¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 5 When most people think about Twitter, two things come to mind: short bursts of information containing a link to either a news source or a promotion or the drivel of TMI (too much information) of celebrities and the public. Twitter and social media curation tools, though, when used correctly can be an effective means of social communication and an effective means of teaching concise writing with a creative twist. With just 140 characters, it forces the writer to focus. Every character matters.
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What is Twitter
Although Twitter is a social media application, it is considered a microblogging service. The service boasted more than 140 million users by March 2012. 1 Microblogging descended from Short Message Service (known now as texting), Internet Relay Chat, and Instant Messaging. 2 Users post 140 characters to answer the prompt “What’s happening” and tweets ideally should have a hashtag 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.
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Twitter’s ease of use has made it an easy tool for journalists and public relations practitioners as well as the general public. Simply type the update, add a hashtag and wait for people to respond or retweet. Oriella PR Network surveyed journalists in 14 countries and found that 59 percent use Twitter, up from 47 percent in 2012. 3 The social media app allows reporters to quickly take notes while attending an event or send a burst of information along with a photo through Instagram or twit.pic or a video through Vine to their followers.
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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 many of the same skills I learned decades ago, but I have observed how reporters increasingly are using 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.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 6 When beginning journalism students start to write leads, or the introductions, to their stories, they try to 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. 4
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 During the lead-writing exercises, I provide students with a list of facts for the lead. 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. 5 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.
- ¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
- 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.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 4 A beginning writer tends to try 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. 6
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 4 As with the traditional lead writing exercise, I gave them nuggets of information. They had to condense the information into a tweet for their lead. However, unlike the conversations they might have with friends on Twitter, 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 that journalists use. 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. My rules on grammar and AP style reinforce the teaching of the style manual while emphasizing conciseness. To further enhance (or complicate, depending upon one’s point of view), the lead-writing tweets must be completed on a deadline in class, similar to a real-world situation. We generally work together on the first tweet lead and then they work individually on subsequent exercises. So that I could group the conversation for purposes of illustrating it on the projector screen, I gave them a class hashtag (#MSUJMC194). The tweets then appeared in real-time, and we discussed why one lead worked and another didn’t. The Twitter lead writing exercise meets today’s students on one of their native social media platforms and helps them to see that Twitter can be used for effective writing.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 8 Since using that exercise in the beginning class, I have required my students to maintain a professional account for Twitter. Although many students 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 in teaching, I now require my students to sign a permission form that will allow their tweets and social media writing to be published both inside and outside the classroom.
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Once my writing students are familiar with how to use Twitter to post messages and write concisely, I challenge them with a series of live-tweeting exercises. At the beginning of the semester in the 200-level class, I distribute a scavenger hunt list of questions and ask them to look for clues on campus and ask people questions as they tweet about the experience. To facilitate the discussion, I set up a class hashtag (#wright294) and asked them to include it on every tweet. The 10-character hashtag also required them to shorten their answers. The exercise forced them to talk to other students in person (which is becoming a lost art in the texting generation) and then translate those answers and their own observations into tweets. Several students even snapped pictures to tweet as they unraveled my clues about the university’s history and unique landmarks.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 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 game. The exercise challenged them to take notes electronically and write tweets on deadline. As with other assignments, I set up a class hashtag (#RacerNation) and offered several suggestions of people with whom they could interact via Twitter. The tweeters I selected 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 for the evening, but some students exceeded the limit before halftime. They also did not limit their tweets to the basketball game and observed nuances of social interactions among fans, the players and even the pep band.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 Of course, I had not anticipated that some students would not like basketball or know the rules of the game. 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 hashtag 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 fashions that involved the school colors.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 I taught the same class again 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 collect background research on Lee and begin formulating any questions that they might ask after the lecture. Several days before the lecture, I played a video of a graduation speech and asked the students to live-tweet during class so that they would be familiar with the practice. As a best practice, I advised them to tweet a note to their followers that they were tweeting in class. One tweeted, “Disregard. Working on a class assignment. This is about to get weird.”
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 2 The class period before the lecture, I distributed the assignment sheet that listed the requirements (a minimum of 12 tweets completed during the lecture), attendance at the lecture, and the usage of the university communication office’s official event hashtag #spikeatmurraystate. When I run this exercise again at next year’s Presidential Lecture, I will require a minimum of 20 tweets as I found that my better students filled up the 12-tweet requirement within the first half hour.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 3 Five of my seven students tweeted on their phones or laptops throughout the lecture, but two experienced issues with technology and connecting to an overloaded wireless and cellular network or not having an adequate cellular data plan. They took traditional notes and then tweeted immediately after the lecture ended.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 8 The exercise runs more smoothly if the professor attends the event, tweets alongside the students and sets clear expectations about the number and type of tweets required. The assignment was difficult, and enjoyable, to grade because each student found his or her own style of writing an effective tweet. Tweeting isn’t like solving a math problem where only one answer exists. No two students tweeted the same quote or wrote in the same tone. Some had a reportorial tone while others took a conversational tone. The students that were already involved with the campus newspaper were able to correctly capture Lee’s direct quotations in the tweets, 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 the crowd-sourcing angle, if a student incorrectly tweets a quote, someone in the Twittersphere audience surely will tweet a correction or ask a question.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 Even with the slight bobble, I was pleased with their effort. One student tweeted so effectively about Spike Lee’s lecture that a stranger interacted with him on social media and praised his thoroughness of 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.
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Taking the tweets and building a story in Storify
Once my students completed the live-tweeting assignment, I asked them to compile their tweets as well as those from the general public. Members of the university’s public relations office tweeted during Spike Lee’s lecture as did 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 with traditional journalism (the narrative) with the fun social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Flikr, 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. 7
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1 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. 8 However, Storify lends itself to the art of actually crafting a story that utilizes these digital social media elements and can then be presented with multimedia and social media to tell a richer story. 9 Examples of the social media tools that can be pulled in include Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates, Flikr feeds, Instagram photos, Vine videos, YouTube videos, and websites.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 5 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 also serves as a measure for search engine optimization or the keywords that will boost a piece’s rank in Google News. 10 The headline also reinforces my admonition to write concisely and cleverly. Next, they had to write a lead, or introductory paragraph, 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, or an anecdotal lead followed by the most important elements of the story. They were free to choose any other type of journalistic story format as long as they interwove the tweets with narration. Most students chose the inverted pyramid because it is the easiest to write and organize. The Wall Street Journal approach presented a challenge to them in the 200-level class.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 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 in progress, 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 will receive a notification if the writer opts. It simulates the traditional writing experience where the writer revises the work multiple times, adds paragraphs, subtracts dialogue or eliminates scenes.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 2 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 with the public. Since Storify is not a household name yet, the students only garnered 20 views or less.
- ¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 2
- Spike Lee Rocks Lovett Stage
- Spike Lee Invades Murray State
- Lecturer Spikes Thought at Murray State 11
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 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 Fellowship at the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in July 2013. 12
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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 refine their style. A student might experiment with a more engaging and 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.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 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 make sure that his or her argument could be supported.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 A history professor could find social and digital media that discusses a particular historical event or time period. For instance, if scholars had debated on Twitter about the commemoration of a particular 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 in history and tweet his findings. Those results then could be wrapped into a Storify with other social and digital media elements along with original narration. The result might take the form of a digital term paper.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 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.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 I used this type of exercise in a scriptwriting class where students were writing a short script. Most had never had experience writing dialogue or even a scene for a creative writing piece. I divided the students into small groups (three to four people) and 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.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 1 Students then 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 think quickly and immediately tweet a line of succinct dialogue. I monitored the groups and encouraged them to immediately tweet the next part of the scene rather than agonizing over perfection. Several students froze with the pressure, but their peers encouraged them to tweet on and see where the story led. Students could either use their smart phones or computers, and the majority of them 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.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 1 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, but 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.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Although I did not choose to do so at the time, 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 potentially find an audience that might help to offer suggestions as they built characters and scenes. One could think of this exercise as digital crowd-sourcing meeting serial fiction.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Harriett Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written initially as a story about “How a Man became a Thing,” first 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.” 13
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 1 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 helped him with “understanding of subsidiary publication as a prime opportunity to remain before the public eye.” 14 Contemporary authors such as Stephen King, Tom Wolfe and Patricia Cornwell all have had pieces of their larger works published in magazines, harkening references to the practice of 19th century literary serial fiction. 15 Imagine if they turned to social media tools to test their market.
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 3 Indeed, some authors do 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. Twitter allows her to post authentic updates. 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.” 16
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 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 generations of digital natives. By using tools such as Twitter and Storify, we can embrace the twist of technology while giving students the tools to develop their voice, tone, and unique writing style.
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 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.
- ¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0
- Mark Briggs, Journalism Next, Second Edition. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2013). 91. ↩
- Briggs, Journalism Next, 92. ↩
- “59% of Journalists Worldwide use Twitter, up from 47% in 2012,” All Twitter, Media Bistro, June 28, 2013, http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/journalists-twitter_b45416. ↩
- Carole Rich, Writing and Reporting the News.(Boston: Wadsworth, 2010), 130. ↩
- Rich, Writing and Reporting the News, 131. ↩
- John R. Bender, Lucinda D. Davenport, Michael W. Drager and Fred Fedler, Reporting for the Media, Tenth Edition. (New York: Oxford). 2012. 225 ↩
- Hamish McKenzie, “From Bloody War to Social Media’s Soft Power: Storify’s Burt Herman on the New News Media,” PandoDaily, April 8, 2013, http://pandodaily.com/2013/04/08/from-bloody-war-to-social-medias-soft-power-storifys-burt-herman-on-the-new-news-media. ↩
- Des Moines Register, “Iowans React: Teens in Isolation Cells at the State-Run Group Home,” 2013, http://storify.com/dmregister/iowans-react-teens-in-isolation-cells-at-state-run. ↩
- “About Storify,” http://www.storify.com/about. ↩
- Jeffrey Wilkinson, August E. Grant, Douglas J. Fisher, Principles of Convergent Journalism, Second Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press), 2013. 55. ↩
- Sylvia R. Hamlin, “Spike Lee Rocks Lovett Stage,” Storify, 2013, http://storify.com/SylviaRHamlin/spike-lee-rocks-the-lovett-stage; Tay Crum, “Spike Lee Invades Murray State,” Storify, 2013, http://storify.com/TayCrum/spike-lee-invades-murray-state; Lexy Gross, “Lecturer Spikes Thought at Murray State,” Storify, 2013, http://storify.com/lexygross/lecturer-spikes-thought-at-murray-state. ↩
- Leigh L. Wright, “TCLobster Mini-Season Off and Running,” Storify, 2013, http://storify.com/leighlwright2/tclobster-mini-season-off-and-running. ↩
- Michael Lund, America’s Continuing Story: An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850-1900 (Wayne State University Press, 1993), 15 ↩
- Rachel Ihara, Novels on the Installment Plan: American Authorship in the Age of Serial Publication, from Stowe to Hemingway. (ProQuest: 2007). 10. ↩
- Ihara. 12. ↩
- Mallory Jean Tenore, “Author Jennifer Weiner on writers using Twitter, ‘Leave Them Wanting More’,” Poynter, November 10, 2011, http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/152513/author-jennifer-weiner-on-twitter-leave-them-wanting-more. ↩