To Tweet, or Not to Tweet

photo by Sameer Vasta

by Emma Strong

We are all well aware of the PR and self-promotion pros and cons surrounding Twitter, from the political to the caustic. But, that debate aside, I am interested in whether Twitter can help us to hone our writing skills. Does it provide us with a forum to share and discuss work, to give and receive feedback, or is Twitter just a narcissistic time-waster, best ignored? Further, as part of my recent creative writing teacher training, I have asked myself, should we encourage our students to tweet or not to tweet?

Guided by Stephanie Vanderslice in Teaching Creative Writing, and her thought that creative writing teachers should model the skills and ways of thinking they want their students to develop, I became @emmastrong72. Having entered the Twitterverse, I was promptly invited by three of my fellow students to take up a challenge, #30days30stories.

The rules were simple:
tweet an idea for a story, or tell a story,
every day, for thirty days,
in no more than 140 characters.

Or, more precisely, after subtracting sixteen characters for the hashtag link, no more than 124 characters. It could be an idea or story from your own imagination, or maybe an idea based on a true story found within the day’s news. No real limit was imposed on what sort of story it was. But whatever the story, it had to be written in one tweet. I took the challenge up for myself, as a writer, but also with my teacher hat firmly on – considering whether Twitter could be used constructively as a teaching tool.

Vanderslice states that creative writing students, armed with key skills including telling story and empathy, are poised to dominate the online cultural landscape, if they are digitally literate. Within that new landscape, Twitter is huge. In 2011, 200 million users a month were online, posting 140 million tweets a day. Mary Cross, author of Bloggerati, Twitterati, argues that, at best, Twitter creates a new frontier of expression and connection, using emoticons, abbreviations, acronyms (LOL), slang, hash-tagged trending, and hive-mind #thinking and #sharing. But even more exciting, for us, is that Twitter is being used as a platform for experimental literary short forms. Check out @mrichtel’s ‘Twiller‘, a thriller written on Twitter, which, in turn, was influenced by the Japanese literary subculture trend ‘Keitai Shosetsu’, mobile phone fiction.

On the other hand, the hive-mind can be an ungrammatical, unattractive swarm of belligerent #ranting. Further, a rash tweet, taken out of context, could get you into trouble years after you tweet it. (When I took up this challenge last year the news was preoccupied with Paris Brown, the short-lived youth police commissioner.)

Having checked out the form by visiting #30days30stories, I spent twenty minutes composing my first story. With just 126 characters to play with, careful consideration of words and sentence construction was required. It was an absorbing and interesting work-out. I had to edit and revise. But I came up with:

Still stiff from sleeping on pavements, but now warm in a cell, it seemed using the air rifle to ask for help worked out.

I like to write for two hours early in the morning, but sometimes it’s hard to get going and all too easy to be distracted by the time-wasting attractions of the internet. But twenty minutes given to this exercise was a great warm-up to get me into writer mode, before tackling my main writing projects. I felt it could be a great challenge for students too.

MISC_laptop-outside-Sameer VastaWhat about feedback? Going to my @connect tab, I could view responses. I got a retweet and a favourite, which I took as positive. I read the other stories, retweeted two and favourited another. Seven days and twenty-eight ideas later, the retweets, favourites and comments were generous all round, all providing relaxed, supportive, helpful feedback or encouragement. It was formative, in that it allowed me to see which ideas were received well. It was also interesting to observe that, in my group, we each had a clear voice and developed our own approaches to the form, across subject matter as diverse as hip hop DJs asleep for 100 years, and knitting circle bloodbaths. The #30days30stories exercise, in an informal way, echoed the benefits of the traditional creative writing workshop.

The project has the potential to be time consuming, though. I was strict with my activity, using it as a twenty- to thirty-minute daily warm-up. If I had been less disciplined with my time, I could have been very tempted to dawdle and meander, and play around for far longer (if I weren’t writing, studying and bringing up two toddlers at the same time). Similarly, a lecturer could find it time consuming if attempting to feedback to all students every day. However, peer and teacher feedback doesn’t need to be given daily. Getting a retweet or a favourite here and there is a more discerning indicator of what works. Among four of us, we each received some feedback on most days, and so a larger group would generate plenty of feedback for all. The lecturer’s role could be more supervisory, setting boundaries as per a more formal writing workshop.

Whether you are a lecturer or a writer, or both, I would recommend trying out the #30days30stories writers’ Twitter-cise. Who knows, you might create the next big experimental Twitter craze while you’re at it. But at the very least, the #30days30stories challenge is a smart daily writing exercise for any writer and, as you know, a daily writing habit is a habit every writer needs.


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