Five Ways Social Media Can Destroy Your Writing (and, Potentially, Your Career)

Ah, social media. You can’t cross the street any more without having it cross your consciousness (I wonder if there’s a check-in here!). And as useful as social media can be for us writerly types, I guarantee you for every pro there is a serious and potentially hazardous con. Having written before on some of the reasons I love Twitter for writing, I thought I’d share five ways that social media can, you know, go all Cthulhu on your writing rather than foster it.

1) You drive yourself to distraction. This is perhaps the most obvious pitfall of social media. It’s damn distracting. There’s plenty of time to talk about writing, to meet new writers, to see and read and absorb everyone else’s processes and approaches and learn about the business and agents and publishing and… and… Wait, when was the last time you actually sat down and wrote something? And finished it? And submitted it? Yeah, I thought so. Spend too much time writing and thinking about social media, and before you know it that hard-earned writing time evaporates like wine on a hot skillet. There’s lots of time for learning the craft, and building a network is important. But the second you start spending more time broadcasting than actually creating you’ve got your priorities mixed up. (Don’t think you’re addicted: Check out the Oatmeal’s “How Addicted to Facebook Are You Quiz” for some laughs.)

Solution: Some writers use various types of software to turn off Twitter, Facebook, etc., during writing times. Others are just self-disciplined. Me? I block out hour time periods. For that hour, I’m allowed only to write. Then, I get five or ten minutes to check the wide world. Honestly, sometimes I just keep on writing because, well, there’s a lot less noise out there.

2) You broadcast too much. This is something I’ve seen from very young, fledgeling writers, to established and critically acclaimed writers. Yes, there is too much of a good thing. Over sharing. Over gloating. TMI. You know what I mean. Sure, it’s up to you to do as you will with your social media accounts. I’m not the police. I’m just saying, as a book fan and a writer myself, there’ve been many people that I’ve stopped following simply because their feeds got too, well, uncomfortable or, to turn a phrase, commercial. As much as I don’t want to hear about every single meal and migraine, I don’t want to have to endure a feed that’s nothing but self-promotion. Balance, friends.

Solution: Ask some good friends for critiques of your social media feeds if you’re worried. Write a manifesto about what you do and don’t share. If you care about that sort of thing. If you don’t, well, more power to you. Just know that your social media persona is as close as some of your fans, potential colleagues, and publishers are ever going to get to you. And if you want to make money off this writing thing, it’s probably a good idea to present yourself well. Okay, so maybe you have a huge, established audience and you couldn’t care less about what people think of you because you bathe in dollar bills. I still hold that one bad turn could ruin your career, especially if it reeks of scandal.

3) You get into arguments with other people. You know. Like, every other day. Yes, I believe that discourse is important. The only way that we progress is through understanding, which can sometimes take the form of heated discussions. But is social media the place for this? Likely not. And for a few reasons. a) it’s painfully public so everyone gets to listen to your late-night, Pabst-fueled rantings uncensored and before you have the chance to delete them b) the internet is FOREVER, man. Be a dick once, and it will haunt you for a lifetime, and c) it’s not a good place to be when you’re heated and angry and out for blood. (Penny Arcade even posits that even some folks probably aren’t in that good of a place when they sign up…)

Solution: You’re really pissed off? Good. Maybe you can do something to change the injustice. But take some time to cool off before you oust Major Jerkward Editor to the world. Be tactful. Try blog posts, mobilize your friends, prepare a response. Then you’re not a hot-head drunkard writer who comes off looking petty and jealous, you’re a well-spoken expert on the situation who added something really cool to the discussion and changed a few minds. (Also: try not to take yourself so seriously. I swear, in four years, you’ll look back at this and have a good laugh. Or a cry. Hopefully the former and not the latter.)

4) You’re very vocal about whose writing you do and don’t like. This is beyond issues of content. If you really hate a particular writer simply for the way they write or a particular choice they made in their story, trumpeting it to the social network isn’t the best idea. Why? Well, take a quick look at how many people you’re connected on, say, Facebook. You know, the other day, Facebook recommended that I friend Peter Straub, because apparently we have a whole lot of friends in common. Yeah, that whole six-degrees thing just got a whole lost closer with social media. Thankfully, I like Peter Straub. But if I ranted and raved about how much I detested him, then ran into him virtually or IRL, you know… that might be a bit awkward. And potentially damaging.

Solution: Critique, don’t simply dislike. Don’t let emotion get in the way of reading/projecting about what you’ve read. That goes beyond being a bad social media person — that’s just being a bad reader. If you’re reviewing something, you owe it to yourself and to the writing community to explain why you didn’t like it. You also owe it to everyone to actually read the book. Done well, you come across as someone who knows their stuff and you might even give insight into the writer’s own work. Remember, all writers are still in progress! (Note: some writers do believe they aren’t progressing, and others still can’t take any criticism at all. But at least if you respond intelligently, you cover yourself in the future! While not cool, IMO, I’ve still seen plenty of writers go after other writers and readers either on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs, for bad reviews… Remember that whole thing about the internet being forever? Yeah… totally goes both ways.)

5) You think you’re ready when you’re not. It’s so exciting to see other authors selling stories and doing book tours and signing book deals. But if you start comparing yourself and your career to theirs, you’re in for trouble. The truth is that there’s no magic formula. And submitting a bunch of half-thought stories and novels to publishers before they’re ready, just because you dream of the day you can Tweet: “I sold my book!” is not a good idea. I’ve been guilty myself of this, I will freely admit (while social media wasn’t the only culprit in my progress paralysis, it certainly didn’t help!). A false-sense of your own skill leads to nothing but heartbreak. Unfortunately, for the majority of writers out there, hope does nothing for actually selling a book. Also, beware promises that sound too good: vanity presses, people who want your money to publish your book. It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff online sometimes, but generally speaking, there is no pot of gold at the end of most promised rainbows.

Solution: Measure success with your own yardstick. Make goals that make sense for you and your experience. Maybe it’s just finishing a short story this year. Maybe it’s scoring an agent. But  framing your success in terms of other peoples’ is a recipe for disaster and, ultimately, massive disappointment. The only thing that writers have in common when it comes to success: damned hard work. To quote Jeff VanderMeer from Facebook earlier today (and to give a nod in general to Booklife, which goes into this better than I do): “If you’re not willing to put in the time and effort, if you don’t like hard work, don’t be a writer. Don’t be a writer if you don’t like to read. The world doesn’t need another punk-ass pretender.”

I’m sure there are lot of other pitfalls of social media, but these are the ones I’ve become most familiar with. Above all, practice moderation, folks. Any tool can become a distraction. Anything you say can be found again. And the only person who can truly control how you’re perceived is you. You want to be an irreverent, irate creative? Go right ahead. Just know that there are possible ramifications. You want to avoid social media altogether and go the Luddite route? Rock on. Just know that you’re also missing out on some pretty huge opportunities. (Or… maybe… in some cases, you’re not!)

How about you? Anyone fallen into any of these traps or discovered others? How do you balance social media and your writing life?

Further Reading:

  • http://jhstevens.wordpress.com J. H. Stevens

    This is fantastic, and I certainly needed to read it, especially since I have already failed at two of these things this morning.

    • http://nataniabarron.wordpress.com Natania

      Excellent! Down with social media! Well, for now… for a few hours, anyway. :)

  • Ilan Lerman

    Hi, Natania. I’m glad you wrote this. As a fairly new arrival to Twitter, I’m suffering quite heavily from number 1 on your list, so it’s good to hear of measures to combat the addiction!

  • http://gravatar.com/simoneseikaly simoneseikalySimone

    Hi Natania. These were all interesting and relevant! And I wonder what you think about one other potential issue, and that’s the theft of ideas. I’ve used Facebook many times to gauge interest in a topic I want to use in an essay, and though I don’t put it exactly that way on my status I wonder if it’s risky for those who are aware of what I’m doing and might decide to do the same?

    • http://nataniabarron.wordpress.com Natania

      Of course, I think putting your ideas out there is always a risk. That’s why you should choose what you share very carefully. Or, at least, decide what sort of risk you want to take. A good approach is using Creative Commons, which lets you present your content the way you want to, with as much freedom or as little as you want. IMO, that works best for blogs. For Twitter and Facebook, be selective. I always try to keep things interesting without giving too much away. Eventually you have to weigh how much benefit you get from crowdsourcing vs. actual risk. That said, an idea for an essay might be a springboard for someone else who would then formulate a totally different response. I know, for instance, after I wrote this piece, I sought the internet because I realized I’m likely not the only person to touch on this stuff (see links below)! I do adhere to the whole “giving credit where it’s due” school, but sadly many others do not.

  • http://blog.ja-pak.com/ J.A. Pak

    Great post. Balance is hard, especially since every Twitter reader has their own idea of what is or isn’t TMI. (Personally, my threshold is pretty low.) May I just add one more? Please be careful with RTs and #FFs. Some people RT so frequently, it’s a little numbing.

  • http://www.katercheek.com Kater Cheek

    The problem with #5 “don’t put your stuff out until it’s good” is that there’s often a slight (or zero) correlation between how good something is and how good its author thinks it is. Some people who write really good stuff are embarrassed at the (to them) huge glaring flaws in it, while others write crap and think it’s golden. This is true not just in writing, but in virtually every field.

    Sometimes editors at magazines will say something like “don’t submit us anything that isn’t professional quality!” I hate this. It comes off as snobby, and it’s useless. They frighten away the skilled but self-critical, and do nothing to dissuade the rank pretenders.

    Otherwise, I think your points are valid.

  • http://www.facebook.com/louise.gibney.writer Louise

    Good blog! I’ve linked to it from my writer’s page (via social media….!) – thanks for the insight!

    Louise

    http://www.facebook.com/louise.gibney.writer

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  • http://www.zoefitzgeraldcarter.com/ Zoe FitzGerald Carter

    A friend just forwarded this as I was wasting time on Facebook and NOT writing. Is the universe trying to tell me something? Um, yes… back to work. Great piece!
    Zoe

  • http://fatmare.wordpress.com fatmare

    Great tips! In the past I wasted too much time on social media then stressed that I need to do even more! I find setting a timer for the amount of time I allow myself to do the social stuff does the trick…now back to writing ;-)

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