Monday, May 14, 2012

The Five Commandments of Writing: A Response to the 10 Commandments of Twitter

At the Chronicle, Katrina Gulliver has written the "10 Commandments of Twitter" for those who want to break into this medium. Most of the actual commandments are pretty basic: ask questions, engage in conversation, don't just post news articles, and, implicitly, don't just use Twitter for self-promotion, although some well-known people do exactly that. She also recommends that you "show your personality" since it "impresses students."

Here is the key point I'd like to address: "Twitter can be something you have on in the background while you work."

That all depends on how you define work.  I can stuff envelopes and look at Twitter.  I can alphabetize student papers and look at Twitter.  I can grade and look at Twitter or organize my bookshelves and look at Twitter. I could certainly write a blogpost and still look at Twitter.

But write and look at those Twitter pop-ups every 10 seconds? Not so much. I'm ready to throttle the little TweetDeck bird after about 5 minutes.

I look at the advice from real writers on the sidebar, on the web, from a lot of my previous posts quoting writing experts, and from Boice and Silvia, and they all have just about the same Five Commandments:

  1. Thou shalt leave the internet off or at least minimize distractions while you write.  
  2. Thy writing should be thy sole focus for a period of time.  "Multitasking" is a myth if you're actually writing something worthwhile that requires thought. 
  3. Thou shalt give thyself an extended period of time, if possible, so that thoughts can develop.
  4. Thou shalt not interrupt the "flow" of writing that occurs once you get absorbed in your subject for the day, especially not for extraneous stuff like worrying about whether you turned in a report or whether X likes what you did that day. 
  5. Thou shalt write every day, in the morning, if possible, or whenever works best for you. As Francis Ford Coppola puts it in his comments on writing, get up and write before anyone has a chance to be mean to you, to which I'd add "including you being mean to you," by giving space to that incessant internal monologue of tasks and worries. 
The thing is, as Gulliver correctly states, you can't just be on Twitter a little bit. The reason that's a problem is that it, like Facebook, has become such a primary means of scholarly communication for a lot of groups and scholars. Ignore these two, and you miss out on important information because that's where the information is being disseminated.  

So here is the quandary: 
  • To write and eventually be part of the scholarly conversation, you need fewer distractions and as much time as you can manage to actually do the writing. You need to slow down, minimize interruptions, think, and pay attention to what's in your head.
  • But to be part of the scholarly conversation, you have to pay attention to Twitter and Facebook on a daily (or, for Twitter, several times daily) basis, since there are resources there that you won't find elsewhere. You need to speed up, be ready to be interrupted, follow links when they occur (and everyone has a link to share), and give your attention to social networking. 
Someone needs to reconcile the 10 commandments with the 5 commandments. 


Katrina said...

Thanks for linking to my piece. When I said "in the background", I meant BACKGROUND. I don't use tweetdeck, or have any growl notifications that will pop up in my face while I'm trying to do something else.

The little blue bird lights up on my taskbar so I know something is there, but it doesn't jump out at me, screaming for attention. I look at it when I'm ready.

For how to fit it in with a writing life, I set myself little goals for writing (in time, or number of words) and check twitter and email in between. A lot of academics use twitter in this way, and will indeed challenge one another to a "writing sprint" via twitter, and check back in after 30 minutes or an hour. I find that kind of group accountability really helps. YMMV.

undine said...

Thanks for stopping by, Katrina, and for clarifying how Twitter can fit into a day of writing. Your description of twitter as a reward/accountability system for writing sprints, which I use as do a lot of academics, sounds as though it could be helpful.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I think I should have named myself Old Dame Fart. Or Curmudgeoness. I need to sink way down into a writing project. God knows I can spend a lot of time checking e-mail and blogs as a warm-up activity, but once I'm there, I'm there, and the only thing I want the Internet for is checking library information or discovering that I can get some out-of-print book online. I see what Katrina means, and I admit that I have shut myself out of some lines of communication by refusing both Facebook and Twitter, but in fact it is perfectly possible both to get work done and to keep up with both people and "scholarly conversations" without them. After all, the most important "conversations" in which we take part are publications. So if the writing doesn't get done, it doesn't matter how many exciting, paradigm-changing Twitter conversations one is part of. And besides, it's so much easier to follow five commandments than ten. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

undine said...

Simplify--absolutely! What disturbs me, Dame Eleanor, is how much information is getting distributed in these closed systems (Facebook, Twitter). It's getting to be a "you snooze [don't check Twitter & FB], you lose" proposition for things like grants, prizes, etc. Or maybe I just need a better system for looking these up online. Anyway, I'm disturbed [insert joke here].