The Reluctant Editor’s social media code of conduct

What happens when a freelance writer switches teams? This post from a Canadian freelance writer-cum-editor explores some of the challenges of sitting in the editor’s chair. Writers, take heed: this valuable insider info may help smooth the way with the editors in your life.


The great connector

If you’re a writer, journalist, critic, or editor (or if you aspire to be any one of these things), Twitter is a great tool. Maybe the great tool. At least in terms of social networking. More than Facebook or even LinkedIn, Twitter allows professionals from all fields to engage with one another—to “connect,” as PR professionals like to say. These days, news often breaks on Twitter. And following the right sources is a good way to stay on top, and sometimes even ahead, of what people are talking about. It’s a great way to get a sense for what other writers in your market, or your field, are talking and writing about, and to share work and ideas with these people. It’s a great resource.

There’s also something freeing about Twitter. Where Facebook has come to stand in as a kind of mirror for our idealized image of ourselves (all unflattering pictures swiftly un-tagged), and LinkedIn is a pretty straightforward virtual resume, Twitter offers something different. The short, 140-character blasts of humour, insight, info, and pure pith it affords make it seem a little bit disposable. If you tweet, and especially if you tweet a lot, it’s easy to think that nobody sees what you’re doing, and that all your silly jokes and barbs are being filed into a vacuum. And if you’re an editor, this can be a slippery slope.


The frustrations

You see, freelancers can be frustrating. Even annoying. I know because I’ve been, and still am, one. As hustlers, freelancers need to follow up on pitches constantly. It’s not just to see if you’re interested, either. It’s to see if you’re not, so they can float the story idea elsewhere. A follow-up after a week (or even a few days) is usually no bother, especially if their e-mail has slipped to the bottom of your virtual pile. But some will follow up in less than a day, as if they think that responding to their long-lead pitch is your top priority.

There are other stresses dealing with freelancers, too—lazy pitches, canned turns-of-phrase, disrespect for deadlines, prickliness at the idea of accepting (gasp!) edits, to name just a few more. After a while, these things can accumulate. And the idea of griping about them on Twitter starts to seem like a good idea. For one thing, you probably follow, and are followed by, other editors, who may think your exasperated insights are funny or clever. And being perceived as funny and clever is 99% of what Twitter’s about.


The dangers

Chances are, the freelancers you work with follow you (if they have Twitter, which they should). And chances are they can immediately identify some sort of thinly veiled (or not-at-all-veiled) reference you’ve put out there as being a dig at them, and their work. You may think you’re being innocent enough—especially if you’re commenting on something that you’ve noticed is endemic across a lot of writers’ work, and aren’t necessarily trying to single out one given contributor—but it can still be kind of mean. It’s an example of the comforting halfway-anonymity of Twitter backfiring.

Of course, there are ways to engage creatively and earnestly via Twitter and other social media sites. Take this Social Media Code of Conduct as a place to start:


• If you’re going to critique writers on Twitter, be constructive. It’s possible to use your Twitter feed to engage with writers and editors in your capacity as an editor. For example, a little while back New York Times Magazine editor Adam Sternbergh used his feed to offer his sage advice to freelancers, using the hashtag “#betterfreelancer.” He gave advice regarding how to pitch, the difference between an “idea” and a “story,” and so on. He also did the same thing for editors, using the tag “#bettereditor” (naturally). You can try something similar. It’s a good way to vent various frustrations, and best of all, it’s actually helpful. (Luckily, hashtags aren’t trademarked.)


• Establish a set of social media rules with writers. I’ve had writers bug me on Facebook and Twitter regarding the status of their pitches, which is incredibly annoying. In a perfect world, there’d be a loose social contract where everyone involved simply knows this is a bad idea. But alas, this isn’t that perfect world. If you find writers or freelancers tracking you down on social media sites (especially ones you associate more with your private, i.e. non-work life), simply ask them to follow up by e-mail in the future. Don’t even respond to their specific query. Just say something like “Hey, I like to keep work and personal stuff separate, so if you could, please follow up via e-mail.”


• Make sure to personalize your Twitter account. You don’t have to deck it out with shiny animated .gifs or anything. Just make it your own. While keeping in mind that it’ll be associated with your “professional identity,” try not to take it too seriously. Tweet jokes and links to stupid Internet videos. Nothing can be all work, all the time. And sometimes hopping on board a trending Twitter meme is a good way to take a break from all the line edits and queries piling up at your desk.


• Be aware of “Tweet nagging.” Sure, I just made the phrase up. But it’s a thing. Sometimes writers will backhandedly engage with you on social media—favouriting a tweet, liking something of yours on Facebook—as a way of reminding you about something. It can be a little annoying. But it works. Often just having them pop up in your feed makes you think, “Oh yeah, that guy.” This is often enough to spur a (sometimes overdue) response to pitch or story idea.


• Be chummy, but not too chummy. It’s nice, obviously, to be friendly with people. But know that when you’re engaging with freelancers, other editors, or anyone you may at some point have a professional relationship with on Twitter, it’s important not to overstep boundaries. Remember Lester Bangs’ (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) advice to the budding rock journalist in Almost Famous: “These people aren’t your friends.” It can sound a bit cynical, but it’s a helpful mantra for creating (and maintaining) that crucial professional distance.


• Don’t forget to use sources. This is especially true if you run your publication’s Twitter account. Linking to other places’ stories and scoops is great. But there are few Twitter gaffes more obnoxious than a pub linking to a story without mentioning the original source, tacitly claiming credit for it themselves.

Posted on August 15, 2012 at 8:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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