When most people think about Twitter, two things come to mind: short bursts of information containing a link to news sources and promotions or the drivel of TMI (too much information) of celebrities and the public. Twitter and social media curation tools, though, when used deliberately can be an effective means of social communication and an effective means of teaching concise writing with a creative twist for pedagogical purposes. Using only 140 characters forces the writer to focus. Every character matters.
What is Twitter?
Although Twitter is a social media application, it is considered microblogging. The service boasted more than 140 million users by March 2012. Microblogging descended from Short Message Service (aka texting), Internet Relay Chat, and Instant Messaging. Users post 140 characters to answer the prompt “What’s happening” and tweets may have a hashtag (ex: #JMC194) or a label to help followers keep up with a conversation. The @ symbol is used as a means of identification or the user’s Twitter handle. RT signifies a retweet, or simply passing the message along as one would by handing someone a newspaper article, and MT signifies a modified tweet. Ryan Cordell offers an extensive, but easy to follow, Twitter user’s guide on ProfHacker. The example below illustrates how to use the @ mention and two hashtags for a tweet concerning a class and a campus event:
Twitter’s ease of use has made it an easy tool for journalists and public relations practitioners as well as the general public. Oriella PR Network surveyed journalists in 14 countries and found 59 percent use Twitter, up from 47 percent in 2012. The app allows reporters to quickly take notes while attending an event or send a burst of information along with a photo or video to their followers.
As a journalism professor, I strive to find ways to connect the current practice of digital and social media journalism to my classes. As a former journalist, I know the world of reporting still has the same skills I learned decades ago, but I have observed how reporters use social media tools to supplement the traditional methods. I have used Twitter to teach students how to write concisely, how to think quickly, and how to take the social media conversation, weave it with their own narration and craft a social media story on a digital platform.
When beginning journalism students start to write leads, or the introductions, to their stories, they use every fact. They assume that the standard introduction of a freshman composition essay, where they typically outline three points with a strong thesis statement, will work for a news story. However, newspaper editors want leads of 35 words or less.
During the lead-writing exercises, I provide students with a list of facts. We start with the summary lead, which tells readers the who, what, where, when, why and how of the story, but it may not use all those elements. Although I tell them not to use every piece of information listed, inevitably, several try. When I noticed several students struggling with the conciseness of lead writing, I tested a social media tool they used while they were supposedly listening to my lectures: Twitter.
“But it’s only 140 characters,” one student complained.
“That’s exactly why I want you to use it,” I explained. “You have to focus on the key point for a good tweet.”
A sample lead writing exercise might look something like this:
- Who: Backwoods State University
- What: planning to build two new residence halls at a cost of $4 million, funds come from state bonds and private fundraising campaigns.
- Where: at the northeast corner of campus on Walnut Drive
- Why: aging residence halls, 10 percent increase in enrollment
- How: Board of Trustees approved the construction and ground will be broken Monday, Sept. 2.
A beginning writer tends to tell the reader first about the new residence halls, the reason behind it, the cost, and the groundbreaking. A seasoned journalist might write the lead like this: Backwoods State University will build two new residence halls on Walnut Drive. (12 words) Or: Backwoods State University will break ground Monday for two new residence halls located on Walnut Drive. (16 words) The writer then would use the other information (the cost, the reasons behind it and the date of the groundbreaking) in the nut graph, or the paragraph that states the reason for the story in the second to fifth paragraph.
I found an example of a wordy summary news lead: “The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the execution of Robert James Campbell, 41, on the grounds that he did not have a ‘fair opportunity’ to argue his IQ is too low, just two weeks after Oklahoma botched the lethal injection of a death row inmate who was seen writhing and moaning before he eventually died 43 minutes later.”
The 60-word lead could be shortened: A federal court has halted the execution of an intellectually disabled Texas man hours before he was scheduled to die.
News writers must employ an economy of words to snare their readers. The well-crafted lead achieves this goal with 20 words. The extra information from the lengthy lead could be used later in the story. I distribute sample leads from national news outlets and then show examples of how tweeting can improve wordy leads.
As with the traditional lead writing exercise, I gave them nuggets of information. They had to condense it into a tweet for their lead. However, unlike the Twitter conversations they might have with friends, they had to use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They were not allowed to abbreviate anything into what I call “text-speak” and they had to use Associated Press style, the style manual for journalists. Thus, rather than using a number for a digit under 10, they must write it out. They also may not use an abbreviation for a school or government agency on first reference unless the AP guidelines suggest otherwise. My rules on grammar and AP style reinforce the teaching of the style manual while emphasizing conciseness. To enhance the point, the lead-writing tweets must be completed on a deadline in class, similar to a real-world situation. We work together on the first tweet lead and then they work individually. So that I could group the conversation for purposes of illustrating it on the projector screen, I gave them a class hashtag (#JMC194). The tweets appeared in real-time, and we discussed why one lead worked and another did not work. The exercise helped them to see that Twitter can be used for journalistic writing.
Since using the lead-writing exercise with beginning journalism students, I have asked my students to maintain a professional account for Twitter. Although students often have a personal Twitter account, the professional account separates their personal and professional lives and forces them to maintain a body of social media writing that can be shown to potential employers. As a best practice, I now require my students to sign a permission form that will allow their social media writing to be published inside and outside the classroom.
Once my writing students are familiar with how to use Twitter effectively, I challenge them with a series of live-tweeting exercises. At the beginning of the semester in a 200-level class, I distribute a scavenger hunt list of questions, ask them to look for clues on campus and interview people as they tweet. To facilitate the discussion, I set up a class hashtag (#wright294). The 10-character hashtag also requires students to write concisely. Several students snapped photos to tweet as they unraveled my clues about the university’s history and unique landmarks.
For a second exercise in the same class, students were asked to attend either the men’s or women’s basketball game and tweet. The exercise challenged them to take notes electronically and tweet on deadline. As with other assignments, I set up a class hashtag (#RacerNation) and offered suggestions of people with whom they could interact via Twitter. The selected tweeters had a connection to the athletic team, either as journalists, bloggers or members of the media athletics relations department, and their tweets served as the model. I required a minimum of 12 tweets, but some students exceeded the limit before halftime.
Of course, I had not anticipated that some students would not like basketball or even know the rules. One student developed a snarky tone as he tweeted about the odd chants and cheers. For instance, he heard the fans cheering “Leggo” instead of the more formal “Let’s Go” and he used the “Leggo” chant as a funny tweet about not understanding the basketball faithful. Those tweets actually enlivened the class feed and provided another angle to a traditional sports story. Another student turned her attention away from the game and live-tweeted about the variety of school color fashions.
I taught the same 200-level class in Spring 2013. This time, their live-tweeting assignment involved the Presidential Lecture Series featuring filmmaker Spike Lee. Prior to his visit, I asked my students to research Lee and formulate questions they might ask. Several days before the lecture, I played a video of a graduation speech and asked the students to live-tweet during class to enforce concise writing. As a best practice, if a student chose to use his personal account, I asked him to tweet a warning to his followers. One student tweeted, “Disregard. Working on a class assignment. This is about to get weird.”
During the class period before Lee’s lecture, I distributed the assignment sheet that listed the requirements. For future Presidential Lectures, I will require a minimum of 20 tweets as I found that my better students quickly completed the 12-tweet requirement.
Five of my seven students tweeted on their phones or laptops, but two experienced issues with technology and the wireless or cellular networks. They took notes and then tweeted immediately after the lecture.
In my opinion, the exercise runs better if the professor attends the event, tweets alongside the students for modeling and encouragement, and sets clear expectations about the number and type of tweets required. I marked several tweets as “favorites” and retweeted several others to my followers for encouragement. The assignment was both difficult and enjoyable to grade because each student found his own style of writing an effective tweet. Tweeting is not like solving a math problem.
No two students tweeted the same quote or wrote in the same tone. Some adopted a reportorial tone while others took a conversational or engaging tone in which they offered observations and sought interactivity. The students who were already involved with the campus newspaper were able to correctly capture Lee’s direct quotations, and the students who had not yet experienced live note-taking struggled. Exercises like live-tweeting can help them to build the confidence needed to take notes quickly. Plus, with crowd-sourcing, if a student incorrectly tweets a quote, someone in the Twittersphere will point it out.
Although they are tweeting as reporters, they can also offer what might be called “color commentary” about their surroundings. Reporters often engage in observation for soft news and feature stories. Details make a story more interesting. Social media also allows for a more informal tone, and reporters can show their followers glimpses of their personality through a tweet. For instance, if the reporter has admired the speaker’s work, he can tweet about his excitement to finally meet the speaker. Followers of the news outlet’s account will appreciate that the reporter is a human and not a robot.
One student tweeted so effectively about Spike Lee’s lecture that a stranger on Twitter praised his reporting. He replied that he was working on a class assignment, listed the class hashtag and directed his new follower to my Twitter handle so that I would see the interaction.
Building A Story with Class Tweets
Once my students completed the live-tweeting assignment, I asked them to compile their tweets as well as those from the university public relations staff, fellow students, the regional media, and the community. Those tweets were woven together using a social media curation site known as Storify. Founder Burt Herman worked as an Associated Press foreign correspondent for ten years and started Storify as a way to merge what worked well (a narrative story) with traditional journalism using social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and web links. Herman defines curation to journalists as, “It’s really like what you guys have always done. It’s taking a lot of information, pulling out the relevant parts of it, giving it context, and telling a story. That’s important to remember.” He also said reporters need to take social media and incorporate it into their reporting.
Unfortunately, some news organizations have not truly embraced the creativity of Storify. A cursory scan of the Storify home page in August 2013 showed several media outlets with “stories” that were merely a collection of tweets in chronological order. However, Storify lends itself to the art of actually crafting a story that utilizes digital social media elements and can then be presented with multimedia and social media to tell a richer story.
To build their story, I asked my students to first write a headline of four to eight words that summarized their story and would catch a reader’s attention. The headline helps with search engine optimization or the keywords that will boost a piece’s rank in Google News. The headline reinforces my admonition to write concisely and cleverly. Next, they had to write a lead that would engage with the reader and give their audience a sense of the story’s purpose. I allowed them to choose the type of journalistic writing style for their Storify, whether they followed the traditional inverted pyramid of the most important information coming first and narrowing to the least important or writing the story in the Wall Street Journal style, which features an anecdotal lead followed by facts. Most students chose the inverted pyramid because it is the easiest to write and organize.
As with any form of writing, the writer must determine how to best organize and present his story in the social media curation form. The drag-and-drop functionality allows the user to change his mind before publishing. Storify auto-saves the story, but the user must hit the “publish” button before it is uploaded online, and the owners of the tweets and other social media elements that are used may receive a notification if the writer chooses. It simulates the traditional writing experience where the writer revises the work, adds paragraphs, subtracts dialogue or eliminates scenes.
The students reported that they enjoyed the challenge of live-tweeting and then submitting a digital story on deadline. One student chose to lead with a photograph to tell the story chronologically while another student chose the more traditional approach with a summary lead and the inverted pyramid. Storify allowed the students to experiment with their own emerging writing style and immediately share it. Since Storify is not well known to the public, the students only garnered 20 views.
Not only do I use Storify as a teaching tool, I use it for my own digital writing. I combined tweets, Instagram, Vine and websites and wove them with my own reporting notes during a Scripps Howard Foundation/Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Social Media Externship at the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in July 2013.
Applications to other Writing Disciplines
Twitter and Storify are not limited in the use of teaching writing to the style found in a journalism classroom. Both social media tools allow students to develop their voices and their style. A student might experiment with a creative style for an English class but need to develop a more authoritative style for a history or political science class. One style does not fit every situation.
A political science professor could ask students to curate the tweets from a debate or lecture and have the students write analysis in the text boxes. By choosing those elements and placing them in a certain order, the student would have to support his or her argument.
A history professor could find social and digital media that discusses a particular historical event or time period. If scholars had debated on Twitter about the commemoration of a Civil War battle, the students could use those social media elements in support of their position about historical accuracy of re-enactments. Or the professor could assign students to research a public figure and tweet his findings. Those results could then be wrapped into a Storify with narration and other social and digital media elements. The result might take the form of a digital term paper.
Creative writing professors could ask their students to take on personas of their characters and tweet dialogue or description. The student then could choose elements of dialogue and build a scene based on several characters but weave in transitions.
I used this type of exercise in a scriptwriting class where students wrote a short script. Most lacked experience writing dialogue or a scene for creative writing. I divided the students into groups of three to four, and I provided them with enough background information to begin writing a scene. They were assigned a corresponding hashtag (ex: #JMC336town or #JMC336bball), but I allowed them to come up with the characters’ names and backgrounds before they began to tweet the dialogue and description.
Students had to immerse themselves in their character and tweet. The result was a stream of dialogue punctuated with details and rich descriptions of the character’s actions. Much like live-tweeting an event for a journalistic purpose, students did not know what would happen next. The exercise forced them to immediately tweet a line of succinct dialogue or description. I monitored the groups and encouraged them to write quickly rather than waiting for perfection. Several students froze with the pressure, but their peers encouraged them to see where the story led. Students could either use their smart phones or computers, and the majority said it was easier to tweet from their phone than it was to sit in front of a computer as they were already accustomed to thinking quickly with texting.
For example, students were assigned a scenario in which a young lawyer moves into a small town and envisions a peaceful life filled with hunting, fishing, and golfing. He finds that the small town has a dirty secret: a corporation wants to buy the mineral rights for an oil and gas operation, but the corporation has connections to the Mafia. I asked them to develop three to five characters and write the dialogue that showed conflict between the lawyer and clients by using the hashtag #JMC336town.
Although I did not choose to do so, the tweets then could be combined with other elements such as websites or photos in Storify, and with the narration, the student could build a scene in real-time and find an audience that might offer suggestions as they wrote. One could think of this exercise as digital crowd-sourcing meeting serial fiction.
Harriett Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written initially as a story about “How A Man became A Thing,” found an audience as serialized fiction in the National Era from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852. Editor Gamaliel Bailey published a letter in the June 1866 Atlantic Monthly that addressed the sudden rise of Stowe’s work. “Of the hundreds of letters received weekly, renewing subscriptions or sending new ones, there was one scarcely that did not contain some cordial reference to Uncle Tom.”
What would have happened if Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald had experienced the digital social media publishing world as a way to test their works in the public eye rather than their brief forays into serial fiction? Fitzgerald sold the serial rights to his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, which helped him with “understanding of subsidiary publication as a prime opportunity to remain before the public eye.” Contemporary authors such as Stephen King, Tom Wolfe and Patricia Cornwell published pieces of their larger works in magazines, harkening references to the practice of 19th century literary serial fiction. Imagine if they turned to social media tools to test their market.
Some authors use social media as a way to develop their writing voice and build their audience. Author Jennifer Weiner asserts that Twitter helps authors build connections if they don’t have a public relations staff. Her advice for prospective tweeters: “Whatever it is, polish it, edit it, give it the same attention that anything else you were going to publish is going to get. Make it funny, make it trenchant, make it pithy and relevant and smart, and the followers will come.”
As long as social media continues to permeate society, we, as teachers of writing, will need to continue to find interesting ways to make the writing process relevant and useful to digital natives. By using these tools, we can embrace the twist of technology while giving students the tools to develop their voice, tone, and unique writing style. Anne Trubek, Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, wrote in 2011 how Twitter transformed both her writing and that of her students. After two years of using Twitter in my journalism classes, I’m noticing clearer and more engaging writing in their news stories. Their sentences seem clearer and crisper after tweeting an event. Twitter has helped them to say what they need to say without adding extra material to reach an editor’s word count. After all, every character matters.
About the author: Leigh Wright is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Murray State University. Wright worked for nearly two decades as a reporter, section editor and columnist for a regional Kentucky newspaper. Follow her on Twitter @leighlwright.
How to cite:
Leigh Wright, “Tweet Me A Story,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/wright.
See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.
Sample tweet by the author.
Sample tweet by the author.
Click to open full version: Students in a scriptwriting class at Murray State University wrote dialogue for a class assignment on Twitter. The exercise forced them to think creatively and quickly.
Students in a scriptwriting class at Murray State University wrote dialogue for a class assignment on Twitter. The exercise forced them to think creatively and quickly.
Getting blocked by President Donald Trump on Twitter is the ultimate goal for a University of Tennessee, Chattanooga professor — and he’s hoping his students will help him get there.
The professor, a man who has not been named in various news reports, is offering extra credit to any student who can craft a tweet that gets him blocked by Trump’s infamous Twitter account.
Each student has been asked to turn in one tweet designed to antagonize Trump. The professor will then tweet the messages from his own account in hopes of getting blocked by Trump.
“Here are the details of the Twitter Extra Credit assignment: Simply write a tweet for @realDonaldTrump and email it to me,” the professor wrote in an email to his students, one of whom shared it on Twitter. “It may not contain profanity or personal threats. I’ll post them from my Twitter account. If your tweet successfully gets my account blocked by @realDonaldTrump, you will receive five points on your final grade and a free absence.”
“This will run through the end of the semester, or until someone wins,” he added. “As always, let me know if you have any questions. Good luck.”
Erin Cary, a University of Tennessee, Chatanooga student in the class, tweeted out the email, and has since gained over 52,000 retweets and 146,000 likes.
After Cary tweeted out the assignment, she sent another tweet asking for ideas on what she should send in. She’s gotten plenty of replies and suggestions. “I had an idea to tweet at him daily how much he lost the popular vote for but never got around to it,” one recommended. Another suggested that Cary draw inspiration from model and vocal Trump critic Chrissy Teigen, as she’s been blocked by Trump herself.
Stay tuned to Cary’s account — until the end of the semester — to find out the winning tweet.