As a co-host of the show Radiolab, Latif Nasser is used to an audience that numbers in the millions. However, he suspects that his biggest narrative blockbuster was not an episode of Radiolab or even his Netflix show Connected. It was a Twitter thread.
On the day before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Nasser published a gripping series of connected tweets that was seen by 8 million people, tens of thousands of whom then liked or retweeted it. Tweet by tweet, he explained how the deaths of plankton in the Cretaceous period gave rise to fertile soils that influenced where, millions of years later, enslaved people in the United States were forced to live and work. When their descendants fought for and won their civil rights, it influenced voting patterns to this day.
Nasser had pitched the story to Radiolab and Netflix, but it never quite worked. “It was burning a hole in my brain and I needed to do something with it,” he says. “I felt like I could make it my own.”
Few Twitter threads reach millions—and not all reporters will decide they’re worth the effort and forethought. But viral tweet threads have meaning beyond the number of people that click on a story or buy a book. Well-crafted threads reflect a reporter’s genuine curiosity or willingness to share something they’ve learned, and help to establish expertise. They can also propel reporting work to new audiences, provide mentorship, or set the record straight. Twitter is an of-the-moment medium, but crafting compelling threads keeps readers scrolling for the long haul.
Get Your Ducks in a Row
Twitter launched threads in 2017, around the same time as it expanded its character limit from 140 to 280. By that time, though, plenty of people were already routinely stringing tweets together. One of the first to do so was the late journalist Dan Baum, who in 2009 dished about losing a job at The New Yorker. Reporters have been experimenting with connected tweets ever since.
Before composing a thread, think about whether threads make sense for you and your account. Some reporters don’t have the time or temperament for drawn-out conversations online. Others write for outlets with fairly conservative social media policies that may limit online activity. Writing threads can also open posters up to contentious discourse—and journalists from marginalized groups may face especially high personal risks.
For those who yearn to tweet heavily and sequentially, though, master threaders have tips. Determining your thread’s audience will help you present information effectively, says freelance journalist Kamala Thiagarajan, who is based in Madurai, India. She assembled a cavalcade of clips of hyperlocal journalism she produced for the likes of the BBC and NPR to prove to early-career journalists that it’s possible to base a thriving career outside of your country’s most cosmopolitan cities or biggest media hubs. “If you look at each of the little blurbs, geography features a lot,” Thiagarajan says. Many of the stories were reported in Madurai, but for others, she noted her travel time, an important consideration when money is tight.
Truly stellar threads can often speak for themselves. But journalists may benefit from fleshing out their Twitter bios to encourage readers to take their tweets more seriously.
Make sure what you have to say merits more than one tweet, says Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. If your goal is to get people to click on an article, a standalone tweet with a link and a compelling reason to click can be enough, she says.
But threads about big pieces can be helpful and engaging if they illuminate your reporting process or give additional insights. For instance, an audience of climate-policy experts or climate activists is going to want links to white papers and historical reporting that they don’t have time to source on their own, says Sarah Sax, a freelance journalist and current climate-justice reporting fellow at High Country News. The trove of documents Sax amasses during reporting become Twitter fodder for specialists, other journalists, and anyone interested in digging deep on climate news. For instance, Sax’s thread about the thorny business of forests’ contribution to climate calculations included an article published in 2000, a report from a nongovernmental organization, and other reporters’ pieces in Mongabay and Scientific American.
Truly stellar threads can often speak for themselves. But journalists may benefit from fleshing out their Twitter bios to encourage readers to take their tweets more seriously. “Before I’ll forward a thread, I often look at somebody’s bio,” Helmuth says. She encourages journalists to make sure that their 160-character Twitter biography establishes their expertise and points to an employment or education history. “Some kind of signal that you’re not a bot,” Helmuth says. If you are comfortable doing so, choose a photo of yourself as your profile photo, she adds.
Insightful, authoritative threads can, in turn, also buoy credibility. At one time, Sax pinned a thread about her work to the top of her profile page that explained her reporting philosophy in the larger context of the climate beat. “I hoped that if people came to my Twitter bio, they could click on it and think, ‘this is a comprehensive picture rather than just a single story,’” Sax says.
Helmuth uses her credibility online to give back to the journalism community by tweeting advice, as in her memorable thread about how to negotiate raises, promotions, and salary. She considers threads to be a series of bullet points that are thematically related. Done well, she says, a thread gives readers “little bursts of insight.”
Your Fledgling Thread
It’s rare that a fully formed thread springs from your keyboard on the fly. As with any writing, it pays to be sharp and concise, and even to give threads a semblance of structure so that one idea flows into the next. Don’t just type your thread in Twitter, advises Krishna Sharma, a 2021 AAAS Mass Media Fellow and assistant social media manager for Kaiser Health News. Instead, “fire up the Google Doc,” he says. Each tweet should fit into Twitter’s 280-character limit. “There’s no room for filler,” he says. “Brevity can be really hard.” (Turning to Google Docs also lowers the risk that the thread will get lost if you, say, accidentally close your browser window.)
That 280 number is a little misleading. Emojis count as two characters, as does each character in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Multimedia such as GIFs or images use zero characters. When you paste a URL into Twitter, its length gets standardized to 23 characters, even if the link is shorter than that to begin with.
Once you know the ground rules, you can write your thread in any order. The first tweet is like a lede—it’s meant to draw readers in. In a 2021 study, a team of researchers and journalists from Columbia University and New York University found that reporters and scientists often used time pegs at the top of successful threads. Two people involved with the study, Katy Ilonka Gero, a PhD candidate in computer science at Columbia University, and Tim Requarth, a contributing writer for Slate and lecturer in science and writing at New York University, recommend starting with a timely, relatable story or detail; including something unexpected; and avoiding jargon.
The cardinal rule when writing the body of a thread is to include one idea per tweet.
The first tweet in Latif Nasser’s viral thread from 2020 combines all those tips. Its very first sentence is, “The US election is tomorrow.” He goes on with the relatable, “if you, like me, are tired of horse-race-style reporting,” then drops a teaser about “an ancient force influencing the election.” (That force is plankton that died during the Cretaceous period, but it’s not time to introduce those words yet.) He ends the first tweet with a promise: Reading this thread will enrich your experience of watching election-night coverage. He adds the word “THREAD” at the end so readers will know to keep scrolling. That first tweet, Nasser says, “is doing a lot of work. It’s very nuts-and-bolts.”
The cardinal rule when writing the body of a thread is to include one idea per tweet. As with full-blown articles, narrative, analogies, and cliffhangers will keep readers engaged. Ilonka Gero and Requarth’s research shows that threads also contain more conversational language than traditional science writing. Benchmarks can also help readers follow along: Sharma numbered each tweet in his thread about how a grassroots movement in rural Georgia prevented a quarry from being built near a Black community, based on a story he published in The Bitter Southerner. Those numbers can help give readers an indication of progress, and avoid confusing those who stumble across a tweet that’s partway through the thread.
Threads, like articles, can lose readers along the way. But studding them with multimedia such as images and video is a sure-fire way to keep the audience engaged. Freelance journalist Ferris Jabr, who frequently publishes threads about the natural world, recommends being rigorous about vetting images and videos, securing permission to use them when necessary, and crediting their creators. To ensure that a stunning video of cell division was legitimate before tweeting it, he interviewed the video’s creator and sent the video to eight experts. When licensing information is unclear, he contacts photographers directly. Jabr’s ideal is to credit multimedia in the first tweet “so it’s as prominent as possible.”
For more context, Jabr recommends tagging creators’ Twitter accounts within an image and adding image descriptions known as “alternative (or alt) text” to photos. This not only attributes images to their source but also makes them accessible to people who are blind or who have low vision and use screen readers. Speaking of accessibility, use emojis and GIFs in moderation, if at all, because they are disruptive for assistive-technology users.
Even visually appealing threads have their limits, though. The median length in Ilonka Gero and Requarth’s research was 14 tweets, with most between 5 and 20. That works out to only about 564 words. Go only “as long as you have a thing that you feel can draw someone in and keep nourishing them,” Nasser says. When you hit the last tweet, don’t just trail off. Ilonka Gero and Requarth recommend returning to your lede and putting it in a larger context, pointing to other resources, or asking readers to take action. For that action-taking option, look to your newsroom’s social media policy for guidance on what’s appropriate for someone in your position.
If time and resources allow, decide whether you want to run a thread by a trusted editor or colleague. Nasser’s “core team” of coworkers perfected his thread’s first tweet, and he appreciated their advice on tone and content in a thread about race, politics, civil rights, and voting-rights restrictions.
Part of the point of Twitter threads is certainly to spark valuable discussions in the comments and in the quote retweets. But you don’t need to engage with every response, and it helps to set boundaries that protect your time and your mental health. Helmuth hits the heart-shaped “like” button when someone makes a positive contribution. “If somebody is looking for a fight, I ignore them. If they’re really obnoxious, I mute them,” she says. Sax blocks and reports users posting blatant misinformation to Twitter, but if someone disagrees with her in a respectful manner, she may use direct messaging to offer an email address to continue the discussion off of the Twitter platform.
Sometimes journalists want to use a thread to point out inaccurate or stigmatizing copy or center voices that were omitted from a story. Make sure your criticisms are specific, says Emily Johnson, a digital editor, social media manager, and consultant specializing in disability-related content who frequently uses threads for those purposes. She advises doing your homework to figure out who developed the problematic content and directing your thread to them. If the person ignores feedback and deliberately makes repeated offenses, Johnson recommends tagging a superior or their organization.
Don’t always expect a thread to drive book sales or story traffic. For his one viral thread, Nasser says he can point to others that flopped.
Establish the basis for your credibility on the subject early. Johnson has disclosed her career experience and medical diagnoses in some threads. Giving up her privacy is “a depressing choice I shouldn’t have to make,” she says, but it’s necessary because workers with disability and chronic illness are underrepresented in the media and so misrepresentations continue.
If you are anxious about speaking up, recognize and confront the sources of your anxiety before composing a thread. Your life experience and the communities you belong to affect your professional identity, Johnson says, and it’s not a bad thing to acknowledge that. Her experience as a social media manager gave her ombudsperson-like practice that prepared her to be an advocate. She encourages journalists from any marginalized community to speak up, regardless of their experience level. “My journalism school didn’t teach anything on how to fight discrimination of any kind,” she says. “I would have liked to be less scared early on.”
Sometimes threads are simply about meeting new people and making conversation. Toronto-based writer Carlyn Zwarenstein has had luck using threads to maximize the visibility of her work. The Walrus recently published an excerpt of her latest book and invited her to compose a guest thread on their official account, which the publication copyedited before tweeting. “It was an opportunity for me to talk to a huge audience that I normally wouldn’t have had,” she says.
Don’t always expect a thread to drive book sales or story traffic, though. For his one viral thread, Nasser says he can point to others that flopped. Though most of the journalists I spoke with for this story took 10 minutes to an hour to compose threads, Nasser’s took a few days’ work. “It doesn’t pay and that kind of sucks,” which is probably why some journalists choose to focus their writing efforts elsewhere, he says. “But the nice thing about it is there are no gatekeepers,” and if there’s a story you’re itching to tell, you can probably find a way to tell it.
Threads, after all, reflect a genuine impulse to share knowledge about the world or about journalism. Their real rewards are not likes and followers but intangibles: the satisfaction of mentoring early-career journalists, the frisson of fielding a reader’s thoughtful question, or the gradual process of mastering brevity. Not bad for 280-character clumps.
Carmen Drahl is a freelance science journalist covering chemistry, life sciences, plastic waste, and food. Her work can be found in Science News, Chemical & Engineering News, Forbes, Scientific American, and DCist. Peruse her threads on Twitter @carmendrahl.