Twitter as writing coach, part 2: The art of the retweet

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Last time I posted, we looked at Twitter’s power to shape our writing by studying Twitter poetry. Today, let’s consider what we can learn by studying what makes for compelling content on Twitter—in other words, what sort of posts get “retweeted” and spread from network to network.

Writing compelling content is something with which every writer—nonfiction or fiction—should be concerned. Even in story forms governed by the rules of journalism, where objectivity and even-handedness are highly valued, being able to package a story and make sure it finds the widest possible audience is an essential survival skill.

One of the most important guidelines in writing compellingly and getting retweeted on Twitter is to consider one’s network of followers. What do they need or want to know?

The good folks over at Cyberjournalist.net recently blogged about super-entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki’s rules for getting retweeted, and had this to say about Guy’s first rule, which is “ask the right question.”

There are pockets of Twitter users who want to bond with small group of people and learn the answer to the original Twitter question: ‘What are you doing?’ These are the folks that enjoy tweets that say, ‘My cat just rolled over’ and ‘The line at Starbucks is long.’

“The question you should answer if you want retweets is ‘What’s interesting?’ for your group of followers. For example, the story that Taiwanese scientists bred glow-in-the-dark pigs is a lot more interesting than what your cat is doing and therefore a lot more likely to get retweeted.”

Another Twitter lesson for writers from the retweet arena is that sharing begets sharing. Social media researcher Dan Zarrella, guest posting on Copyblogger, notes that 70 percent of retweets contain a hyperlink (often shaved down to size using http://tiny.cc or other services). If you’re linking to your own content, it’s a good idea to think about what sorts of writing get passed around online—Zarrella lists how-tos/instructional content, breaking news, warnings (about scams, etc.) and freebies or contests as links highly likely to get a retweet.

The lesson here, I think, is that people want to share useful stuff with those they care about and keep their friends out of trouble. When drafting our stories, no matter the venue, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that this is a huge piece of what drives information passed through online social networking.

The final rule we can draw from what gets retweeted on Twitter is that calls to action produce action. Zarrella, writing recently on his own blog about the 20 words and phrases that generate the most retweets, notes that the phrase “please retweet” appeared very frequently in posts that got retweeted. Other action verbs that appeared in highly retweeted posts included “help,” “follow,” and “check out.”

Obviously, a lot of journalistic non-fiction writing cannot directly order the reader to take action, although it can quote sources about the need for action, the urgency of a situation, etc. However, thinking what frame of mind you want to leave a reader with after digesting your story is still helpful. And for many “service” stories in trade or self-help oriented publications, issuing a clear call to action is part of the package—readers are looking to you to explain how something works, and then recommend ways to use the newfound knowledge.

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4 thoughts on “Twitter as writing coach, part 2: The art of the retweet

  1. [...] the usefulness of Twitter as a tool to improve one’s writing ability on my Write Livelihood blog (here and here). Microblogging services like Twitter, which force you to compress your thoughts to a mere [...]

  2. [...] service Twitter can improve your writing and teach writers a thing or two about creating compelling content . However, there’s one last way in which Twitter can be useful to you as a writer: finding the [...]

  3. [...] designed to draw readers into the story, still rules. My Twitter as Writing Coach series (Part I | Part II | Part III) focused on much the same thing—leveraging what good writers already know (and can [...]

  4. [...] Part 2: The art of the retweet A discussion of what content gets shared on Twitter via a “retweet” and what that says about how to write compelling stories. [...]

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