Do writers need Twitter to be successful?

Jen Herron wants to develop as a writer but finds Twitter hard work. Is it worth it?

Jen Herron: “A photo of my dog in a Halloween outfit got three likes, and I honestly thought Twitter folk were monsters.”

Jen Herron: “A photo of my dog in a Halloween outfit got three likes, and I honestly thought Twitter folk were monsters.”

 

Twitter terrifies me. Somehow, I’ve equated my lack of popularity on this admired social media platform with my writing ability. Every tweet is posted with a racing pulse and a flood of underarm sweat. Often to be deleted moments later. But I’m told Twitter is the way forward for emerging writers.

On Twitter, everyone wins prizes and gets published. I leave every scrolling session more deflated than I started. Why does it invoke the worst in me? The jealousy, insecurity, the unhealthy comparisons with other writers. Do I need to put myself through this? I figured it was time to go back to my journalistic roots and attempt some nonfiction. It can’t be any worse than my prose.

When I attended a John Hewitt workshop a few years ago, Twitter was hailed as an excellent resource for writers. I resisted for a while, but the fear of missing out made me cave in and sign up. Initially, scout’s honour, I joined to source writing opportunities. However, when I won a few small competitions, I couldn’t help posting news of my success. That was the Twitter way. But then I was filled with a strange sense of self-loathing.

Had I turned into that person? The person whom I rolled my eyes at when they tweeted of being blessed, honoured, thankful, humbled, delighted, stunned, amazed, awed by some sort of writing success. I felt vain and vacuous for jumping on the bandwagon of braggadocio. What was I trying to prove? Why did I feel the need for others to praise me? Am I that insecure? Yes, yes, I am. And I loved the support. But I hated myself for loving it.

I removed my tweets, untagged myself from every post and deleted my account. I wasn’t deserving of attention. My work wasn’t good. I probably won because no one else entered. Who was I to showcase my writing? There were proper writers out there, winning proper prizes.

Fast forward to February 2021. I signed up again – this time under the guise of altruism. I had a poem published in Lumpen magazine, a working-class journal I admired and wanted to promote. I shared a post highlighting their latest edition without mentioning I was in it. Nothing vainglorious there. Pure intentions. And then disaster hit.

Emma Press put out a call for pamphlet submissions, which was perfect for the small collection of ghost stories I’d written over the summer. But there was a major problem. They preferred writers with a social media presence. This had to be addressed in the submission proposal.

I tried to be honest but optimistic, admitting, “I haven’t really promoted my work or engaged online. I often feel embarrassed or not important enough to share myself. However, since reading your viewpoints, I’ve made a more concerted effort to improve my social media presence. I’ll continue to work on this and promote my pamphlet if you decide to publish it.”

Slightly pathetic, but truthful, nonetheless. Time to up my game. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I needed to make more effort. Thus began the half-hearted attempt at branding myself.

First, I posted a picture of my new tights. They had ghosts on them. Would this make me look quirky and interesting? I died inside. As I sold my soul, I dropped in that I’d just had my first ghost story accepted for publication. This should surely impress the editors at Emma.

I set a ghost logo as my profile picture in my second post. My mate at work designed it. I say mate, but she charged me 30 quid. The logo got one like and one retweet – from same said mate. The following tweets – a picture of my new Doctor Martens, Halloween pyjamas and a retweet of a lecture about witches. Look at me go. I was dark, edgy and engaging. My attempt at a branding campaign got me a collective nine likes.

I got braver. I posted a picture of my face, not just boots and hosiery. It got 36 likes. Perhaps I was better looking than I thought. However, after a few more tweets, I became disenchanted again.

A photo of my dog in a Halloween outfit got three likes, and I honestly thought Twitter folk were monsters. A video blog about my favourite ghost story writer who killed himself got five likes. I’d spent a week making it. A poem I’d published in an anthology just before Christmas got zero likes. I read a story on BBC Ulster. The pinnacle of my writing career. I practised five different character voices and everything. Only my mate said something nice about it. Only because she is, in fact, nice herself. I was on the verge of giving up. Nobody cared. Before deleting my account again, I made a list of pros and cons of using Twitter:

PROS
Interact with fans (if I had any)
Promote writing (all four pieces)
Celebrate achievements (of others)
Find opportunities (to increase rejection count)

CONS
Wastes time
Damages self-esteem
Enhances feeling of failure
No one likes you (or your dog)

When writing this article, ironically, I posted a request for help on Twitter.

I’d like to say the responses resulted in a joyous, life-altering epiphany, but I wouldn’t go that far. I did, however, find encouragement.

You’d think the fact I received only three messages would have reinforced my self-belief that online, I’m a nobody. I also wasn’t downhearted when I analysed my tweet’s activity and discovered that 1,709 impressions and 36 profile visits resulted in no new followers.

Did they scroll through my feed, unimpressed by my lack of credentials and polyester ghost tights? Would I have gotten more responses if I’d written journalist in my bio? Okay, that’s not my day job now. But once, I wrote a story for the News of the World. Fine, that’s nothing to brag about. But I was the greatest god-damn cub reporter the East Antrim Gazette has ever seen.

Anyhow, I digress.

Back to the writers who helped me with my article. If you need evidence of how a small act of kindness has a significant effect, here it is. The effort these writers took to message means a lot. I’m less disenchanted because of it. There are folk out there who genuinely want to help.

Maureen Boyle, a successful writer and mentor at the Irish Writers Centre, buoyed my spirits. “In the main, my experience of Twitter is a very positive one. It’s allowed me to make connections with other writers, and since I publish with a small publisher, it helped get word of the books out there – I’ve had many orders via Twitter and lovely personal responses.”

Maureen made valid points. She helped me consider the positive influence Twitter can have on those trying to support writers. I feel less embarrassed by tweeting that the Irish Writers Centre and Arts Council NI awarded me a bursary recently. It’s less about my self-promotion and more about securing their funding for future writers. Thanking them publicly is the least I can do.

Belfast-based poet and Seamus Heaney HomePlace facilitator, Niamh McNally, imparted a lovely anecdote made possible by the power of Twitter. “One thing I love is the community on here, specifically after I tweeted about an experience reading outside Bittles Bar, Belfast. Basically, I met Anna Burn’s brother-in-law, and I tweeted about it. It went viral. It wouldn’t have happened without Twitter. Next thing I know, I got a DM saying Anna left me a copy of Milkman. It was EPIC! Twitter’s writing community is next to none.”

Had I been looking at Twitter in the wrong way? Should I be focusing less on likes and more on connections? I attended a “How to get published” seminar at the Sidmouth Literary Festival. It was phenomenal, and I’d recommend it to everyone. Speakers included Martha Ashby, Editorial Director at Harper Collins; Kate Horden of KHLA (Kate Hordern Literary Agency); Jane Corry, Penguin bestselling author, and Liz Gordon, managing director of Brilliant Fish PR & Marketing. In each presentation, social media’s role in a writer’s life was a common thread.

Gordon specialises in working with writers at different stages of their publishing journey. She offered advice on bringing work to the attention of the public. “Whatever promotional method you choose, the key to success is being consistent, especially on social media. There will be times when you think I just can’t be bothered or I have nothing to say today, and that’s fine. But keep going – everything you do online keeps you more visible.”

I asked Liz specifically about Twitter. “I wouldn’t say being on Twitter is necessary to be a successful writer – there are plenty that aren’t. However, the point of being on social media is to engage with a potential audience, so you need to be where they are. Twitter probably isn’t the best place to do that as readers possibly favour Facebook or Instagram. But there are agents and publishers on Twitter, so it really is about being seen. It’s a platform to showcase your book and writing and your knowledge about the industry and craft. It shows you’re serious.”

But Twitter isn’t the be-all and end-all. Liz added, “One thing to emphasise is that Twitter isn’t a selling platform. Followers get hacked off if there is a constant message of buy my book, buy my book. It’s for profile-raising, and it’s really important to get a balance of tweets.”

The seminar helped me conclude that a Twitter account can be game-changing for professional reasons. If I’m honest, my reluctance to fully engage isn’t my fear of social media. It stems from insecurity and worrying about what other people think. At 39, you’d think I’d be over this childhood foible. But I feel it as keenly as I ever did.

Réaltán Ní Leannáin, the Unesco writer-in-residence at Dublin City University, suggested cultural issues may be responsible for the reluctance of writers to promote themselves online. “I think writers need to put themselves forward, but there’s a fine line between being perceived as isn’t she great and it’s her again, bumming and blowing about how great she is. Here in Ireland (north and south), there is a culture that kicks in with the ‘stop blowing your own trumpet’ much sooner than in many other places.”

She extended her critique to gender. “Women are perceived as pushy rather than assertive at a much earlier stage than men. I’ve heard women trying to put their newest books forward using social media described as teacher-ish, narcissistic, full of themselves, whereas men seem to be accomplished, talented and prolific. It’s not worth trying to find that fine line between being effective and being ‘pushy’ as a woman, so I just go for it gung-ho and ignore negative feedback. But I know many female writers under-post because of being perceived as pushy.”

Perhaps it’s time I had an attitude adjustment. The success of others shouldn’t intimidate me. Many find it as nerve-wracking as I do. They aren’t posting to make others feel bad. They’re posting because they’ve worked hard and deserve recognition. They’re sharing because agents and publishers expect this from the writers they invest in.

My final thoughts – though I aim to be less selfish and more supportive online, I still can’t bring myself to enjoy the Twitter experience. It’s a social medium that will never, ever sit well with me. Do I think Twitter is needed for writers to be successful? No, I don’t. I think good writing makes you successful. No tweets required.

I appreciate Twitter’s merits for more advanced writers at later stages of their careers. But when I see how many tweets some prolific writers post daily, I don’t envy them. How can they be bothered? What pushes them to tweet? Ego, agents, publishers, duty or fans? I’m too scared to ask. I’m sure their DMs are filled with enough requests as it is. Dear love them.

I never did hear back from Emma Press. It would be easy to blame another rejection on my paltry attempts at self-promotion. But let’s be honest, it’s more likely an indication I’ve got work to do. I’m not nailing my prose – yet.

If you liked this article, please follow me on Twitter. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter.

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