So you want to be an author, and you want to stream your creative process on Twitch. Or, at least, you think you do. The first question you need to be asking yourself is, “Why do I want to stream my writing process on Twitch?” Hopefully, I can give you an answer. But, before I do, let me explain a little about myself and why I’m writing this in the first place.
My name on Twitch is ErikMcKetten. I have been streaming games for almost two years now, mostly a little independent game called “Star Citizen.” You may have heard of it – the largest crowd-funded project in the history of crowd-funding. At the time of writing this article Star Citizen has brought in somewhere close to $129 million in funding, entirely from players like me. This is relevant to this article for one simple reason: I became a streamer because of games, not because of writing.
I’ve been an author for far longer than I’ve been a streamer but only recently did I combine the two. Up until just a few months ago my creative process was entirely internal and not for the eyes of the rest of the world. Like most of you, I imagine, I couldn’t see any benefit to myself, or whatever audience may exist, by broadcasting myself as I scribbled down a first draft or did revisions. However, as creative streaming began to grow in popularity on Twitch, my regular viewers – many of whom knew I was an author – asked if I would try it. So I did.
The immediate benefits I encountered were quite shocking. First of all, instant and mostly positive feedback. My viewers liked to comment on what I wrote. Some of them focus on mundane grammar issues but the vast majority remark on when they like a passage, an idea, or a character. Second, I found if I had an audience I was much more focused on getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible. No more spending an hour staring at the last passage and running it through my head. There were other people watching and waiting for what comes next. Finally, when I went to review my last few paragraphs I would inevitably read it out loud. Many of you might already know that reading your work out loud highlights issues with spelling, grammar, flow, and pacing. And when I knew I was reading it to an audience it made me even more focused on those things. I was doing something I hated: editing as I went along. But it was working and, instead of taking me out of the story, it kept me sharply focused on it.
These are the reasons, then, I say you might want to stream your creative process for yourself. But there is one thing you must remember about streaming: it isn’t for you. It is for the audience. For your viewers. If you don’t keep their attention they will wander elsewhere. If your viewer numbers are low or dwindle over the duration of the stream you will start to question your abilities – not just as a streamer, but also as a writer. So what I am going to do now is give you some tips from the perspective of a gaming streamer on how to keep your audience watching and engaged.
The first rule of streaming is the same as the first rule of writing: know your audience. As writers, generally speaking, we are aiming for two targets: ourselves and our readers. But when we stream our process we are now targeting three: ourselves, our readers, and our viewers. Our viewers are going to have different priorities than the former two.
What are their priorities? By and large, Twitch viewers are looking for something entertaining but unobtrusive. With the exception of the massive gaming streams – usually targeting a younger and more hyperactive audience – you will find most Twitch streamers go for a relaxed attitude. They try to strike a balance between engaging and entertaining without being over the top. They are looking for a golden middle ground where their viewers are active in chat but not aggressive, insulting, or childish.
There are many ways one can go about achieving this. A lot of it boils down to the personality of the streamer and his or her natural charisma with viewers. We as writers tend to be an introverted lot. There is a reason we choose to lock ourselves in semi-dark rooms with words on paper and glowing screens rather than go out and party at the bar downtown. We’re far more comfortable with our own thoughts and the fantasy worlds we create and inhabit. Oddly enough, however, this is also true for dedicated gamers.
So the first thing you need to realize is the audience is just like you. They are here because they are interested in the same things you are. They are talking to you because they identify with you. They are reading your words because they like the way you write them. So it’s your job to be yourself – and be the best yourself you can.
To do this you need to make your stream accessible. Many of the creative writing streams I watched are cluttered with bad graphical design and overburdened with worse audio. Your viewers are here to see and hear one thing: you. They don’t want three panels across the screen, one showing the same chat they are already chatting in, another showing your Twitter links and Instagram profiles. They want what is in that last pane: what you are doing – the words on the page. They want to see you and your words. This is true for gaming streams and it is true for creative streams. Get rid of those extra panels. If you have anything else besides your face and your workspace on screen then make sure it is off to the side or bordering the top and bottom. Make sure it is absolutely necessary it be there. And, above all else, make sure it does not cover or in any way hinder the ability to read those words.
Speaking of looking good, a high-contrast color scheme is greatly appreciated by your viewers. I go with white text on black background myself. I also zoom in a bit so the words are clearly legible. Remember your viewers are watching this after it has been converted to video, compressed, sent across the Internet, uncompressed, and then displayed on their web browser or phone.
A good webcam is a must as well. The standard webcam in use by many Twitch streamers is the Logitech C920 – an affordable 1080p HD camera. It will run you between $60 and $75 on Amazon. A webcam is not necessary for streaming, but your viewers will feel more engaged and connect with you easier if they can see you.
Along with looking good you need to sound good. I watched many streamers using what is known as a “noise gate” or “silence detection” with their microphones. This sounds like a good idea in practice: when properly configured, your microphone only activates when you are speaking. This cuts down on background noise like computer fans, the dogs barking, cars honking outside your window, etc. But the practical result of this theoretical application is something far more annoying than constant background noise: bursts of sudden background noise whenever you speak that then just as suddenly cut off. It is annoying and distracting to your viewer. It is far better, for almost any situation, to run your microphone without a noise gate.
Of course that microphone will sound better if you have a good one. Your average gaming headset microphone is good enough for voice over IP communications but it will come in woefully lacking for broadcast-quality sound. If you watch so-called “professional” streamers, you will see they all tend to use studio-style dynamic microphones like the Audio-Technica AT2020. The Blue Yeti is another microphone often used by beginner streamers – while not great, it is far better quality than most headset microphones. Regardless of which one you choose, you should be prepared to spend some money on a good microphone if you want your viewers to listen to you. The Blue Yeti runs around $100-120 on Amazon, while the AT2020, USB version, starts around $140.
Along with a good microphone comes taking care of your voice. Avoid drinking carbonated or heavily caffeinated beverages unless you also have some simple water to go along with it. Both types of beverages can cause strain on your voice. When I am doing a creative writing stream I keep a large amount of lemon water at hand to compliment whatever else I am drinking. I keep the water at room temperature, or close to it. Lukewarm or room temperature water has been a trick of the trade of all who engage in public speaking and singing since the days of grunting at large black monoliths in the sand. Trust me, if you spend a lot of time reading back your own words, you are going to hurt your voice. Protect it. Don’t try to force your voice into places that aren’t natural for you. People often unconsciously change their voice when they are broadcasting. They try to make it sound more “professional” to themselves. The problem with this is professional broadcasters spend years training their voices. If you try to spend an entire stream speaking with the Mid-Atlantic Accent, for example, you’re going to end the stream sounding less like Walter Cronkite and more like Harvey Fierstein.
Once you have a simple design with good video and audio you need to engage that audience. One thing I recommend is bring along the music that is part of your process. Play it in the background. Do some offline recordings to test the audio levels against your voice. You want the music to be audible to the viewers but not overpowering your normal speaking voice. I also recommend, for creative streams, you avoid music that is too “busy”. As much as I love heavy metal you won’t see me playing it while I’m writing, for example. I stick to ambient electronica, orchestral, and other more relaxed pieces. Jazz is a good one. I’ve found nobody complains about the jazz and swing of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.
Whatever it is, you need to make sure it meets two criteria: it doesn’t conflict with you when you are in the zone and it doesn’t annoy or distract your viewers. Not an easy balance to achieve but it is achievable.
Finally, and arguably the most important aspect of any Twitch stream, is interaction. As writers we are used to getting in the zone and forgetting about the real world for hours at a time. Most of us can get irate if we are interrupted as it breaks our flow. It can take some time to get back there.
But, to keep your audience entertained, you are going to have to break out of the zone on a regular basis. I would say you want to do something besides just writing in silence at least once every fifteen to thirty minutes. Maybe set up a simple goal based on your own speeds: if you can write 1,000 words an hour with little effort, make it a point to stop and read back every 250-500 words. When you take this break first take the time to read over the recent chat and reply to anything pertinent. Then read back your own lines – this will help you stay in the zone, it engages the viewers, and it has the bonus of providing a quick editing pass.
In between these breaks don’t be afraid to vocalize your process. We all have those arguments in our head: “Would she do this? Should I write about that?” Don’t keep those to yourself. Toss them out loud. Sure, the viewers will respond with their own ideas but, and this is important, you don’t have to listen to them. It is not their art, it is yours.
Which brings me to one of the most important aspects of doing this without getting frustrated: make it very clear to your viewers that you are not auditioning editors. This is not the place for them to correct your grammar and spelling mistakes. Their ideas on how to better tell the story should be used for their own stories, not for yours. While constructive criticism is great, it should be reserved only for streams that are dedicated to editing and revising, and even then only if you really want to hear from them.
However, I find it is also good to sometimes take breaks and discuss writing, the written works of other authors, the process, etc., with your viewers. Again, they are there because they are interested in the nitty-gritty of how you do what you do. And your influences as well as your life experience all play into that. I often wrap up my writing streams by talking about authors, my method, and what books I am reading. Through this I have received some great recommendations of authors and books previously unknown to me.
Let’s wrap this up then. You’ve decided you want to write and you want to stream. Doing both isn’t impossible and may, in the end, compliment each other. To get a feel for how to be a successful streamer look to people who stream things besides creative writing. See what they do. Note how they, for the most part, maintain a minimal feel to their graphics and sound. And, while we are all starving artists, note how they use good equipment. It behooves us to do the same. Spend that money up front to get a long-term return with your stream. Remember to think about your audience when you are planning a stream and when you are streaming. To get that positive reinforcement you want, you need to give them a positive environment they want to be a part of. Make sure to take care of your reading voice – your audience wants to hear you and they don’t want you to sound like that old lady at a greasy spoon with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
Hopefully, this has helped you with the basics of how to set up and improve your stream from a creative perspective. Maybe in the future I will try to write something on the technical side of things as well. In the meantime, I invite you to have the courage to change things up and experiment. Nobody is an overnight success at this – so don’t get discouraged. Just like writing it takes lots of practice and constant application. Keep it up, and I hope to see your process on my screen sometime – and feel free to stop in and view mine.