By EVA HOLLAND
I remember the moment I decided to join Twitter. It was September 2008, and I’d been freelancing full time for just a few months, after a couple years of part-time effort. Back then I made my living mostly from blogging for various websites about travel news and trends, and from writing destination travel stories for various Canadian newspapers and magazines. Breaking out of my existing outlets and into newer, bigger ones was a challenge that, so far, I was mostly failing to meet.
Then a friend posted on her blog about something strange and wonderful that had happened to her. She had joined Twitter a few months earlier, had experimented with live-tweeting a tech conference she’d attended in Seattle, and then, one day, her phone rang. Conde Nast Traveler wanted to fly her to New York, put her up in a Manhattan hotel, and have her do her Twitter thing at a travel event the magazine was hosting.
I signed up for Twitter immediately after I read that blog post. Maybe, I thought, Conde Nast Traveler would call me someday soon, too!
It was a shallow, spontaneous decision — a naked attempt to replicate someone else’s good fortune. But it wound up being one of the best — maybe the best — freelancing decisions I’ve ever made.
Twitter grew on me fast. I liked the chatty, casual tone, the snarky hashtags. I liked the way it felt like a social gathering of my professional peers, where we could share our work, talk shop or just swap jokes. Freelancing can be isolating — none of my real-life friends were writers, bloggers or journalists, and I worked in a vacuum most of the time. Twitter helped fill that void.
At first, the benefits I derived from Twitter were largely social, intangible. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that it became my most important tool to chase new, more rewarding and more lucrative assignments.
I’d been working as a full-time contract editor for a travel website — one of the places I’d started out as a blogger back in my earliest days — throughout most of 2009 and 2010. But in late 2010, our corporate parent cut our funding, and my job, like everyone else’s, disappeared.
I was a true freelancer again: not merely self-employed, as I had been throughout the contract, but once again stringing together a series of small assignments and short-term gigs. I had also begun to get bored with travel writing: sure, it was a “dream job,” but too often I felt like it lacked substance, or real-world heft. I was tired of writing about the best beaches in Barbados, or the best hikes in Hawaii.
I spent a few weeks traveling on the cheap in the summer of 2011, camping and hiking alone in a sequence of national parks, reading and thinking, trying to get some clarity on what kind of writer I wanted to be. Eventually I figured out that what I really wanted was to write reported magazine-style features, on a variety of topics: crime, mining, sports, travel and more.
Fine. It was one thing to know that, and another to actually do it. That’s where Twitter came in.
I “leveraged” (sorry) Twitter in two main ways as I attempted to “pivot” (sorry) into the world of narrative journalism.
First, I used it to put my work out into the world — not just in a blanket broadcast, but in a targeted effort to get my stories in front of the right eyeballs. A friend had advised me that the best way into feature writing was, well, to write features — to write the best features that I could, for any outlet that would have me, rather than aiming to write short pieces for bigger outlets and hoping to move up into feature writing from there.
So I experimented with reporting and writing my first few features for free, for a friend’s start-up, an online magazine called Vela. On Twitter, I followed and attempted to befriend the people behind journalism “curation” sites like Longreads, Longform, Byliner and The Browser, and whenever one of my stories was published on Vela, I launched a one-woman PR campaign, tweeting my story to my new contacts.
I figured that on the Internet, a story was a story, whether on The New Yorker’s website or a homegrown blog. If my stuff was good enough, and if I could get the right people reading it, assignments at paying publications would follow.
Meanwhile, I also used Twitter to follow and get to know the writers I admired most, and the editors I aspired to write for. I wanted to be a part of the “longform” community. I tried to strike a balance between the shamelessly self-promotional tweets about my work and something less mercenary: talking about stories I’d read and loved, sharing snippets about my life in the Yukon, joking around with people who cared about the same thing — nonfiction storytelling — that I did.
When I finally worked up the nerve to pitch a small front-of-book piece to an editor at a major U.S. magazine for the first time, he replied: “I enjoy your Twitter! But this pitch seems like small potatoes, frankly. Got any feature ideas?”
Why it worked
I feel uncomfortable, sometimes, when I talk about how I used Twitter to help launch my feature-writing career. It feels so calculated, so cold, when I explain it in such nakedly strategic terms. But the truth is, it worked because it wasn’t pure strategy — it was natural for me to reach out to like-minded folks on social media and nerd out with them over our shared obsessions.
Sure, I looked up editors’ names on magazine mastheads and then followed them on Twitter in hopes of writing for them someday. But when I built relationships with those editors through years of tweeted conversations, it was because of our mutual interests, our shared sense of humor. It wasn’t a process that felt forced or fake.
I think that’s the key to making social media work for you as a freelancer: Above all, you have to be yourself, whether your medium of choice is Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube or, uh, Medium. We’re writers for a reason, and if we let them, our personality and our wit and our sense of the world will come through in our posts to social media.
The beauty of a platform like Twitter is its accessibility: On Twitter, it doesn’t matter where you went to school, the internships you did or didn’t get accepted to, where you live or which media parties you get invited to. The only limiting factor is your own willingness and ability to put yourself out there, and believe that people will like what they see.
Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada's Yukon Territory. Her work has appeared in Outside, Pacific Standard, Smithsonian, Grantland, The Walrus and many other publications in print and online. Find her on Twitter @evaholland.
* From the Fall 2016 SEJournal.