Friday, June 4, 2010

Twitter 101 for Writers, Part 1


(This is the first -- and only -- part of what was intended to be a multipart post on mastering Twitter.  Unfortunately, it ran away with me, and the specific details of Twitter's interface and operation moved on before I could continue it.  I've left it up, as there may still be a few nuggets of useful information, but in general, if you're hear, move on to my later single-part post on the same subject.  Find it at )
Probably you've heard that for a writer to succeed these days, it's necessary to actively promote yourself on-line.  You've heard (and I'm pretty sure that, at least in some cases, this is true) that publishers will check a writers on-line presence -- their web page, number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers -- before taking on a new project.

It can be an overwhelming prospect, and it's far too big a subject for one blog post, but I'm going to try today to help you with one small part of it: establishing a presence on Twitter.

Why did I pick Twitter?  Well, of all the on-line options of potential PR value, I think it has the steepest learning curve.

Facebook is very easy to get into.  Yes, it gets complicated later, dealing with all the privacy options, filtering out all the noise, and navigating the ever changing user interface.  But in the beginning, it's a snap, part of why it's so popular.

Blogs or web pages?  These can both be complicated, but for getting started, there are a number of instant ways to set yourself up with a pre-fab blog or web page.  Anybody can get on-line in about five minutes, and most of that is just filling in your account information into forms.

Twitter is even easier to sign up for.  All you need is a name and an email address.  The process is very quick.    But when you're through, you find yourself looking at a bare bones page with not much on it.  Lots of stuff about messages and following people, but you have no messages, nobody to follow, and not much guidance as to what to do next.  (By the way, if you haven't signed up for a Twitter account yet, DON'T DO IT NOW!  I'll have some tips later you'll want to read before taking that step.)

Twitter can be confusing and overwhelming for new users.  Things seem poorly organized.  There are no easy menus or commands to help you along.  The messages are full of strange shorthand, and the users have strange customs among themselves.  Even if you do figure out how to follow others and find the messages, it can quickly bury you in information.  It's like trying to drink from a fire-hose.  So many message, so fast!  How to pull any meaning out of the noise?

But in my opinion, Twitter is worth the trouble.  It's much more a "broadcast" medium than Facebook, one that lets you potentially reach a lot of people you'd never talk to otherwise.  It's instant, immediate, and feels personal in a way that Facebook or a blog or web page don't.  It's potentially the best single promotional tool a writer can have.

Okay, let me say here that I don't claim to be a Twitter expert.  I've only been using it about a year.  As of this writing, I have just over 700 Twitter followers (and thanks to following my advice, my cat has about 400 followers!).  This is a fair number, but it doesn't make me a major Twitter personality by a long shot.

There are major Twitter marketing gurus everywhere (you can't avoid them, one drawback of Twitter) who will claim to get you 65-zillion followers instantly, and they might be right.  There are all sorts of fancy marketing programs and tools to help you get followers.  But near as I can tell, mainly what they do is funnel money to their creators and assist you in becoming annoying on a really massive scale.

What I'm talking about is a process of going for quality over quantity, of having followers (and following people) where you have some actual commonality and hope of a connection.  I'm talking about engaging people rather than impaling them on a meat-hook.

Okay, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here.  I'll start by assuming you know little or nothing about Twitter beyond the name.  First question, what is it?


Like Facebook, Twitter is a social networking service.  It's a way of connecting with and communicating with other people.  Potentially a lot of other people, though that doesn't seem to have been the original intent.

The thing to know about Twitter is that, unlike Facebook, it's very simple and bare-bones (though Twitter has been adding new layers of sophistication lately, it's still pretty Spartan).  The original idea, far as I can tell, was that it was intended intially for use by people texting on their cell phones.  That's the reason for one of the signature features/limitations of Twitter, the 140 character message limit.  140 characters is the length of a cell-phone text message.

Lots of people still use Twitter from their phones, but you don't have to use a phone all the time, or at all.  I don't text and don't own a smart-phone yet, so I've never used Twitter from a phone, only from computers (and occasionally from my Amazon Kindle, but that's another story).  I'm eager to add phone access to my twitter tools, but it just hasn't happened yet.

Okay, so you sign up for a Twitter account.  This gives you an empty Twitter page on the web, and a Twitter name.  If you go to someone's Twitter page on the web you'll see a little basic information about them if they've entered it (known as a "profile"), some statistics about their usage, and a list of their recent messages, known as "tweets."  Not "twits."  Not "posts."  "Tweets."  Sounds silly at first, but you'll get used to it.


A Twitter name or handle is the way by which you and your Tweets will be identified on Twitter.  As so, it's important.  As a writer, it's double-important, as it's also how people have to associate your Twitter presence back to your writing.  That can be trickier than it seems.  We'll go into that in a bit.

Basic fact here, when used in a message, Twitter names normally have an "@" in front of them.  The "@" serves many functions on Twitter, but most commonly it means "at" or "attention," often both at once.  Example:  My Twitter handle is "JStevenYork", but you'd normally you'd type that as "@JStevenYork".


Just talked to @JStevenYork about some novel projects he has in the works.

In this example, the use tells people who you're talking about, that they're on Twitter, and that people can check them out or follow them using that handle, all without interrupting the message itself.

@JStevenYork Great talking with you about those novel projects.

Putting the name at the beginning this way says "Attention Steve, message follows!"  Be sure you're aware.  This isn't private email.  Anyone can read!  It's just to draw my attention to the message to be sure I'll see it.  It's more like a conversation at a cocktail party than an email.

Thanks for the comments! @JStevenYork @BadAgentSydney @SinkTrap

A lot of thanking and acknowledgments go on on Twitter.  More on that later.  But know that it's frequent to see lists like this.  Given the limited space in Tweets, it's customary do leave out the separating comma.  Every space counts!


The obvious thing is just to use your name or byline.  That's what I do.  But there are plenty of reasons not to do that, especially if your name is longer.  Why is the length significant?  After all, it doesn't come out of your 140 characters.

No, but it comes out of everyone else's 140 characters, and for PR purposes, you want your Twitter handle repeated as often and in as favorable a context as possible.  You want to not only be a person who talks, but one who is repeated and talked about.

Which brings us to another important (yet unofficial) convention of Twitter, the "Retweet."  Retweeting is simply repeating some else's Tweet, with attribution to the source, the source being the original sender as identified by their Twitter handle.  Example:

RT @JStevenYork I'm thinking it's time for a vigorous unmanned Moon program!

or with a comment added:

Good idea! RT @JStevenYork I'm thinking it's time for a vigorous unmanned Moon program!

As you can see, my 12 character handle comes out of the 140 characters anybody else has to Retweet my post and add (hopefully positive) comments.  If my initial post is longer than 127 characters (140 less my handle plus a space), then they're going to have to edit or truncate it to fit it into a Retweet, and they won't have ANY room for comment.

My handle is already fairly long, but what if I wrote under the name Alexander Colorado Okefenokee the III?

@AlexanderColoradoOkefenokeetheIII  drops a potential Retweeter down to 105 characters before they've even started.  That's definitely time to look for a shorter name.  @Okefenokee would be better and still recognizable.  But as are many, if not most, one-word or common-name handles, it's taken.  You could go more descriptive, @OkefenokeeWrites, but that's getting long again, or creative like @AOkieWriter (fictional TV mystery novelist Richard Castle posts on Twitter as @WriteRCastle).  You if you write series books or characters, you might also mine that for potential recognizable Twitter names.

In fact, you may well want more than one Twitter name.  For example, you might want one for yourself, one for each book series, or series character.  You might also want an account for your public writer persona, and a "secret identity" just to chat casually and anonymously with your close friends and family.  Be aware that you'll need a unique email address for each account, but with Hotmail, Gmail, and the many free and pay places you can get an email address, this isn't hard.

So, the three main things you want in a Twitter name:

1. Short, distinctive, and recognizable

2. If possible associates with your writing name and/or your work.

3. Disassociates you from well-known individuals with similar names, or from unintended meanings (so if you have an open pseudonym writing "as Sam Holeman," your Twitter handle should not be @assholeman).

Since we're talking about associating your Twitter activity with your work, let's talk about your Profile.


Your profile is the mini-biography and picture that appear on your Twitter page.  When one of your Tweets (or Retweets) catches someones attention, or if you follow someone and they're looking to see if you're worth following back, this is what they'll see.  IT IS VERY IMPORTANT!

First thing is, put a picture up there, and any picture is probably better than none.  If you don't put a picture, the little default icon brands you as a newbie.  At best you'll get ignored, at worst you'll get targeted by scammers and abusers.  So get SOMETHING up there quick.

Probably what you want is a head or face shot of you, with as much background cropped out as possible.  Most of the time, people will be looking at a tiny icon version of the picture, so a full-length shot, a head-and-body portrait, or a picture with a lot of extraneous stuff around the edges isn't going be recognizable.  Don't upload a postage-stamp sized picture.  Twitter will shrink it down to an icon for you.  And don't upload a 12 mega-pixel shot straight from your new camera.  Go for something mid-sized, 600-800 pixels high is good.  The reason for the larger picture is that visitors to your Twitter page have the option of seeing the full-sized picture.  Let them get a good look at you (or, as we'll see, your book).

Yes, many writers also use a book cover or a cropped version of their cover art (often featuring a lead character) as a profile picture.  Nothing wrong with that, though it can cause some people to confuse the writer with the character they write about, which can be scary at times.

Some people use professionally done cartoons or caricatures of themselves.  Again, that's okay if they're well done and recognizable.

I've heard it said that you should change your profile picture often, and I don't think that's a bad idea, but I find it jarring if the new picture isn't recognizable as the same person as the last picture.  That little picture is your FACE on Twitter.  Putting on a new mask every 15 minutes is at best off-putting, and at worst, it causes people who like you to lose you in the noise.

You also get 160 (Why not 140?  I don't know.) characters for a brief profile.  Try to sound interesting.  Be sure to tell people that you write, that you're published (assuming you are), and what kind of things you write (genre, target-age, etc.).  You don't need to include a web address, as Twitter has a separate entry for that.

Be sure to enter a web address!  If you don't have a blog or web page, get one and at least put your basic information and publication history there.  Putting a web address on the profile page creates a clickable link on your Twitter page.  Anyone who clicks that link should IMMEDIATELY see that you are a writer, what you write, and easily be able to find what you've published and where to buy it.  Don't hide this information (or links to some) down the page. This is your primary sales tool once you've got people interested in your Tweets!  Don't waste it!


You won't see anybody else's messages unless you do one of two things: visit their Twitter page, or "follow" them.  A "follow" is like a subscription.  Once you follow them, everything that person posts will show up in your twitter-stream.

And nobody will see your posts unless they visit your Twitter page or choose to follow you.  That's part of what makes Twitter intimidating to get into.  You start out cold and lonely.  The fun comes later.

Don't worry about getting followers yet.  Worry about finding good people to follow.  Where to start?  Well, start by seeing if you have friends and associates on Twitter.  Go to your Twitter page, use the search function, and start entering names.  But if you find someone, don't follow immediately, especially if the name isn't an unusual one.  There are so many people on Twitter than all the vaguely common names are duplicated many times.

I you think a search result may be a friend, go to their Twitter page.  Check their picture, bio, recent posts, and web-page link if any to be sure it's really your friend.  Then follow them.

Once you've followed some friends, presumably they'll follow you back, and you're up and running.  That's step one.

Step two is to follow some strangers, or at least casual acquaintances and associates.  As a writer, start with other writers doing work similar to yours or working in your genre.  Also look for editors, publishers, magazines and if you want, agents, working in your area too.

Follow them, and maybe they'll follow you back.  Don't read to much into it if they do.  Some people routinely  follow anyone who follows them.  It doesn't necessarily mean you're BFF's, or even that they'll ever read your posts.  Be nice if they contact you, and don't act like a creepy stalker.

But okay, here's the secret force-multiplier.  When you follow these folks, go to their Twitter page, look over on the right for the number of people following them, and click on the "followers" under it.  This will give a list of the people that they follow.  Since you already share some interests and commonality, some of the people they follow are certainly people you'll want to follow as well.

How to identify?  Jump on over to their Twitter page.  Check their bio and web page link.  Check their recent posts and see if they're talking enough business (or at least about some random thing you're interested in) to be worth the follow.

Once you've added a number of new followers, it's time to check their follow lists, and leapfrog yourself across the wonderful work of connections that is Twitter.

How many people to follow for starters?  Don't get carried away.  No more than 50-100 people to start.  Then get your virtual sea-legs before adding more than a few more.

Time to go back to your own Twitter page.  There it is, a scrolling list of every post by everyone you've followed!  Congratulations!  You've opened the fire hose!

Overwhelmed?  Too much to read?  Too much to process?  Don't worry, this post has gone on too long, but we're not through yet.


Next post we'll show you how to find software that will help sort, organize, and filter the flow of message on Twitter, and how to use Twitter's own features to do more of the same.

We'll teach you the basic conventions of Twitter society, and how to use them to get followers and develop connections with your followers.

We'll also tell you how to deal with the people who follow you.  Should you follow them back?  Should you not?  When should you block them from access to your account completely?  We'll warn you about some of the bad-apples on Twitter that you should watch out for and avoid (or at least not encourage).

Finally, we'll deal with the thing that seems to most vex many of my writer friends on Twitter: posting.  What to post?  How to deal with "I don't have anything to say" syndrome.  When to post.  When not to post.  How to promote your work without driving followers away.  And why you should post, even if you don't feel like talking, and even if you aren't sure if anyone is listening.  We'll even show you how you can use your posts to pick up a little honest spare-change.

See you back here soon in part 2...

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