, and you can get to know other writers in discussions.
Adjust Your Expectations
Building connections with readers and fellow writers takes time. My social media helped me get a book deal…after spending five years building bridges to readers through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blogging and a newsletter. But I’m not there to rack up numbers. I’m there to share information, make connections, answer questions, and practice writing in those formats. It wasn’t the numbers that got me the deal, it was the behavior. We often dismiss social media as frivolous or shallow, and yes, wide swaths of it are. But Twitter also holds professional camaraderie, writing-process and publishing support, and literary news. Truly connecting on Twitter takes time, and genuine interest in the community—exactly like connecting anywhere else.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Twitter for writing tips, publishing news, and fabulous GIFs.
May 10, 2020 § 10 Comments
Editors’ Note: We rarely include creative nonfiction on the blog, focusing instead on craft talk, book news, and the writing life. But Diane Zinna’s micro-essay (also posted to Brevity’s Instagram) felt right for today.
by Diane Zinna
Today is 22 years since my mother died. It was my graduation day from my MFA program, and I had gone to her apartment to show her my diploma.
There was baseball on TV—she never watched baseball, that’s how I first knew something was wrong—the water was running in the kitchen, her favorite rainbow coffee mug was broken in the sink. Her dog, who would become my dog, was cuddled up beside her body on the floor, his front paws on her, upon her round belly.
She had the roundest belly, like me. Our shape of being pregnant that never went away. I remember being embarrassed of her round belly when I was a child, outlined in her many seam-down-the-front polyester pants, my friends always asking me if she was pregnant.
That night, I put my hands on her belly, and kept them there, waiting for people to come and help me, loving it, finally loving its shape, missing it though it was warm under my hands.
Almost every week someone asks me if I’m carrying a boy or a girl. People give me their seats. They smile in a way they think is knowingly. Sometimes it makes me cry. Other times I try to laugh it off.
Like on this day last year—I was boarding the Acela train to NYC with my boss, when a pregnant conductor announced, big-smiling, arms thrown open, “From one mother to another, Welcome Aboard!” I’m conscious of it always, the way my body reminds me of my mother, the way people’s mistakes make me miss her, surprise me into missing her.
I might be boarding a train, putting my luggage up in the overhead rack, but in my mind I’m in that apartment, and baseball is on, and the sink is running, and the puppy’s paws are on her belly. I think that was the first time I ever really touched it, that night, 22 years ago, from the outside.
Diane Zinna is originally from Long Island, New York. She received her MFA from the University of Florida and taught creative writing for ten years. She was formerly the executive co-director at AWP, and Diane created their Writer to Writer Mentorship Program, helping to match more than six hundred writers over twelve seasons. Her first novel, The All-Night Sun, is forthcoming from Random House and you can pre-order it now. Learn more at dianezinna.com.
April 20, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Social media is incredible; it introduces us to writing opportunities, communities, retreats, residencies, prizes, scholarships, and so much more. It helps us connect and communicate with people around the world. It orchestrates new friendships. Social media dissipates geographic boundaries and makes the writing life less isolated. But, like most things in life, social media too comes with its complications.
Research tells us that excessive and compulsive social media usage is linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem amongst other health issues. If we don’t learn to take care of ourselves, pause every now and then, and stop refreshing our feeds constantly, burn out is inevitable.
- Take a deep breath: While Facebook live and webinars and Zoom meetings make it easier for us to RSVP and “attend” more events because we aren’t limited by geographic location and timings, they can also take a toll on us. Sleeping at odd hours, skipping meals, not getting enough movement, and jumping from one event to another because there are no commute constrictions can have its own consequences. Fact: It’s important to pause. It’s good to take breaks in between. It’s imperative to exercise and eat right. And, it’s perfectly fine to not attend anything once in a while. When you make the time to recharge yourself, you get back to your writing life, writing community, and creativity with vigor and appreciation, you have so much more to give to your tribe.
- Redefine boundaries: Social media has made access to information seamless. It makes life more alluring. You see pictures of your friends at book launches, literary gatherings, and book clubs, and if you perceive exclusion, it can have negative impact on your mental health. Then there is the fear of missing out (FOMO) and tendency of over-booking your calendar to not feeling adept because everyone else around you seems to be doing better—courtesy of social media posts. Develop a healthy relationship with social media. Don’t check social media posts at least two hours prior to going to bed. Don’t log on to social networks first thing in the morning. Maybe schedule your social media posts or you use an app that compels you to take breaks? Consider having an editorial calendar in place to plan content ahead of time and allot specific time of the day to use social media. Whatever you do, do not forget to add a nourishing distance between yourself and social media. Sometimes, we need to build boundaries to protect us from our own thoughts and actions.
- Figure out your why: Social media can be addictive, and it can create a want for instant gratification. Figure out why you are on social media—what your goals and expectations are from it. You don’t have to be on every social networking channel just because others are on there. Figure out, which social media network makes most sense to you and allocate time wisely. Reality is that the more time you spend on social media, the more you start to seek personal validation through your social media engagement. So, if you share an update/post something about your new writing, book, interview, essay, award, struggles, wins….and don’t get “enough” likes or comments or emojis on your post right away, you might find yourself refreshing the feed obsessively. Then the inner voice gets loud and leads you on the path to self-deprecatory reflections: People don’t like my writing. People don’t like me anymore. People aren’t happy for my success. They don’t think I am relatable, witty, or intelligent. I don’t matter. My words don’t make a difference. No one will read my work. My career is over. The writers mind can be filled with insecurities, doubts, and self-loathing. We tend to make up fearful stories in our head.
- Find your community: While it’s important to feel that you aren’t alone, it’s equally important to know that there are different kinds of writers and paths available for your writing career. That said, not everyone will be a good match for you even if though they might be the best human being to have walked this planet. For example, if you are a writer with a day job who is feeling anxious about their commitment to the craft and publishing, talking to a full-time writer who has much more flexibility in their schedule and can afford to spend hours online to research options and opportunities, might put you in a more vulnerable space. Talk to those who can relate to your situation. Find those in the same position as you in life and build a community.
- Embrace tech timeouts: Have you noticed…on some days, you sit down to write with full intention…and then you make the mistake of opening Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or Pinterest on your phone? And there starts the world of mindless scrolling and thumb impressions. On a good day, aside from wasting productive hours, you might not be deeply impacted. But we all have bad days where we doubt our writing, our voice, and our capabilities. On a day like that, it’s easy to assume that everyone in the world has a better life than you. Because social media constantly exposes us to idealized versions of other people’s lives, we assume everyone is more successful than us. Fact: Everyone is struggling in their own ways. People only show those aspects of their lives that they want the world to believe. Intentionally disconnecting from social media can give you untainted perspective.
Social media is powerful. Try to use it mindfully, not reactively. While it’s important to be an active member of the writing community and support your fellow writers, it is equally important to take care of your emotional, physical, and mental health. Information overload can overwhelm us for the wrong reasons. There is a tipping point for each one of us, after which we end up on the road to burnout.
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” ~ Christopher K. Germer
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe.
April 8, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Christen Madrazo
COVID-19 social media content was all fun and games at first. We shared memes, tweets, and posts about the media hype, the handwashing, the run on toilet paper… Now, though, this is our real lives—not just our virtual ones—and our online tone has grown increasingly somber.
The same folks who, three or four weeks ago, insisted this was all “no big deal” and even shamed others for their “hysteria,” suddenly implored us to “check in on our friends with anxiety.” Those who said “relax—it’s just a flu,” almost overnight began to chastise those not doing their part to #flattenthecurve.
But I’m not writing to call out the hypocrisy here. That our social media content would shift makes sense. As more information surfaces, our opinions change.
I get it. In fact, it’s my job to get it. For 14 years I’ve taught university-level intro to writing and research. My work is rooted in the premise that writers’ opinions shift the more they dig into complicated questions and issues. The old saying’s typically true: the more you know about something, the more you realize how little you know at all.
The not-knowing part is frustrating. Composition students don’t like to hear, “You don’t know your thesis yet,” but if your topic is worth writing about, the inquiry—no less the thesis—will not be clear without extensive research. And maybe not even then.
People want answers, though. They want to share “the truth” and fast. Understandably, they want to avoid grappling with something for ages only to find out they’re more confused than when they started.
But that’s what real thinking is.
And so, my problem with the recent COVID-19 social media posts is not the shift in opinion. I like that. It means thinking is happening.
My problem is that we jumped to our theses so quickly—and publicly!—to begin with.
When my students jump to a thesis without doing the hard part, I send them back to the drawing board, and no harm’s done. But when our unsupported theses are shared (and shared and shared and …) what are the widespread consequences? At best, simplistic and unsupported theses are boring. At worst, they’re dangerous. How many cases might we have avoided if our infectious disease non-expert social media contacts hadn’t provided their definitive thesis about COVID-19 so soon?
Now, I’m not suggesting that we leave the posting to the experts. In fact, in our field, we proudly insist that even the most academic conversations are for everyone. I’m also not calling for any sort of social-media-distancing. This is not a plea to unplug. As a writing instructor, I couldn’t be happier that people of all ages, classes, and education levels now regularly express themselves in public writing more than perhaps ever before.
I am, however, calling on us to consider some 101 best practices before we jump to publicly share our unsupported theses.
What if instead of treating social media platforms as a way to engage in transactional writing— writing defined as that which operates in a one-way, definitive direction—we instead embraced one of our field’s most exciting practices: writing-to-learn?
Writing-to-learn is the process by which we write to reflect, grapple with, and question what we know and don’t know. When instructors assign exercises designed for students to write-to-learn (vs. those designed for them to learn to write), we aim to provide a space for thinkers to arrive at meaning through writing—not yet to argue for meaning through writing.
This can look like stream-of-consciousness writing. It can look like a rambling free-write. It likely involves crafting and re-crafting dozens of questions to which the writer has absolutely no answer or ability to answer. This type of writing is vulnerable. It’s not polished. It rarely looks ironic or edgy. While I’m ecstatic that intellectualism is “cool” right now, that doesn’t change the fact that intelligence doesn’t always look cool.
Similarly, the best writing doesn’t always start smart.
And so, I wonder, what if we took a less transactional approach to social media composition and instead embraced writing-to-learn strategies? What if we collaboratively speculated? What if we asked more questions than we did provide answers? What if we helped each other revise our inquiries? What if instead of sharing a source for its headline, we read several and compared them—took chaotic notes in the comments like we used to in the margins? What if we wrote to unpack the great heaving mass of information together?
Imagine how much more quickly we could get to the bottom of things if we posted-to-learn. Or, more likely, how much more quickly we’d realize that there might not be a bottom yet. Maybe we’d feel more at ease with the not-knowing. Maybe we’d start to embrace questions like we do answers. And maybe, we’d realize that having no thesis at all is far more responsible than sharing a rushed one.
Christen Madrazo is a lecturer at CUNY, John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she ran the writing program for several years. She is the founder and director of John Jay’s literary nonfiction podcast series Life Out Loud, and she teaches storytelling around the world with Dramatic Adventure Theatre. Her original nonfiction has appeared on various travel sites and has been performed at New World Stages, Cornelia Street Café, and Renegade Reading Series, among others.
March 26, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Grace Mattern
Good news! My screen time is down to an average of 23 hours and 10 minutes per day, @NasimiShabnam, writer and activist, tweeted the other day, one of the first I see when I sneak over to Twitter from the essay I sat down to edit. Comedian @DoctorDoug replies, Good news guys, my screen time is down 8% to 27 hours a day.
In our new world ruled by the novel coronavirus pandemic, I have no social life, my volunteer and personal commitments are cancelled, and consulting gigs are on hold. Unexpectedly, the open time I crave as an over-committed writer is here.
But right behind the word document on my screen is my Google browser. What’s happened since the last time I checked the The New York Times (five minutes ago)? Is there an update on the number of cases and deaths on the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard (checked six minutes ago)? But first, Twitter.
I don’t have a program that blocks internet access for a set period of time. Time to write. Time to focus. Usually I’m able to ignore the addictive suck of the internet for an hour or two, closing my ears to the attention whining that seeps out of my computer. My guess is that even writers who have internet-blocking programs aren’t using them right now. Or if they are they’re setting them for 15 minute intervals.
Pandemic life has created an unprecedented level of distraction. The established structure of our lives unraveled so rapidly I wouldn’t have believed it a week ago. Extreme social distancing, isolation, lockdowns, restaurant closures and empty schools — I would have tossed that all off as a particularly paranoid version of an imagined future.
Yet, here we are. Here I am, looking at my screen, then looking out the windows of my study. There is the same physical world out there, the farmyard minus the farm house and milking barns that burned down in a blaze so fierce I felt the heat standing at the end of my driveway, a hundred yards away. Only the concrete silo still stands, topped with a silver metal dome backed by a line of tall spruce. This rural landscape is lovely but right now it can’t compete with the invisible virus, a blaze I can’t see.
Back to Twitter for distraction. Thankfully I also find validation.
Writer @susanorlean tweets, I’m amazed by everyone who says they will get tons of work done during this lockdown. I can’t begin to focus! Am just obsessively reading the news, listening to the news, watching the news, spreading the news. No work.
With such compelling news why wouldn’t we be obsessive? We’ve been fed distracting online content for years, our brains trained to go back and go back and go back to whatever our screens feed us. And we’ve never needed the latest feed more than now.
Orlean replies to a tweet by musician Rosanne Cash who reminds us all that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his plague quarantine – I, on the other hand, will be playing Words with Friends. Researcher of extremist groups @egavactip isn’t even planning to play games: 500 years from now, students of history will be saying, “Just a reminder that when Mark Pitcavage was quarantined because of the plague, he made like a billion mediocre tweets.”
Poet @chenchenwrites posts, honestly i can neither read nor write poetry right now. which i’ve been feeling down about. but like, that’s ok! poetry doesn’t have to be the answer all the time! poetry doesn’t have to save us or even sustain us every crisis.
To which queer romance author @FozzyGlamKitty replies, that’s why i been annoyed how in the beginning with the Shakespeare/King Lear posts, like dammit us writers/creatives are people too. Creating/writing can wait, we’re allowed to be distracted, worried, and tired.
@HomoSherlock (neurodivergent jew-ish gayzn) had perhaps the best answer: nope sometimes what sustains us is stale pantry popcorn & ten hours of Love is Blind
Back to my windows. It helps to see that the sun is still traveling north, lengthening and warming the days. The red buds of the old maple in the yard are beginning to bulge and this morning there was a rush of bird song as dawn spread around the rim of sky. Here I am. Here we are, part of a web of life that grows and diminishes in endless cycles.
The novel coronavirus isn’t evil. It’s not a “foreign disease” that arose through intent. It’s how the world works. Viruses change their cellular structure over and over to find new ways to bind to animal cells and reproduce. We’re all here to reproduce and right now the coronavirus is having tremendous success.
Given the intelligence and creativity of humans the virus won’t always have the upper hand. But for now it has fundamentally altered how we all live and work and focus. It’s okay to give ourselves a break if we can’t create.
As artist and author @adamjk says, sorry i can’t write “king lear” right now
Grace Mattern is a writer, artist and activist. She has published two books of poetry and her work has appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, Appalachia and other publications. Her writing and visual art can be found at www.gracemattern.com
November 11, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Paul Haney
Ned Stuckey-French was an essayist and a scholar of the essay, a book-review editor and an anthologist. He was an author, an English professor at Florida State University, a generous reader, a connection-maker, an advocate for anyone attempting what he termed “this queer little hybrid thing,” the essay. A tallish, lanky fellow with thick glasses and a runner’s build, Ned was political, and he was personable. He was a wise-ass, he was a warm soul. He was Ned, and he was on Facebook.
“I’m on Facebook every day,” Ned confessed at AWP in 2011. The name of his talk: “My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict.” To Ned, Facebook was a meeting place abuzz with opinions and gossip and news of the day. It was a tool of democracy, a forum for hashing out political disagreements and plying rivals with logic and facts and more reasonable truths. It was a digital dynamo of discourse, a sprawling harbor of humanity, a portal for engaging the world.
Ned poured words, millions of words, onto that medium. Even when classes were in session, or when he was traveling, he posted articles supporting unions, and universal healthcare, protections for the marginalized and dispossessed. In sharing these pieces and welcoming discussion, Ned fashioned himself a champion of the left. He never backed down from his “fundamentalist, right-wing brother-in-law,” as he called him, who swooped in to decry liberal idiocy and hypocrisy. He didn’t back down from that brother-in-law’s friends, either, tagged and recruited to the debate. Back and forth, paragraph after paragraph. “I enjoy butting heads with them,” Ned said. “It’s a way to be in touch with a group of people I might not otherwise be in touch with.” Hard-line conservatives, that is. Staunch Republicans.
On-lookers didn’t know who these people were–Ned himself hardly knew. They were Facebook addicts as well. Some brave progressives jumped into the fray and Ned engaged them, too, pleading for humanity while sizing up their logic and dishing out sources, good ones. A daunting task–to take so many stances, to mount so many arguments. To return day after day and articulate an evolving set of positions. Ned qualified his allies and refuted his opponents, always trying to figure out exactly where he stood. He was developing a platform, a worldview. He was forging a unified theory of Ned.
The threads were epic, endless, always growing, an expanding universe of discourse. The replies grew by the dozens, sometimes reaching triple digits. Trump’s political ponzi scheme. The virtues of Black Lives Matter. When did Ned teach? When did he sleep? The posts and comments, likes and shares kept coming. Politics, sure–no one was a bigger fan of Jimmy Carter, as evidenced by the family photo he’d taken with the former president and himself, his wife, and his two daughters, all beaming in the Georgia sun. But every new track & field record, the latest amazing golf shot, scores of great new essays. His voice was eager as he cheered on his students and colleagues writing their own lives. “Onward!” he cried, and “Go get ‘em!”
“We are in the age of Facebook,” Ned said in 2011. “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Even then, Ned admitted the platform was a timesuck that played on our pettiest instincts. But he also marveled at the site’s ability to memorialize those who pass away. What would he say about the outpouring on his own wall since he passed? A thousand things, no doubt. Just as he did each year on his birthday, he would’ve left a thoughtful, personal, wise-cracky comment on each post. He would’ve engaged.
Over the years Ned learned alongside everyone else Facebook’s deeper dangers, the misinformation, the polarization, the true customers: the advertisers. Yet Ned was on there all the same. He was on there for the people, for the conversations. He was on there precisely because Facebook is democratic, in the worst and best senses of the word, and Ned believed in public discourse. Ned never took a break, never needed a cleanse. Ned was on there, posting and sharing and liking and loving and thinking and rebutting and becoming. Till the very end, Ned was on Facebook.
Paul Haney was a student of Ned Stuckey-French’s, a friend, and a golf partner. His work has appeared a few times in Ned’s book review section of Fourth Genre, as well as Slate, Boston Globe Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Sweet, and elsewhere. He serves as Managing Editor of Dylan Review. Follow him @paulhaney.
August 21, 2019 § 49 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
I wait for the “likes” on Facebook. Hopefully some shares, too. Then there are the comments: “loved this” or “shed a few tears” or “can’t wait to read your memoir.”
My response—typically a return “like” and a heartfelt “Thank you!”—almost always feels inadequate.
When friends on social media respond to my essays with a click of appreciation or a few words of praise, I doubt they know the depths of my gratitude. As a freelance writer sitting alone in my home office without a regular paycheck or any “good job” pats on the back, those blue Facebook thumbs-up and red Twitter hearts are often my only validation in the course of a workday. They are the virtual back pats that power me through long, lonely stretches of writing.
When I first started submitting work in 1989, I was living in a tiny apartment in Tokyo and teaching at a Japanese university. My laptop keys were crowded with both English letters and cryptic Japanese characters that were as hard to navigate as the teeming streets of that conundrum of a capital city. With money from an extra job, I bought a printer that took up half of my kitchen table. I was 7000 miles from home and determined to become a writer.
After typing out my stories on that funky Japanese laptop, I’d sail them across the Atlantic in crisp vellum envelopes, hoping an editor would fall in like with my words. On the rare occasion when one did, I might receive a letter back, maybe a contract. Often it took months, if anyone responded at all. One time there was no other correspondence between my submission and publication. I just received two copies of a bridal magazine with my article in it and a check for 50 bucks.
When my stories appeared in those random publications that I discovered in the go-to reference book–A Writer’s Market–I’d make photo copies at the 7-Eleven and mail them off to my mother and a few friends in the States. Eventually I’d get an aerogram back saying they “loved it” or “really liked it.” And that was all I ever knew of anyone’s reaction. For decades I wrote in a vacuum. Back then most of us did, and the work, not the network, was our sole focus.
I’m not saying that those were the good old days of being a writer because I still felt lonely much of the time. But it was different.
It’s a changed world now, and while social media can be an enemy to the solitary writer who is both in need of focus and desperate for distractions, I am still grateful for every single “like” on my essays. Those “likes” tell me to keep at it; they tell me someone heard me, or cares about what I said, or supports my writing, or me.
Because here’s the truth for many of us who write and share personal work: We may look brave, but we actually feel awkward asking for your approval—over and over—on intimate stories that emerge from our lives. We memoir writers may be a little self-obsessed—or at least hyper-curious about ourselves because that’s what it takes to write like this—but we typically aren’t narcissists. We all just play one on social media.
Such is the nature of today’s publishing game in which followers can equal book deals and editors want to see the size of our online networks before accepting a piece. For this mid-aged woman who still struggles with posting an Instagram story, your likes are my salvation, a sign that I’m doing okay in this digital world.
So this is really an overdue thank you note to my readers who got me to this place and—because I’m Catholic and feel bad about bothering you—an apology for all the posting I’ll be doing when my memoir comes out in September. You can’t possibly know how your responses to my essays buoy my spirits, or how prayer-hand emojis can never convey my true appreciation.
Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure is available for preorder from Brown Paper Press and Amazon. You can find out more or follow Sandra’s online treasure hunt at SandraAMiller.com.
Author Photo by Holloway McCandless
June 6, 2019 § 38 Comments
Social media is a distraction from our writing. Social media can be a support system for our writing—creating community, building readership, and allowing us to practice our craft. Writer Twitter is definitely a Thing, with terrific advice in #askagent, and editors tweeting calls for submissions and pitches. Writer Facebook includes genre- and demographic-based groups that foster literary citizenship and build real-life connections as online acquaintances meet at conferences and readings.
But Instagram? The one that’s all about the pictures? Sure, there’s #bookstagram, where book bloggers share their reading piles and recommendations and authors reveal new covers. But what’s the benefit for writers on a primarily visual platform, and why should they bother?
Instagram is (so far) the calmest, sanest, and most relaxing social platform, with three big benefits for writers:
1) Make genuine connections with people who want to read your work.
Writers don’t need 20,000 followers on Instagram. Writers need engaged followers. “Engaged” means people who like or comment on your posts, and a good engagement rate is about 1%. That’s right: If you have 100 followers, and one person comments, you’re doing well.
This is not how most people think about Instagram. We see “influencers” with 200K followers and ask why we should even bother. But look closer:
Influencer AllThatIsShe – 529K followers, engagement about 0.7%
Memoirist Dani Shapiro – 19.3K followers, engagement about 1%
Memoirist Esmé Weijun Wang – 9.4K followers, engagement about 0.8%
All three of these people are proportionally influential. The influencer makes fun and funny visual jokes. The writers share writing news, book tours, personal stories behind their work, and moments of joy and poetic wonder from their lives. AllThatIsShe’s comments include lots of casual interaction like sharing summer plans and laughter at her clever photographs. Dani and Esmé’s readers give their own responses to prompts, wish the writers well, share corresponding moments from their own lives. They actively engage in meaningful dialogue with the writer and her work. That 1% are people who will show up to a reading and pre-order your book.
Instagram is economical. You don’t have to fly across the country to a conference that might take 50 waking hours. Spend that same time in 15-minute Instagram sessions interacting with writers you’d like to know, and that’s 200 days of cost-free relationship building. You don’t even have to wear pants.
2) Write better.
The Instagram caption is perfect for encapsulating a moment. In 50-100 words, writers can practice craft at the sentence level. We get to write in short, manageable chunks on busy days.
When writing captions, tell a moment that is a whole moment. Stay in the scene, or in a single thought. The medium is the message: there is no “and then I realized…” because the venue says that for you. Being a caption establishes, “I thought this was important to crystallize and share with my readers.”
Writing in this constrained form is the ultimate flash. How fast can you bring a reader into your mood? How much emotional impact can you create in under a minute? Can you draft a killer first sentence that makes readers click to read the whole thing? That’s a skill all writers need for work in every medium.
3) Get Inspiration and encouragement.
When I’m posting regularly, I see more stories in the world. I’m more likely to ask questions of the people around me, and truly listen. This spills over into my longform writing, making me more curious about my characters and more conscious of the circumstances that make people who they are.
Posting a micro-essay is like a low-stakes “submission” to the world. There’s no “dislike” button, so I get the encouragement without the rejection. The level of engagement tells me what people enjoy reading, and comments suggest future blogging topics for Brevity and writing questions to address in my next book. Every little heart makes me feel like someone is interested in what I have to say and reminds me to write again tomorrow.
If you’re just getting started on Instagram, or you want a more enjoyable experience that benefits your writing, a couple of quick tips:
- Line breaks. One of the great mysteries of Instagram! To get an empty line between paragraphs, make sure there is NO SPACE at the end of the paragraph. Hit return. Type a period or emoji, NO SPACE, hit return and start your next paragraph. There are apps that allow you to type a caption and copy-paste with empty lines, but it’s an extra step. Keep your Insta commitment small.
- Don’t worry about the follow/unfollow thing. Many “large” accounts are using follow-bots to artificially build their numbers. When you click through to see a profile with thousands of followers and very low followings, they are going to unfollow you. Only follow back if you’re truly interested in their content.
- To build your own followers, find people you like from other social media or real life. When you follow, comment on their most recent post with what you like about it and say where else you know them from. Make sure your profile says what you do and your name is identifiable. Show your face in your profile picture. Participate in following threads on Facebook and Twitter.
- An engaged Instagram presence doesn’t have to be time away from your writing. Unlike influencers who need current daily content, writers can do just fine with 1-5 posts/week. Don’t bother to post on the weekends unless you love it.
- Don’t get sucked in. Stay limited and specific: take 20 minutes and post one picture, write one solid caption. In your down time (subway, waiting room, on the potty) take 15 minutes and comment on 10 people’s most recent post. Like 10 more posts you actually like. Follow 3 new people and comment on 1 post each. Then close the app and look around for a story to tell.
Wanna know more about writing on Instagram? Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams will be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!
April 11, 2019 § 6 Comments
After our attempt to create viral cat videos ended in editorial lacerations…after trying to make “fetch” happen…after our unfortunate experience with twerking (Dinty’s back will heal soon!), Brevity has finally become cool.
Brevity posts writing moments and thought-provoking images. We’ll also be seeking writers for short term Insta-takeovers of image series with accompanying text. (If you’re interested, slide into our DMs!)
Why Instagram? As Twitter becomes politically challenging and Facebook brings out the family racists, Instagram has remained relatively sane and relaxing. Creators are sharing meaningful images and carefully crafted words in a supportive community. Captions are becoming flash nonfiction. Writers are connecting with a lively community of readers and fellow wordsmiths. Celebrity book clubs share novels and memoirs with vast audiences who want to be part of a literary community. Instagram readers are becoming daily more sophisticated, more visually-attuned, and more willing to spend a moment with beautiful words.
We want to reach our readers where they are. Thank you for visiting the magazine and blog online, welcoming us into your inboxes, engaging with our tweets and participating in the Facebook group. Thank you for saying hi at writing conferences and reviewing Brevity authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.
Instagram is one more place to share a small part of your literary journey.
Won’t you join us?
PS – for Insta-takeover requests, please contact us on Instagram, that way we don’t lose your message!
February 12, 2019 § 11 Comments
Does Twitter help sell books? Nobody knows. Barnes & Noble customers rarely announce “I came in because of this tweet!” But being visible in the online writing community can be a source of support and inspiration, and enough agents and publishers look at follower numbers to make it worth growing your presence on Twitter.
Twitter basics are just like showing up at an enormous pool party already in progress: Watch conversations before interacting, interact kindly and pleasantly and avoid “fighting words” unless you’re doing it on purpose. Just like that party, you get to swim when you like and stay dry when you want: Twitter rewards occasional involvement throughout the day or week rather than constant checking.
We talked last week about “what the heck to post on Twitter.” But the early days often feel like speaking timidly into the void (647 following! 12 followers! Augh!). How can you organically grow an online community who share your interests and want to hear what you have to say?
The best way to get followers is to follow people, but not randomly. Who will you enjoy reading and who will follow you back?
- Use Twitter follow-frenzies. Search your Facebook writing group for a post asking members to comment with their Twitter handles. Follow them all, and post yours as a clickable link. If you can’t find a follow-thread within the last six months, post one: “Hey, let’s follow each other on Twitter” plus your link will do just fine. It is polite to follow back everyone who follows you unless you actively dislike their bio/feed.
- Go to users’ actual profiles. Hit “follow” and wait for a moment—Twitter will suggest more people you might like. Follow them, too.
- Visit your favorite literary magazine or author’s profile. Add their followers. Use the “followers” list, because the “following” list is likely more famous and less motivated to follow back.
- Follow other writers with low follower counts. Someone with 367 followers is more likely to follow back than someone who already has 70K.
- Follow people who liked a tweet you also liked, or whose response you liked.
- Search hashtags like #amwriting #writingcommunity #writerscommunity #amediting and #cnf (those are clickable links to those searches). Follow people who use those hashtags in tweets and/or their bios.
- Use Lists. To keep track of the people you want to read in that blur of new tweets, assign people you follow to lists. For example, I made a list of “Agents” so I can read only tweets from literary agents I follow. You can also look at someone else’s list: Click on a profile, click Lists, and click on a list. For example, here’s all the AWP presenters for this year’s conference. If you’re attending—or want the conference buzz—subscribe to see those tweets. Then click List Members and follow everyone who seems interesting.
- Unfollow people who don’t follow back after a few weeks unless you are specifically interested in what they have to say. (Michelle Obama is probably not going to follow me back.) Most of my non-mutual followers are news, politics, public figures, literary agents and publishing houses. You can use a tool like Tweepi (start with the free plan to see if it’s for you) to sort your list and easily unfollow non-followers, or just scroll down your Following list on Twitter—it’s in chronological order.
- Don’t bother to follow back travel bloggers and business coaches with huge follower and low following numbers unless you’re really interested. They are using bots that will unfollow you after you follow them (this also happens on Instagram). Dudes with two first names (like ‘Robert Walter,’ ‘James Joseph’), very all-American profiles, and jobs that are military or military-connected in Africa or the Middle East are bots or scammers.
“But Allison,” you ask, “How can I engage meaningfully with the thousands of followers I’d like to have?”
You don’t have to. You’re not on Twitter to talk to anyone, you’re on Twitter to talk to everyone. It’s not like letting your best friend sit next to you at lunch—be part of a great conversation this minute, then move on. Support the people you know well or in person. Retweet writers and cool things to read. Post things you find funny, interesting or cool. Step back and engage meaningfully with the community as a whole, rather than focusing on individuals. Let Twitter wash over you like a wave—and get out of the pool when you need a break.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. See you at AWP!