Articles - 26th June 2020

Do freelance writers really need to be big on Twitter to succeed?

Words by Louise Quick
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Freelance writers looking for advice will always hear one thing: make sure you’re building your brand on Twitter. As a social media centred on the written word, it makes perfect sense.  And how hard can it be?

Alas, long gone are the days when Twitter was for following your favourite celebrities and publicly pondering your lunch choices. The microblogging service has evolved into a professional space – somewhere to find work, pitch ideas, and connect with fellow writers – and is vital to any self-respecting freelancer. At least, it feels vital.

What’s more, it can feel as if the entire literary world is not only on Twitter, but good at it. Every writer seems to pump out perfectly crafted, on-brand Tweets several times a day, to the joy of their thousands of followers. It’s enough to convince anyone that to be a successful writer in 2020 means also being a Twitter professional.

Talking to fellow freelance writers, they reiterate the importance of Twitter and social media more widely as a necessary space for networking, pitching work, and projecting their brand. Freelance journalist Emma Hodgson explains how, “you create your personal brand willingly (or unwillingly) through every single post you put online.”

If you can’t produce 280 characters that are simultaneously witty, insightful, on-brand, and bring in thousands of followers on a regular basis, then how can an editor possibly trust you to produce a decent 1,000+ words?

What chance then is there for those of us who just aren’t good at Twitter? Those of us whose Tweets are two weeks apart? Those of us whose feeds are a confusing mixture of WeRateDogs Retweets, Point Break gifs, and wine-induced insights such as, ‘Why are fans of Twilight not called Twi-hards?’? (Turns out, they are).


Are all writers really on Twitter?

There are plenty of reasons not to be on Twitter, from an inability to be interesting in 280 characters to protecting your mental health. In fact the baker John Whaite deleted his Twitter account, denouncing it as “an empty canyon with vultures circling the rim.”

As hard as it is to believe, as you scroll the streams of Tweets from your favourite journalists, there are writers who have abandoned the good ship Twitter. There are even those who were never aboard to begin with.

The author Zadie Smith can’t be found anywhere on mainstream social media. In 2017, The Guardian quoted her as she explained that it is a concern for her writing that actually keeps her off social media. By detaching herself from the never-ending conversations she is protecting her “right to be wrong.”

“I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate”, she said in a perfect 73 characters. “I don’t want to be bullied out of it.”

Cal Newport, the computer scientist and author, writes and speaks about the benefits of having never graced any social media platforms. While Dave Eggers, who explored the darker side of social media and the forces that run them in his dystopian novel The Circle, is unsurprisingly not on Twitter.

While it’s a relief to learn about writers who are both successful and unplugged, it comes with a pinch of salt. That is, these are well-established and recognisable names and for many of them their success predates Twitter.

It’s a little like hearing the rumours that, instead of a mobile phone, Bill Murray just has a mysterious voicemail number. Of course Murray can do this. He’s an award-winning actor, (and one of the few old male actors it’s still acceptable to like), with no-end of people badgering him with business opportunities and not the other way around.

When you’re newer to the freelancing game – or at least not yet at Zadie Smith status – can you afford to cut yourself off from a resource everyone tells you is so vitally important?


Do editors care about Twitter?

The most obvious question is, do editors and publishers actually care about writers’ Twitter accounts? Fortunately, asking around, the short answer is an uplifting ‘no’, but it comes with caveats.

For example, Jennifer Crichton, who recently launched the digital women’s magazine The Flock, admits that, “If someone is hugely witty, insightful, or brilliant on social media, it may well make me really want to work with them – I want that voice in my publication.”

It’s a statement worrying enough to make a freelance writer reconsider using Gilmore Girl gifs as their primary form of communication on Twitter.

Similarly, Andrew Nagy, Content Director of GQ Middle East, states that when looking to commission, a strong social media presence makes a difference. “If you’re an expert in your field, and show this with measured, interesting and insightful social media accounts then I’d be more likely to start the conversation about working together.”

However, for those now contemplating wiping their entire Twitter history and starting from scratch, you’ll be happy to hear that social media presence is seen as a bonus, rather than a priority.

“I think of Twitter like a shop window in that it can, on occasion, tempt me in”, explains Crichton. “But I’d always be guided by someone’s previous work over their previous Tweets.”

While almost all editors admit to scanning the social media channels of new writers, Nagy sums this up as “more of a background check than anything else”, and concludes that ultimately “the pitch is everything.”

It’s clear that a well-established Twitter presence can be a powerful tool in a freelancer’s belt. However, those whose presence is less-than-impressive can be content in the knowledge that, as Crichton says, “a good idea will always trump a good following.”

Perhaps it boils down to rate of return. Is the time spent networking and building a brand on Twitter worth the time that could be spent writing and preserving your mental health? Want to let me what you think – Tweet me?

Editor’s Note: If you want to Tweet Louise, her handle is @Larquick. In our opinion, her feed is a lot more than hot wine takes and Point Break gifs. If you’re a fan of social distancing puns, prepare yourself. 

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