a writer’s starter guide to twitter (or: everything I wish someone had told me when I first started using twitter)



Publishing is changing. “It’s not an evolution,” Jane Friedman commented recently, “but a revolution…And it’s not going back.”

Part of that revolution involves the still-evolving notion of author platform. A key part of any author’s platform is Twitter. It forms what I consider the Golden Triangle of blog/facebook/twitter that forms the heart and home of your online presence.

You find writers all over Twitter. It’s not just about self-promotion. Whether you’re ‘following’ the tweets of agents, editors, or writers in your genre (and other genres), it’s a way to connect with cool people, keep up with the industry, seek advice, participate in writing-related #chats and learn about writing resources, conferences, literary magazines, and just about anything else you can imagine (and maybe a few things you can’t).

But Twitter is a strange and often bewildering country. Here’s a travel guide.


Open an account. Choose an easy-to-remember username that doesn’t have a hyphen in it. Those things are annoying when you’re typing on your cell phone, and it makes people less likely to address you directly. It also implies that you came to the game too late to get that username without a hyphen, which is no big deal but takes off coolness points.

Walk through the steps that let you find out which of your contacts are already on Twitter. Follow them. Some of them will follow you back.

Make sure you post a profile photo. If you don’t have a photo, people will be less likely to follow you or take you seriously. In the minds of many, no photo = clueless dilettante who won’t be around very long.

Get yourself a cool Twitter background. Through going to the extra effort of installing one of those (which is easy), you’re signaling, again, that you’re serious. Generic twitter backgrounds are easy to spot, and don’t say anything about who you are as a person. Again, coolness points.

Before you dive in, spend some time getting acclimatized. Look around. Listen. Get to know the culture.

Follow some of the big guns – people regarded as top influencers on Twitter – because they’re interesting and also because they can teach you through example how to tweet effectively. Here are some of my favorites in the world of publishing/writing/blogging:



The best way to get someone to follow you is simply to follow them, and to be engaging and interesting; a lot of people will follow you back automatically, or at least check out your tweetstream to see if you’re worth their time and attention.

So before you start following people like crazy, build up a solid tweetstream (and by tweetstream I mean your profile page that lists all your recent tweets), so people have something to look through when they click on your name. Your tweetstream says a lot about who you are, what you stand for, and how (or if) you play with others, so fashion it with care. Always think before you tweet.


Your tweetstream should be a mix of different kinds of tweets.


The thing that immediately turns me off (and others) is a list of nothing but bullhorn or broadcast tweets. By that I mean tweets that aren’t interactive and that, generally, nobody cares about, ESPECIALLY if you’re just promoting your blog or your books.

These are the tweets that give Twitter a bad name (“I had a ham sandwich for lunch”). You’re standing on a box and blaring out your message to whomever’s passing by. Keep this to a minimum – and when you do it, treat it as microblogging. Be interesting, be amusing, be informative. Try to write things that other people are likely to relate and respond to, that might spark off a dialogue.

Remember that Twitter – as well as social media in general – is about connecting with people and providing value for others, not selling and promoting yourself. (Or rather: you sell and promote yourself through providing value for others.)

One fun or handy thing to do on Twitter is to ask questions. It’s great for research purposes, or general personal interest, or to kickstart a new conversation.


Talk to people. You respond to someone else’s tweet by putting an @ in front of their username (so if you’re tweeting me, you would tweet @justinemusk, I am astounded by your general wondrousness, although I wish your dog would stop barking). A tweetstream that is composed of many @ tweets is a sign that the user is interactive, conversational, and participatory. It’s a good sign.

But when you are responding to someone, remember that other people can see your tweet. Include them in the conversation by providing enough context in your message so that a stranger can understand it. (If you want total privacy, send your message via Direct Message, otherwise known as DMs. Those are completely private, at least in theory). When other people see you engaged in a lively conversation that catches their interest, they’re likely to check you out and perhaps follow you or join in the dialogue themselves.


These are tweets that include a link to an article, blog post or web page that you think people would find interesting. Since each tweet is limited to 140 characters, you need to use a URL shortener such as bit.ly. (again, easy).

You share as a way of curating cool content, so other people don’t have to search for that stuff themselves. As the Web becomes more and more cluttered and fragmented, the act of curating becomes more and more important.

It’s a good idea to limit yourself to a particular niche, so that people will know what kind of links to expect from you (and if they’re interested in that niche, they will follow and possibly send you a note thanking you for your generosity and usefulness). For example, my links are generally writing-related, although every now and then I’ll throw in something different (an article about cool and inspiring women, for example, or an interview with Seth Godin, or a link to an awesome nonprofit) but which still ‘feels’ like…me, the things I stand for and want to represent.

(Remember that, in social media, you are your content. This includes your links. Your content adds up to create your brand, which basically refers to everything that you stand for as an individual.)

You also share as a way to promote other people. Social media is all about the karma: put good stuff out, and get good stuff back. Promoting other people also allows you to promote yourself without being obnoxious, although you should promote others much more often than you promote your own work. Social media guru Chris Brogan has a 12x rule: for every time he promotes something of his, he promotes others 12 times. The important thing here is to be authentic. Don’t provide a bunch of random links just because you want to meet your promote-others quota or because you’re hoping that the person you’re linking to will notice you and promote you in turn or feel like they ‘owe you’. Promote what you’re genuinely passionate about. People have a way of sniffing out fakery, even online.


Retweets are a crucial part of Twitter culture. A retweet is when you like a tweet so much, find it so amusing or helpful or provocative or brilliant, that you copy it and put an RT in front of the @username. For example, my last RT was this:

RT @KellyDiels “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” – Rumi via @Lianne_R

By retweeting this, I’m investing this with my name and personality, so that even though I didn’t come up with it, it’s still saying something about me. I’m also paying a compliment to Kelly Diels, telling her that I really liked her tweet (a retweet is the ultimate Twitter compliment). Notice that Kelly, with the ‘via’ @username, is acknowledging that she picked up the quote from someone else, who didn’t tweet it but maybe posted it in a blog comment or as a Facebook status update.

Retweets are powerful because they enable something to go viral. If you tweet something to your 25 followers – a link to your blog post, perhaps — and I happen to be one of them, maybe I’ll like your blog post so much I will retweet it. So the link to your blogpost has just been exposed to my 3,200 followers. And maybe one of them will love it, and retweet it to their followers, and so on….Considering that there are people on Twitter who have 10,000 or 30,000 or 150,000 or 500,000 followers (or more, way more, way way more) you can see the potential. Retweets expand your audience.


The number of people following you, vs the number of people you are following (otherwise known as your followers/following ratio) says a lot about the kind of tweeter you are, and it’s something I notice when I check out your profile page.

If someone’s follower count is massively higher than their following, it’s generally a sign that they’re a broadcaster. They’re not conversing or engaging with people. Often this is because they’re a celebrity – and so people hang on their every word, and actually do want to know what they had for lunch – or provide some kind of information service.

If someone’s follower and following counts are roughly equal, it’s a sign that they engage in conversation with the many instead of the few (and are likely to follow you back).

If someone’s following count is massively higher than their follower count, it’s interpreted as a sign that they’re a spammer. AVOID THIS.


A hashtag is this symbol right here: #. People put it in front of a word or words, and use it when they want their tweet to be grouped with other tweets about the same topic. One popular writing hashtag is #amwriting. This means that if you click on #amwriting, you will be taken to a page(s) of tweets that all include the #amwriting hashtag and are about, presumably, writing.

In the column on the right side of the Twitter page, you’ll see the TRENDING list. These are the most popular topics that are being discussed on Twitter right now. Many of them have a hashtag.

Hashtags allow for hashchats. A hashchat is what enables a large group of people to have an ongoing conversation on Twitter. Some of these hashchats are regular weekly features. For example, there is a hashchat called #askagent. This is your opportunity to ask the participating literary agents any questions you have about submissions, agenting, the state of publishing, etc. By including the hashtag #askagent in your tweet, you ensure that the agents (and anyone else looking out for the #askagent hashtag) will see it, and respond accordingly.


The ‘search’ box you see in the rightside column on a Twitter page can be an invaluable resource.

You can use it to find users who are interested in the same things that you are. I will use it to find people who are reading the same book or author that I am, for example – I’ll enter LORRIE MOORE or A GATE AT THE STAIRS and enter into a conversation with someone about that book, or discover what other people are saying about it.

You can also use it to get up-to-the-minute information about, well, anything. Last summer I looked out my window and saw a wildfire happening in the near-distant hills (smoke, flame, helicopters, very dramatic). By typing in “Los Angeles wildfire” I discovered where the fire was (Sepulveda Pass) and who was being evacuated (The Getty Center) and when the fire department expected to contain it (a few hours). The news websites were about two or three hours behind the tweeters who were experiencing or witnessing the wildfire themselves (“it’s getting smoky up here, I wish they’d put this damn thing out…”).

One afternoon when I heard a loud, ripping explosion and felt the earth tremble, I rushed to Twitter. Within five minutes I knew that it hadn’t been an earthquake, merely a sonic boom as the space shuttle entered the atmosphere one day late (due to bad weather). Relief.


The Twitter lists function allows you to group the people that you’re following according to whatever criteria you wish. For example, I made a cool publishing peeps list. When I click on it, it takes me to a page(s) of all the recent tweets from some of the people I follow in the publishing industry, so I don’t have to sort through tens of thousands of tweets looking for them or click on each of their individual profile pages. This list is public (which means it’s listed in my righthand Twitter column and anyone can check it out or follow it in turn). I also have a ‘private’ list of friends and family members that no one can see except for me.

Lists are a great way to discover new and interesting people to follow – and to do it in bulk (you can check out mashable’s list of twitter stars for example). Find the people you’re interested in, then check out their lists (in the right hand column) to find more interesting people to follow, either as individuals or as a group.


Twitter drives traffic to my blog. My blog drives traffic to my Twitter stream and increases my followers count (and gives me new cool people to connect with).

But the most interesting relationship, I find, is the one between Twitter and Facebook. By enabling Facebook to pull in my Twitter stream, I allow my tweets to double as a series of Facebook status updates and spark off real-time conversations. A tweet that gets only one or two responses on Twitter might get five or six responses on my Facebook page and ignite an entirely separate dialogue. Different forms of social media lead to different kinds of conversations, or different versions of the same conversation. It’s fun.

What are your experiences with Twitter? How do you use Twitter? What advice or information would you give to anyone just starting out with it? What else should be included in this guide?


Feb 22, 2010

45 comments · Add Yours

Great post, Justine. A lot of people dismiss Twitter off-hand; I know I did for quite a awhile. Since exploring its’ potential, however,

I started on Twitter just to stay in touch with the publisher of a magazine that one of my stories appeared in. It quickly grew into a tool I use almost everyday. I have become someone who uses it extensively as both a method of contact and as a way of research (as you so aptly put).

Thank you for laying out some of the do’s and don’t’s, and some explanation of the controls.

Thoughtful people will find much benefit on Twitter.


Excellent post! Thanks for all the great info and advice….


Twitter can be a wonderful tool if you know how to use it, so this blog post is timely and helpful indeed. Among other things, Twitter taught me a valuable if painful lesson about how it’s NOT a good forum for pitching one’s as-yet-unsold novel. It was Agent Day on Twitter, and my bite-size pitch earned me a well-deserved (if cringe-inducing, at least for me) spanking that was Retweeted over and over with my Twitter handle attached to it like a barnacle. Yikes! I thought my novel-writing career was over before it even had a chance to begin! Luckily, the original spanker eventually forgave/dismissed my faux pas as a harmless newbie mistake, so I’ve survived to pitch my MSS another day in more appropriate ways. :-) Thanks for the great tips, Justine!


I must admit that I had never thought of using twitter, but I really like Jane Friedman’s “best tweets of the week” updates. After reading your post, though, I feel quite confident I won’t be treading water for too long. Thanks so much!


My biggest problem is following back – I actually just unfollowed some people because they chat chat chat CONSTANTLY and it shoves other people’s tweets down who I’m interested in reading – and who don’t do all that microblogging, so then I feel like I’m missing content, and while I like to chat back I end up wasting a lot of time on twitter I could otherwise be writing.

I’d like to follow more people but what, do I make one of those new lists for ‘favorite twitterers’? :D


I had to lock Twitter down because I still labor in the land of the day job… and I’m looking for a new one. I did the same with Facebook and my blog. Being the sort who’d normally let quite a lot hang out, I was sorry to have to batten down the hatches. At the same time, there’s the continuity of the paycheck to think about. If anything else needs to be said, it’s to remember to be judicious about other commitments and the balance you have to strike between publicity and privacy.


I wrote a very similar post on my blog! I guess great minds think alike.

Good suggestions, and a couple I didn’t tackle in my Field Guide to Twitter. Thanks for the great info!

– Liz


Thank you! I feel like I finally understand the ins and outs of Twitter now.


Well done summary. I learned a few new things and got some clarifications I hadn’t quite grasped yet.

If your blog is your flagship, twitter is your scout ship. You need it out there making contact and gathering information.


Most formidable, and bookmarked against the day I’m persuaded Twitter really is a necessity. I’d have thought it was among those digital institutions whose value varied most wildly with one’s style – and that it’s no obvious fit at all with mine. H’mmm, but you do make it sound like something that might repay the challenge of exploring it. I’ll think on this further.

Paul Fergus: that is a very tempting metaphor indeed, and may yet be the rope up which I finally haul myself aboard!


You are so welcome. Thanks for being one of the first to comment!


That’s the perfect example of how promoting yourself through social media is actually counter-intuitive in many ways. A painful but totally understandable mistake (and a bit mean of someone to spank you in public like that — they could have made the same point WITHOUT keeping your name attached) and a great lesson to learn. Thanks for sharing it with others.


You’re welcome! Jane Friedman is smart and great — she really ‘gets it’ and I avidly follow her — and I’m excited about her multimedia, digi-publishing venture (Open Road Integrated Media) & look forward to watching it evolve.


Managing your time and balancing social media and writing is a challenge, so I hear you on that one. Yeah, I highly recommend making a list of all the people you absolutely *have* to follow, because at some point you kind of have to turn it loose and let go, treat your tweetstream as something you move in and out of and catch stuff on the fly. You can catch some interesting fish that way, without feeling overloaded by trying to actually follow everybody you’re, uh, following.


Really good points, both about drawing that crucial boundary between what you keep private and make public, and managing your time. Social media can just suck you in and before you know it, too much time has passed and you’re scrambling to keep your other commitments.


Great minds totally *do* think alike! I’m flattered!


Awesome compliment, thank you. Warm fuzzy.


“your blog is your flagship, twitter is your scout ship” — beautifully put, and so true.


Gray, kind sir, I for one would most enjoy seeing a gentleman so eloquent as yourself take on that entity known as Twitter and adapt it to his own purposes and verbal stylings. I shall wait and watch and hope. :)


Thanks. And you’re right — when thoughtfully used, emphasis on ‘thoughtfully’, Twitter is rewarding (sometimes deeply so) and beneficial.


This is really useful, thanks. I kinda hate Twitter, and I’m trying very hard to get over that. I’m having an ongoing debate with myself about whether I want to commit to using it and learn to tolerate, if not enjoy it, or whether to just make a clean break and stop it. Your post gives excellent tips, which I’ve definitely been lacking, on *how* which I’ll certainly use once I decide *whether.* Maybe you can help me with that too: career-building utility aside, what do you enjoy about Twitter?


Thanks for this – great post.

Am new to twitter and feeling a bit lost! This has helped explain heaps – realy appreciated. :)


Thank-you for your generous gift of insightful tips and practical information. Twitter has enriched my life so much that I often recommend it to friends. I try to get them started and, from now on, I’ll have your explantion to make it easier.
A note for Jess: A free Twitter “client” like TweetDeck can be downloaded to sort The tweets of those you follow into categories. You might put “noisey” people (like ME when there are protests in Iran) in one column so they don’t push out other tweets.


Another good tip I’ve seen: make your avatar pic expandable – meaning, when one clicks on it, they shouldn’t find it to be the same tiny pic they saw before.


Thanks for such useful tips!

I started using twitter only to keep myself updated by following news websites and I have a very few followers of friends who have less activity on Facebook. So my following counts are way higher than my followers.. but doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a spammer, rite? exceptions are always there :)


Amazing post – I’m a Twitter regular ( @spongenb ) but there are loads of things in this post that will help me!!



This was very helpful to me. I’m new to Twitter and found it unnerving at first to interact with “strangers” since I have a strict policy on Facebook of only friending real-life friends. This is really helpful to clarify the use and potential out there, as well as the all-important don’ts.

One question I still have is how to selectively send tweets to Facebook. It seems like an all-or-nothing deal right now, but sometimes I see the hashtag #fb ad wonder if that’s a code to send only that tweet as a status update to facebook.


Gray: Scout ships can always be abandoned as space junk should one find the space program in the Gamma Quadrant isn’t panning out.

Make no mistake; it does cost time and interest to participate. Building and maintaining a fleet of starships is a challenge.

Having an intermediary communication dendrite out there has been fun for me. I’m seeing new points of view, having a blast being connected to folks of interest to me, and navigating amusing reefs of annoyance with a hearty pirate shanty.


I’m glad I stumbled across this (thanks to an RT on twitter no less!), because everything you’ve written has greatly helped me. Regarding your last bit about the Facebook synchronising, I have it so it sends updates straight to my Myspace page as well. It just makes everything so much easier. I also have my blog posts sent with a title and a bit.ly link to my Twitter and Facebook through twitterfeed, which a friend introduced me to. It makes it easier than having to post things manually.

Thanks for the wonderful advice. It’s helped a lot.


I just stumbled on this post through a Writer’s Digest link. I’m somewhat new to Twitter and am still learning the culture. (I dismissed Twitter for a while, thinking it was an online diary with a short word count…but now I see its purpose!) Your post has been really helpful just on the first read through, and I’ve bookmarked it to reference later. Time to start interacting more!

And thank you for the advice!


Thank you so much for this how-to. I’ve just completed my first week on Twitter and this guide is perfect for newbies. Social media was an undiscovered country but your post is a very, very good road map! :)


Thanks so much for this Justine. I opened my Twitter account a week ago and have been floundering around trying to understand the finer points. Your article is so clear and easy to understand, I feel much more confident now.


Great post… I have just begun getting my toes wet on-line. It took months for me to figure out how, and where, to start a blog. Only thinking about twitter. Still wondering about those coolness points: I’d be interested to hear what you might have to say about have the “dot wordpress in the blog name.” ?


This is terrific! I have been trying to decide whether Twitter was worth the effort, and this certainly helps to calm the nervous jitters about getting my feet wet. Thank you!


Question! I was taking some ridiculous class that had us sign up for some auto-follow thingey on Twitter and I now have about 4000 followers, most of whom I do not care about. How do I get myself out of that? Do I just open a new Twitter account and build it from scratch with people I care about now just more people selling stuff? Or do I just unfollow the bulk of them, knowing they will drop me?


great post, Justine. I’ve just started getting into Twitter in an active way, and find it very useful – your article has given me some more ideas.


Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m ready to take the plung into twitter. Your post pushed me past my resistance by giving some simple starter tips. I’ve been blogging on accessing your intuition and want to add a discussion space, twitter seems the perfect tool for this.


Loved this and wish I had had it about a month ago when I first joined Twitter. It seems like I’ve had to learn as a go (which was actually one of your suggestions).

I had a tough time at first with chats. I couldn’t figure out how to follow them or participate. Then I got Tweet Deck, and that helped. I especially like it’s automatic URL shortening function, as well as the ability to monitor more than one Twitter account at a time (I tweet for myself and for my husband’s business).

Someone suggested TweetChat for chats, but it seemed to freeze up for me a lot. Now I use TweetGrid for chats, and that seems to work best, automatically adding the chat hashtag. Plus, it’s clear and easy to read. Thanks again.


Wow, how helpful. Exactly what I’ve been looking for, as a writer with novel in progress and a new blog, I knew I needed to “be” on Twitter (and am), but it’s value has eluded me. Now I know! Thank you. Going to clean up my profile a bit before following you. :)


I’m a few months behind here, but I just found your blog and I’ve been catching up on everything. Thank you so much for this post! I have been so confused by twitter for months now and you made all those weird little symbols so clear. I think I can get started now! P.S. Followed you!


You’ve saved me from looking like a twerd! Thank you, thank you, thank you!


This is excellent. I come here all the time and its post like this that are the reason. Keep up the great work.


Great guide to twitter! I’m really interested to see more and more writers, editors and agents on twitter, as the power to contact these people has now moved to the people, publishing is no longer controlled by a few, but by the masses, and that has to be exciting as we get to see content (books etc) that we would never has seen before!


Thanks, this is very helpful in filling some holes in my mind about what to do with twitter – mostly I’ve just been retweeting interesting stuff.

But, I will say that I made a point of following about a thousand people from the getgo because I wanted to have a stream of different viewpoints, communities, genres for more interesting search results (which I put in various lists). When you say that following vastly more people than follow you gets interpreted as being the mark of a spammer, why is that? I’m not a spammer!


If you make it a point to always have a good tweetstream, if you have an authentic personal profile photo and a real-sounding twitter handle, people won’t think that. But spammers follow a ton of people all at once so they can then send out bulk spam messages in the hopes that a tiny percentage of those messages will get results.



  1. links for 2010-02-24 « A Web editor's tale
  2. Week 4 – The Writer’s Platform & A writing excercise « Matthew Farmer
  3. Self-Publishing, Book Publishing, Apple iPad, Creative Commons Blogs — The Book Designer
  4. Can Twitter ruin your life? « Squad 365: the book marketing blog

Add your comment