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Turning Social Media into the Grandest Writing Exercise Of All

By Bob 'n' Renee, Flickr CC
By Bob ‘n’ Renee, Flickr CC

Please welcome Maria Ribas [1] as our guest today. Maria is a literary agent at Stonesong and a blogger at Cooks & Books. She helps turn great ideas into beautiful books, and she specializes in cookbooks, design, personal development, business, creativity, and spirituality. She likes those topics so much she also writes about them on her blog, Cooks & Books [1], where she hopes to show writers that running a creative business doesn’t have to be at odds with a quiet and intentional life.

I hope to help fiction writers see that sharing their work online is one of the most powerful ways they can grow creatively and that they already have many of the innate skills needed to stand out in a noisy online world. I believe storytelling is the secret sauce of the interwebs.

Connect with Maria at on Facebook [2] and Twitter [3] and on the Stonesong [4] website.

Turning Social Media into the Grandest Writing Exercise Of All

I specialize in platform-driven nonfiction, which is a very different beast than fiction. Or at least it used to be. In the past few years, there has been a shift toward platform-building in the fiction world [5], and I know this trend has left many a novelist frustrated and discouraged.

So what I want to tell you is this: as a novelist, you have a secret advantage in the online world.

I recently signed a new author—a food blogger—who has over 500,000 Facebook fans. People love her recipes, and they frequently come back to her site and newsletter for more of them.

But on Facebook, less than 5% of her fans are liking or clicking on her posts. That’s because recent algorithm changes to Facebook and Instagram have throttled the reach of posts, meaning that only a tiny percentage of the people who once clicked “like” on your page will ever see a certain post.

In today’s online world, you need to understand the algorithm if you want to get results from social media without the usual frustration and wasted effort. Luckily, at Facebook’s recent F8 conference [6], they explained exactly what makes their algorithm tick and how to make it work for you.

And it all comes down to one thing: storytelling.

Story matters

Social media is nothing more than storytelling. Very-short storytelling. Let’s call it micro-storytelling, if you’ll humor me! It’s sharing snippets of stories with readers, but this time, you have a few more tools in your bag of tricks. You have images and videos, and they can open up your range of creativity and allow you to create vivid worlds and emotions for your reader.

Nobody does this better than novelists.

That’s why I sometimes have to coach my nonfiction authors to embrace storytelling on their social media and blogs, because many of them have become so efficient at posting new recipes or sharing helpful links that they forget that emotion is important, too. They become just a content-sharer, rather than storyteller, because they’ve convinced themselves that no one is interested in the stories of their day-to-day lives—their readers are just there for the listicles and action items.

But in the writing community, we know that our stories matter. It’s deeply ingrained in our sense of purpose, and we live and breathe the truth that no story should go untold.

The problem, then, is in unleashing innate storytelling skills on a platform that feels not at all like sitting down to write a book.

So let’s work together to bridge this gap and learn to think about social media a bit differently. Let’s toss the post templates right out the window, and instead, approach each post like the scene it is—each one builds to create the big picture of who you are as an author and as a person.

The importance of variety

We know that scenes in a novel should vary in tone and purpose. In the same way, online posts shouldn’t be identical or plod after one another in an endless scroll of content. We know that formulaic novels don’t work—why would formulaic social media work?

Instead, let’s walk through a process that will help you push for variety, for highs and lows, for exposition and action, and for introducing a jumble of characters to your online story.

Here is my 3-step process to help you turn social media into the grandest writing exercise of all:

Step #1: Post Analysis

Let’s put our editing hats on for a moment and pull out our red pencils: we’re going to read the sum of our social media posts like a manuscript. With the fresh eyes of an editor, look at your page like a new visitor would—what do you see?

Is your feed a long list of posts that have the same structure and purpose? For instance, are you only sharing helpful links with an image and a sentence or two about the link? Are you only sharing long paragraphs without images? Are you only sharing funny memes or cute panda videos? Are you only sharing excerpts from your WIP?

For now, just jot down what types of posts you’ve been leaning on. We’ll come back to this.

Step #2: Post Research

Here’s where your market research skills come in. We all know that to write in a genre we have to read in that genre. So for the genre of social media, let’s read the best work that exists out there.

Start by identifying 2-4 writers in your genre who have authentic and engaged social media platforms [7]. Then, line-by-line (well, post-by-post!), annotate what’s working for them and why. What are readers responding to? What posts are getting the most likes and comments? Are the posts with personal stories of their daily lives connecting with readers? Are the manuscript sneak-peeks getting traction? Are the goofy photos hitting the spot? What balance of all of these types of content is working?

Step #3: Post Plotting

Now, compare the difference between your current posting habits and those of the writers you researched. Where can you fill in gaps? What are your strengths, and what are the things you can offer that are unique?

From there, plot out a mix of posts that you’d like to aim for. Just as with a story, you want to weave everything into a unified whole that conveys the meaning and mission of who you are. Deep emotional moments should be balanced by light or mundane moments, and your posts should be sprinkled with helpful information that serves fellow writers. Usually a mix of inspiring, entertaining, and informative content is a good place to start.

This might look like:

One final note: I know it may seem forced at first to focus on balancing these types of content, but after a few weeks, it will feel natural (and hopefully fun!). Just like with writing, once you master the key conventions, you’ll learn to play within those confines, and even break out of them now and then.

You’ll get quicker at it, too—with social schedulers like CoSchedule and Buffer, you don’t have to spend every waking moment with your face to a screen. But pushing yourself to master and enjoy the creative challenge of a new medium can help you flex your writing muscles in new and exciting ways.

Just never forget that you, the writer, are in charge of building this social media story. Your voice is what people come to your long publications (books) for, and your voice is what people come to your short publications (posts) for. Everything you publish, online or in print, should stay true to your writing voice, and it should tell the story that’s inside of you right now—whether it’s a snippet of daily life or a novel about criminal injustice.

How do you build your social media story? Please share your stories of how you choose to balance what you share.