#PleaseHelp: Learning to Write (Again) on Twitter
Learning a new genre—whatever the form—can remind us of what it means to learn to write.
In February 2009, I created a Twitter account. As Director of the Ozarks Writing Project at Missouri State University, a site of the National Writing Project, I imagined using Twitter to provide updates about events at our site.
Twitter seemed like an enormous bulletin board. The first times I tweeted, I wrote, “Hi, OWP folks!” And in my second, “Don’t forget to apply for the NWP Professional Writing Retreat!” Without followers and without following and without a hashtag, I might as well have written a note in my diary and stuck it in a nightstand.
One year later, a co-director of the Ozarks Writing Project, Thomas (@tmmaerke), and I worked on OWP’s web page. During a break, Thomas pulled up TweetDeck and began reading and typing. I had never seen this application before, so he quickly explained it and set up my existing Twitter account. He gave me my first piece of advice: “Leave TweetDeck open all of the time.” As I looked at this application, I could see conversations and threads emerge. This new format was a completely different experience than reading tweets on my Twitter page. This tip from an experienced Twitter user changed my experience as a reader and writer of Twitter. With this new tool in hand, I was inspired to tweet again.
I began my Twitter journey by following his advice. I went to my office and opened TweetDeck. I began to read. I read and followed new people. Then, I read some more. As I sat at my computer in my office, tweets from teachers around the country streamed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. I saw teachers discuss classrooms, ideas, problems, successes, and education-related issues from around the country.
After several weeks, I began to consider composing a tweet, but I felt unsure. What would I write about? Why would anyone care what I have to say? I was scared to type 140 characters. I feared that I would do it wrong. Reading other people’s tweets made me realize that there was a lot I did not know. I wondered about the symbols and the language? What was the # for? Why the @?
Thomas, as a tweet mentor, became my peer responder. I could turn to him for questions. I asked him questions about symbols and people he followed. I looked at his lists and asked more questions. I learned about retweeting (RT) and direct messages (DM). These questions came up as I read tweets.
Each new day of reading Twitter and asking questions from more prolific tweeters was a learning experience. Yet, I still had not composed a tweet myself.
Finally, the day came when Thomas suggested that I tweet something. I don’t recall what I tweeted, but I did not use the conventions correctly. He direct messaged me, as did another tweeter. Alone in my office, I felt my neck become hot with embarrassment. I did it wrong. I felt beyond uncomfortable that I did not understand, tried it, and ultimately, did it wrong. But, I tried again, with encouragement. I continued to ask questions. Eventually, I needed less and less support, as I became more adept with the language and conventions of the genre. My tweet mentors no longer had to provide direction on the “how” of Twitter.
I became more comfortable with tweeting, yet I still made mistakes. Even though I knew from teaching writing and from writing myself about the importance of audience and purpose, in my glee of tweeting—in this playful exuberance I had for exploring this new genre—I did not consider a wider audience.
At first, I did not realize that when I mentioned a tweeter using the @ that my updates could be viewed by his followers. I wrote tweets as if I were writing to friends instead of a global audience (does this sound like an adolescent writer you have in class?). In the past I had blogged, but the audience I have on Twitter is much, much larger than any I had on Blogger.
I started wanting an audience. I wanted people to read and comment on what I wrote. How does this happen? The mark of a tweet that has been read and appreciated is
a retweet. I wanted someone to retweet one of my tweets, or I wanted them to reply to something I had tweeted. I had learned how to tweet, but now I wanted a dialogue—a conversation.
To do this, I went back to reading posts with a more careful eye. Why did some posts become retweeted? I read and analyzed posts. I considered phrasing. I considered the tweeters’ use of conventions. Sometimes I would read a fantastic link, but the text of the tweet did not reflect the quality of the link. So, it wasn’t enough to be concise, the tweets were headlines or signposts that allowed readers to see that this tweet included an interesting link.
Learning to Compose
My experiences with Twitter made me revisit important lessons as a writer and as a teacher of writing. What I learned through tweeting has applications for each writing teacher and writer.
Whether writers write 140 characters, a five-paragraph essay, or a novel, they need the following to be able to attempt this new genre:
- Support: We all need support as writers. It helps if we have someone more experienced to explain the whys and hows. In my case, @tmmaerke and @stevejmoore were more experienced peers who offered suggestions and encouragement as I learned how to engage in conversations and write on Twitter.
- Read Widely: We need the opportunity to read within the genre, first for fun and without aim. Later, as we become more knowledgeable about the genre, we can read with an eye toward analysis to learn the author’s craft.
- Audience: Writing for a group of people, especially some that you do not know, changes your approach to your writing. I was more careful. I considered my identity. I considered the topic and not only my audience but the multiple audiences that would view a tweet if it happened to be retweeted. Whatever the age of the writer, audience is the ultimate test for good writing.
- Learn the Language, Eventually: We sometimes have to learn new vocabulary and conventions for writing in particular genres. I learned new vocabulary and
conventions through reading tweets and talking to peers. There were no worksheets. It was through reading, writing myself, and talking. I did not learn the vocabulary and conventions prior to beginning to tweet. If that were the case, I never would have tweeted to begin with. I needed to make mistakes, make corrections, and ask questions within the context of my own tweeting.
The four points I outlined above won’t be new to many writing teachers, but it might be surprising to some that these writing “lessons” could be learned through writing 140 characters. Tweeting pushed me to revisit how I learn to write. Essentially, I was learning to write again on Twitter. This experience led me to feel like my students who learn something new; I felt unsteady, vulnerable, and scared.
I did not go into tweeting expecting to learn lessons about writing. But, I learned as much about audience, purpose, conventions, and handling writing apprehension as I have learned from writing much longer pieces. The pressure we feel when we learn something new is immense. To be in the position to have to ask questions, to show that you do not know, is uncomfortable. It’s even more uncomfortable to try something when there is a good chance you may not do it the “right” way.
I encourage all of us to write in a new genre and revisit those feelings of new writers. Digital tools provide the perfect opportunity to write in new ways. Find a genre you feel uncomfortable with—it may be Twitter or something else. Find support from a more experienced peer. Read widely in that genre. Write for a larger audience. Most important, write so you make mistakes. Be open to sharing those mistakes. Experience the feelings that come with those beginning moments and experience the feelings of success. Share that with students.