12 July 2020

Writers: Get Thee on Twitter

When I told Leigh Lundin that Twitter is a great place for writers, he balked and then told me to write that story.

When Leigh gives me marching orders, it’s always a fascinating journey.

Writers often use Twitter to promote their work. I use Twitter to hear stories because writers are addicts. All of us. We are addicted to people. We watch people in cafes, in our homes and on the streets. We listen carefully to the stories people tell us and, as readers, we read stories. Even if the article or book isn’t about people’s stories - we ferret them out anyway.

Can anyone tell stories within the restrictions of Twitter’s 280 characters? I would have once answered that it was unlikely but, after a few years on Twitter, I’m now of the opinion that the best stories are often told in 280 characters - or less.

The story of the this time is COVID-19, and what you read on Twitter is very different than the news.

In the news - online, print, TV and radio - the infection rates and deaths are presented and often experts discuss the issues. You can find these articles and even follow these experts on Twitter.

However, many of the important stories of COVID-19 aren’t in the numbers - they are stories from the frontlines. Not just the stories by doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, but the stories of patients who find themselves fighting this virus.

There are stories of worry and outright fear, frustration and courage, advocacy and defeat.

When people write about these times, I hope these many voices find their way into those books. I understand that some people prefer the view from 30,000 feet - looking at the numbers and the spread, the policies and the politics.

For me - and I hope for many of us - the real stories are those of people. Each and every one has a world they live in, people they love and who love them. The tragedy of COVID-19 rests in these stories, whether they are healthcare workers putting their lives on the line, living away from their families to stay at the bedsides of patients or whether they are patients with  COVID-19 and are battling against it from the other side of the bed - these are the stories that matter.

A tragedy is often defined in two ways:

1. An event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.

2. A play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character.

I prefer the latter definition: great suffering is only understood from the perspective of one person - the nuances, the thoughts, the feelings, the impact on others  - and life is not a play but each and every person is a main character in their own life.

Twitter has helped me understand the lives of those in the United States during COVID-19 - those who are pushing for opening up the economy and get back to work - to return to normal. Some people use the hashtag #COVIDIDIOT for these people, arguing that they are ignoring the science and putting people’s lives at risk. However, if you read their stories, you will see that these people often live on the margins, have no savings and have no way of feeding their family without working. They risk losing their homes, being evicted even from rental homes, and their fear of homelessness and hunger seems more real to them, more tangible, than a virus they can’t see. They are not idiots. They are people struggling. 

There are scientists using their graphs, their studies, trying so hard to educate us all on the dangers of this virus, the need for measures such as masks to limit its spread and save lives. They are struggling too, trying - often for the first time - to turn their academic understanding into something that everyone can grasp.

There are doctors and nurses, often posting pictures of the scars on their faces from masks, telling us how they have no more ICU beds and begging us all to stay home and wear masks.

There are politicians, giving their story of caution or throwing caution to the wind, with policies they hope will help.

This time is a complicated time. Everyone has a perspective and a story.

Part of Leigh’s marching orders were to also explain how to DO Twitter.

Every story has a main character and on Twitter, you are your main character. Whatever you try to say or do, people will figure you out - so I suggest you simply be the person on Twitter that you are in real life.

In fact, do all of Twitter the same way you do real life. If Twitter is a place you spend some time in, then follow people because you find them interesting, just like you would invite the most interesting people for dinner.

Like a dinner party, where you listen more than you speak, on Twitter, read more than you tweet. Read people’s comments, go to their profiles and read their tweets if you like what the say but also if you don’t.

If you interact with someone and like them, treat it like your own private dinner party and enjoy. If you have an interaction that is unpleasant - also treat it like your own dinner party and don’t put up with it - block or mute them and carry on. Or better yet - if you know there could be trouble because the views are so upsetting to you, then just read and learn.

So, my advice? If you are feeling you need to hear the stories of our times - go on Twitter.


  1. Wow. Well done, Mary.

    I twice spent time on Twitter, once following the rescue of miners in Chile, and again when Curiosity explored its little corner of Mars. It was one-way… I didn't lend anything except an ear.

    But the way you explain it makes it interesting far less than the vanity venue I picture. Your dinner party analogy makes it much more interesting. Thank you, Mary. You're very persuasive.

  2. I've been on Twitter a whille but rarely post anything except to comment postings by others. Time to take a more proactive approach with my books. Thanks for the prodding.

  3. Leigh - glad you're intrigued. While COVID rages on, we will have few opportunities to people watch and have in person convos with strangers. This might be a great substitute. As for a vanity venue - some people use Twitter to promote themselves but, quite frankly, some people use dinner parties to promote themselves too. Lol!
    O'Neil - hope you enjoy your forays into Twitter.

  4. Loved this post, Dr. F! I used to use Twitter mostly as my real-time local news feed. It's still unbeatable for that purpose (e.g. "Is there still a 2-sailing wait at the ferry terminal?") I remember the day I heard that there was a major fire burning downtown; I turned immediately to Twitter, where I could watch dramatic video, shot live by neighbours who were filming from their balconies across the street!

    I love your Twitter advice:

    "Like a dinner party, where you listen more than you speak, on Twitter, read more than you tweet."

    What I mostly like to tweet about are STORIES I hear. Stories from my blog readers. Stories from the front lines of medicine. Stories from ER waiting rooms about life as a patient. Plus fact-checking political tweets from journalists like Daniel Dale (@ddale8 - ex-Toronto Star, now CNN in Washington). The best health journalists on Twitter (e.g. The Globe and Mail's Andre Picard - @picardonhealth) already know that compelling stories start and end every solid healthcare column.

    The stories out there are compelling. We find them in 280 characters on Twitter...

  5. Carolyn - thank you for explaining Twitter so well!

  6. I enjoy Twitter - it's where I go when I want to find out what's happening RIGHT NOW. I also find the best memes there. And occasionally, I produce a few. I recently posted the following about what's going on with COVID-19 in South Dakota:
    The South Dakota DOH PSA on coronavirus doesn't mention mention masks or social distancing any more: It says “Cover your face when coughing or sneezing” and “Avoid close contact.” Same on website. Seems they're editing/censoring info for the public to match Noem's rhetoric. Fun.

    Sad, isn't it?

  7. Devin Nunes's Mom12 July, 2020 11:18

    There's my son's cow... 😶

  8. Makes sense. I guess I thought of Twitter as a place for announcements and celebs, but yes, I can picture a dinner party. Thanks.


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