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Do writers need social media?

Renee Liang ponders the usefulness of social media for writers – are they a way to avoid actual writing, or do they serve as powerful tools to reach and engage with readers?


Renee Liang ponders the usefulness of social media for writers - is it a way to avoid actual writing, or does it serve as a powerful tool to reach and engage with readers?

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This weekend, as a way of procrastinating about getting in the right frame of mind for writing, I’ve spent hours reading Justine Musk’s fabulous blog, Tribal Writer. Justine is a YA and fantasy writer, a mum of twins and triplets. (She’s also the ex-wife of billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Paypal, Elon Musk, whose high-profile divorce has had journalists and lawyers slavering for the last few years.*)

The quality and frequency of her blog posts has me wondering how she ever finds time for writing, unless she gets another talented writer to pretend to be her. (I know, I’m supposed to be writing right now, and what am I doing...?)

Basically, Justine practices what she preaches: the engagement of a writer with their community of other writers and thinkers, and with their ‘audience’, two groups which should necessarily intersect. She does this through several blogs in which she collects her own and others' thoughts about the business of writing, which necessarily contains a large amount of candid self-reflection. She says that the tools of social media are just as important tools for the writer as paper and pen. 

This fits with what I heard at the publisher’s event at the recent Auckland Readers and Writers Festival, in which an international panel agreed that in the current environment, publishers are looking for a writer who is not only ‘marketable’, but also comes with the social savvies to allow them connect with and grow a readership.  Having a good manuscript is still the baseline condition, mind you.  But on top of that, a potential new publishee will be asked if they have a blog on which they post frequently, are on Facebook and Twitter, and have skills and experience in appearing friendly, personable and accessible. As one publisher said, “They need to be stand-up comedians.”

This is bad news for the traditional socially dysfunctional writer-in-a-garret (although I’ve never met any, so they could be an endangered species). In my biased experience, most modern writers have to juggle so many things – day job - family – meetings - study – that they become, of necessity, individuals highly steeped in life experience and the art of human interaction. They also have to be something of time wizards, so what’s the problem with squeezing a bit more time for that all-important internet?

The problem, as I well know, is that it can be something of a black hole for your time.  Internet addiction is no laughing matter when there’s a script due and you still can’t stop your hand compulsively moving to the ‘login’ button.  It’s like a tic. It’s so bad that some days it happens unconsciously and by the time I wake up it’s mid afternoon and I’ve spent hours checking Facebook, clicking links and answering ‘urgent’ emails.**

It’s true that some of that is important for the ‘business’ of writing and producing your own work – but the time loss is such that sometimes my guilt keeps me away from things like writing ‘unnecessary’ blog posts.  It’s also the reason why I’ve refused to create a Twitter account, until now.

However, there does seem to be logic to the idea of keeping track of my ‘development-as-writer’ online.  Note that this is very specific.  It’s about development, rather than shameless self-promotion.  The idea is to reach out to others through the sharing of ideas (and they don’t need to be your own or even original, since discussion and link-swapping – in other words, conversation rather than broadcast, is the point.)

As Musk writes,  “The interaction between like-minded individuals is the point. The object is the reason and the excuse. And since things change because of people interacting with other people, a powerful social object becomes a catalyst.”

She advocates turning your blog – the extension of your writerly persona – into a forum for self-evaluation, soul-searching and discussion.  A forum in which the (constructive) comments of others are welcomed, a node in an interlinked community, a mirror that others can look into and maybe see themselves.  She goes a step further to say that when the blog transcends its virtual nature in this way, it becomes a social object, something around which a social interaction can form. And this is what gets people interested in you, your thoughts and your work. 

I compulsively clicked on some links, and found the astounding idea (first pitched by marketing guru Seth Godin) that the ideal time to start marketing a book is three years before it’s published. This is sometimes (well I’m being hopeful here, but still) before the book is even written – so how could you do that?  The answer comes back to the tools of social connection – it takes that time to build an online ‘platform’, to build up a following, to draw a cloud of people who might be interested in what you have to say/who you are and therefore, to eventually buy your book (or pay for a ticket to your show or gig… the idea doesn’t just apply to writers).

Like Twitter***, unless you are already famous, followers don’t happen without following others.  But then the conversation is what matters anyway. In the online universe, loudly promoting your book or show or whatever has about the same effect as yelling “Love me!” in a stranger’s ear at a party.  You’d do far better to gently draw them into conversation, find out your shared obsessions, and then enter a beautiful lasting relationship.

So… is all this a waste of valuable writing time? It could be. I could have written two or three new scenes in the time I’ve taken to write this post.  Or maybe I would have just spent the time eating the expired chocolate muffins I bought on sale from Countdown, or watching the final of American Idol, or cleaning the house (this last one is less likely). Anyway, maybe I’d better log out for now (noooooooo……) and continue another time. Part 2 of this blog will deal with how social media (in moderation) could help with the actual writing.


* Justine, realizing she couldn’t pull as many media strings as her powerful and wealthy husband, instead started her own media company – of one – and blogs about the experience on Tribal Writer’s sister blog, Minx.  Here too, her skill as a writer and considerable personal insight wins hearts and attention.

** Writer and director Oscar Kightley once told me that his cure for internet addiction was to make his flatmate take the internet cable when he left for work.

***Justine also has an excellent post about how writers can use Twitter.

Related Link: Do writers need social media? Part Two

Written by

Renee Liang

14 Jun 2011

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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