CRAFT: Do Writers Need A Social Media Following? by Abby Norman

The question I’m asked the most, which I never feel equipped to answer, is “How do I get a social media following as a writer?” Usually this is in reference to either Twitter or Medium, two places I frequent and where I have a following, but not a remarkable one by any means. Though, I’ll admit that numbers are relative: a few thousand followers on Twitter feels like nothing when you think you should have 20,000, but if you only have ten, a few thousand would seem like a lot.

On Medium I have a more substantial following but unlike Twitter, it’s generally more interactive. If I have just shy of 15,000 readers on Medium, I see / hear from them in droves and I feel that, yes, I am being followed (and that’s not always a good thing; I got doxxed a few years ago). More importantly, people are reading my work and interacting with me about it. On Twitter — well, people ask me questions and tweet me gifs, which is valuable interaction in its own right but I’m not sure it’s exactly helping my writing career.

One thing that agents and publishers look for is platform. If you’re proposing to write a book, or you’ve written one already, they want to know that there’s interest. In the book, sure, but also in you. People sell books — I know, go figure! Having an audience on social media prior to selling my book helped a lot, and everyone was very honest about the fact that it helped. And, that part of my task as a writer and to-be-debut-author was to continue to build that network between the writing of the book and its publication.

Continuing to build an audience that would hopefully be interested in buying my book and, in a way, buying into me as a person. Being interested in what I’ll write next.

From the perspective of a working writer who is — at the end of fiscal year 2016 here — looking ahead for 2017’s contract projects, potential new clients, or editors to pitch for pieces that I can make a livable rate from, social media is also an invaluable networking tool. If anything, I’m grateful that having a book deal and being expected to bolster my social media brand motivated me to do just that: because it was the kick I needed to actually build this work (and it is work) into my day-to-day schedule.

I also thought about how, as a consultant, I’ve often worked with people on social media development, strategy, and management — but never applied that research and organizational effort to myself! I had all this valuable insight into helping brands and businesses maximize their social media accounts and I was sitting there tweeting endless streams of X-Files gifs.

Which is, actually, part of my social media strategy — but not at first! Social media presents writers not only with the ability to expand their network — finding editors they want to work with, putting the word out that they’re seeking clients, following #MSWL to find an agent to query, — but also with a chance to connect with their readers.

Here’s an important lesson I learned this year: as an author you might not be a celebrity to the masses, but to one person who read something you wrote and really connected, or to someone who wants to do what you do and admires your work — you are on a pedestal. And you don’t have control over people putting you up there, but you have a choice as to whether or not you come down.

I admit that as my social media presence grew, it became impossible for me to respond to every email, every comment, every message — I just don’t have enough time, because I have to work so my rent gets paid and my dog gets fed. But I do read everything, and I listen, and when I can respond I do. Especially if a question has been asked that I think I might have some kind of answer to. Because when I first started out, many of the people I admired on the internet were willing to do that for me. And I do believe in paying your luck forward. Or, as Kevin Spacey once said (to paraphrase Jack Lemmon, if I’m not mistaken) “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”

I’d adjust the quote for myself and say, not just if you’re lucky enough to do well, but if you’ve worked hard and have amassed a great deal of knowledge, it’s your responsibility to put that knowledge out there and not hoard it. People who hoard things (knowledge, power, resources) or who are miserly with their time, tend to be fearful of losing their power. Or, they feel threatened by others who they think will supercede them.

I can’t live my life that way. One of the things I enjoy most about life is teaching others, mentoring them through their own process of self-discovery and championing their success. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of people doing that for me. So, I know the value of having a supportive voice to internalize that believes in you and that wants to see you live a life that makes you happy.

Unfortunately, I can’t do that for 15,000 people individually — but social media certainly allows me to reach out to more people than I ever could have in the absence of the internet. So, yes, sometimes the work feels mindless, endless, and senseless — but then, a writing gig comes along, or I connect with someone I’ve long admired — or someone connects with me and I get the chance to help them along on their journey — and it feels worth it.

That being said, like I always say: I don’t know how you become a writer, I only know how I became a writer. And social media was integral to that, as it is integral to the world in which we live. The internet is changing the face of publishing, it’s changing how we read, how we write, and how we connect. To completely avoid it would be a remarkably impressive feat and if you have, I’d love to write about you! But if you’re wondering whether or not you should take the plunge, I’d just ask yourself what you have to lose in trying — and maybe consider what’s out there to gain.

Abby’s Tips For “Writers On Social Media Who Hate Doing This, Ugh!”

  • Use Tweetdeck or Twitter’s Dashboard feature to schedule tweets so that you stay active not just on days when you want to unplug, but overnight too. Remember that time zones are a thing: one piece I wrote that got picked up by a newspaper in the UK went viral overnight because I’d tweeted it to go out at like 2 o’clock in the morning eastern standard time — which was the middle of someone’s work day in London!
  • Don’t try to be a brand, but understand that you are creating a brand in and of yourself. You don’t have to mimic a brand to be successful on Twitter — and in fact, you’ll stand out more if you’re genuine. Not to mention you’ll enjoy the work if you’re engaging with social media in a way that is fun for you.
  • Stay current but don’t feel like you have to participate in every conversation. This is good advice for people in general on the internet: know what’s happening in the world but don’t make everything about you. There are some conversations in which your silence is enabling and you should absolutely stand up either in defense or solidarity. But there are some conversations where your voice is not the voice that needs to be heard, and you should be mindful not to trample a hashtag.
  • Promote your work and promote people you want to support. This is kind of the tenet of social media. Yes, share your work, especially if you’re proud of it. Share the process, too. Pull back the curtain on how something is coming together once in awhile. And promote the work of other people, too. A tweet is more than a nice gesture — it can launch someone’s career.
  • Don’t get hung up on the numbers. At the end of the day, a broad network is nice, but it’s really quality not quantity. The level of engagement is more important to you personally and professionally. Don’t “buy” followers, don’t aggressively try to build up your numbers — allow it to happen organically, and it will, so that the network you build is of people who are actually interested in you, in your work, and who will support you. If you’re just in it for the numbers, you can just buy 50,000 spam bots — but that’s more likely to ruin your career than to make it. A bot isn’t going to buy your book, or tweet your article, or write you a very heartfelt email about how you changed their life.
Abby Norman, Craft Columnist

Abby Norman is a science writer and editor based in New England. Her first book ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN will be released by Nation Books March 6, 2018. She is currently a science editor at Futurism and the host of Let Me Google That on Anchor.fm. She’s represented by Tisse Takagi in NYC. Interview requests and inquiries about her forthcoming book can be made to her publicist, Brooke Parsons at Hachette (brooke.parsons@hbgusa.com). Follow Abby on Twitter @abbymnorman.

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