Bird with a worm

The behemoth of Twitter has been a game-changer for journalism. It has become a tool for breaking stories, making — or breaking — careers, calling attention to issues, and giving a platform to people who long were denied a voice.

But what if you are not a skilled user? What if you are put off by the constant stream of tweets and links?

I keep my distance from Twitter, partly because I am worried, as a female writer, about trolling. At least, that’s what I tell myself. But I also find the platform overwhelming. I am not sure how to catch this particular tiger by the tail and tame it for my benefit. You could argue that I am the poorer for it, quite literally.

Being successful on Twitter as a writer means accumulating followers, and accumulating followers is a skill that has more to do with showmanship than writing. Provocative, controversial and funny works. Can you do that? Clever headlines and click-baity tweets help. Can you do that? A steady stream of engagement is key; you have to keep putting stuff out there, and responding to responses. Can you do that? You have to get comfortable with oversharing — stopping the censor in your head who says, “Nobody really cares what you saw on the subway this morning.” Can you do that?

If you can, Twitter’s benefits are plentiful. Just one example: Book editors like authors who have huge social media followings that serve as a ready-made platform for publicity and marketing. Simply writing a good book? I guess that’s not enough these days.

A lot of the writers and editors I follow use Twitter for three things:

  1. To connect with editors or agents
  2. To promote and amplify their work (books and articles)
  3. To find story ideas

The first two are pretty obvious, especially if you build an adequate following.

But I got interested in the third use of the tool: Finding story ideas. Can you use Twitter to help you with that, even if you don’t have a huge presence? I asked around — on Twitter, of course. Here’s what I learned:

Editors are prolific users of Twitter. Amanda Finnegan, editor of “By the Way,” a Washington Post travel destination feature, says, “We use Twitter to look for trends among travelers, but also have a list of companies and other sources that we check every day for ideas. We also use it to crowdsource. Right now we have something out trying to get responses on resort fees.”

My takeaway: If you are a journalist who covers one industry or issue, be it politics, food or travel, Twitter is a terrific source for story ideas. To elaborate on Finnegan’s point, most travel writers including myself, regularly check on companies such as Airbnb, and its growing list of competitors including Sonder, Landing, Blueground, or Plum Guide, to check on prices, complaints and trends.

Beyond companies, there are industry voices you can follow because you like their take on things. You write about wine? The obvious follows are magazines like Wine Spectator, along with celebrity wine critics such as Eric Asimov of The New York Times and Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times. But following the people they follow is a great way to find obscure labels and names. For instance, I found Napa Valley winemaker Cathy Corison because she was followed by both Robinson and Asimov. I liked her self-effacing approach, and ended up profiling her for a piece on women winemakers.

Find the intersections

The seduction of Twitter, though, is to find intersections between areas that throw out offbeat ideas. To do that, you have to find and follow people who sit at those intersections. I found Mark Yarm, features editor at Input, that way. I follow Writers of Color on Twitter because they post job and assignment listings, and always ask for the fee on behalf of the writer — a useful question. When Yarm put out the below post on Twitter, it got featured on Writers of Color:

Hello, freelance writers! Q3 is almost upon us, which means my features budget at @inputmag is about to be replenished. So please pitch me! .50 to $1/word. More details in the thread below.

Input stands at the intersection of culture, society and technology. It features interesting stories that are around and above my realm of knowledge. So I began following Yarm to tap into this world. When I direct-messaged him about whether he used Twitter to uncover story ideas, his answer echoed the approach of many journalists:

“I’m constantly on Twitter, mostly because I’m addicted to it. But I can also justify all the time I spend there because it is essential to my work. I get story ideas from Twitter all the time. For instance, last month I saw a Taylor Lorenz tweet about a ‘female’ NFT project (that) was actually made by a bunch of men, and I asked Chris Stokel-Walker, a freelancer we have on contract, to report it out. That resulted in this story, which did well for us. I know Chris also finds so many of his own ideas on Twitter.”

Follows can lead to leads

Following writers and editors in fields that interest you but where you have zero expertise also is a good way to expand the surface area of your knowledge. This can lead to bits of news and information that you might integrate into your work. Your stories now stand out because of their fresh connections.

Twitter is, of course, a massive networking community. Writers often network with editors via Twitter, but it could well work with other folks too. Freelancer Sonia Weiser writes for many publications and sends out an “opportunities of the week” newsletter for which she charges $3 a month. She has 16.9K followers and follows 5,688 accounts. She says that she occasionally happens upon someone’s tweet about an issue that she finds interesting and will start interacting with them on the platform and beyond. “That happened with my piece about COVID and grad students,” she told me. “I saw a tweet from a grad student at the school I ended up highlighting and got in touch with her.”

But Weiser also uses Twitter to test ideas: “There have been times that I’ve shot off a tweet as a joke and then saw the response and realized it had story potential. That was the case for my Vulture piece on how the dudes from the Blue Man Group were handling COVID. One of the group members saw the tweet and replied, and then an editor said he was interested in it.”

Finally, Twitter also can be a quick search site if you’re seeking added training or expertise. Journalism organizations, editors and writing coaches often post notices of conferences or writing workshops. For example, Nieman Storyboard kept a running list this year of journalism conferences that were going forward in person or online. And on her personal account, the Storyboard editor posts notices of her own writing workshops.)

The power of Twitter is its agility. People have, over the 15 years since it launched, figured out ways to use it that in ways that are as imaginative as they are useful. And for as much as it I can find myself intimidated, I have embraced the value it has for me. I follow people in areas that are at the edge of my interests. I find obscure experts in my professional areas. And I follow certain organizations like Writers of Color that throw up job and assignment opportunities.


Shoba Narayan is an author of four books, journalist, columnist and content creator. She has won a James Beard award and a Pulitzer Fellowship.

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