Twitter, Tweet, Twits:
How the Hottest Social Media Platform Helps Writers

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

By now, if you haven’t at least heard of Twitter, you should probably just get back to dusting your cave paintings and chasing away those pesky pterodactyls.

What you may not know, however, is exactly what Twitter is and how it can help you as a writer. And no matter what the media says about Internet geeks discussing what they had for breakfast or how annoyed they are at their boss, Twitter can help you. As with everything on the Internet, it’s simply a matter of filtering out the useless information to get to the good stuff.

What the Heck is a Twitter?

Twitter is a microblogging platform. Twitterers—also known as tweeple, tweeps, or twits, the latter of which we’ll use for this article’s purposes—post messages up to 140 characters in length.

Twitter homepage

What you’ll see when you go to http://www.twitter.com.

These messages, or tweets, appear on a twit’s page and are seen by their followers. Followers are people who choose to add you to their list of people whose tweets they watch.

If a twit doesn’t have followers, they’re essentially talking to themselves. And while much of the Internet can consist of people talking to themselves, Twitter is a waste without followers. And if you’re not following anyone, you won’t receive an ounce of information. Once you’ve begun following people, your Twitter “feed”—what you see when you first log in—will show the most recent tweets posted by your friends.

kristophrenia's Twitter page

My Twitter page. At the top is the text entry box, where I answer the question,”What are you doing?” Below that are the most recent tweets from people I follow. In the right sidebar are my statistics: number of people I follow, number who follow me, and how many tweets I’ve made. Below that are links to my replies, direct messages sent to me, and any tweets I’ve favorited.

Feeling silly yet? Well, yes, it does sound silly. What’s not silly, though, is how much it can help you weed through the overwhelming mass of resources on the web.

If you’re not yet convinced, I’ll offer an example from my own experience. A few months ago, I woke up one day, made my usual oversized pot of coffee, and began my morning Internet surfing. Checked my sixteen email accounts, my Facebook, my RSS feeds. And then I hopped onto Twitter. One of the writers I follow had just posted a link to the blog of literary agent Caren Johnson, of Caren Johnson Literary Agency; Ms. Johnson was offering writers the chance to post a short pitch for their novel in the comments of her blog. For each pitch, Ms. Johnson either requested a partial from the writer or offered her reasons for passing.

If you’ve done the query route, you know how very rare this is.

The catch: writers had 24 hours from the initial blog post to enter their pitch. I discovered the opportunity a scant two hours before the deadline. I hurried to tweak my pitch to her requirements, watching the seconds slip away as I did. Then I took a shower, as I knew that otherwise I’d spend the next twenty minutes hitting the refresh button. By the time I was dressed and blow-dried, Ms. Johnson had requested a partial from me. While she eventually rejected my novel, she offered her reasons—something that was a huge help in fixing a flaw in my voice.

If it weren’t for Twitter, I’d never have seen the post, or at least not in time to take advantage of it. Now that’s a resource.

No more rummaging through page after page of blogs by agents, editors, and fellow writers. No more searching through the many online publications that follow the publishing industry’s movements. No more wondering what articles and announcements you’re missing. Once you’ve found and followed a good selection of writers, agents, and editors, you can go to your Twitter page and find out all the latest.

Twitter vs. Facebook, MySpace, and Blogs: The Big Difference

So you have accounts with Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, a few dozen other social networking accounts, and a blog, all of which you use with varying frequencies. Why add one more to the pile?

Facebook and all its buddies help you connect with the people you know. Twitter, on the other hand, is the perfect place to connect with people you don’t know, but want or need to agents, editors, and other writers. Follow them, and they might follow you back. Even if they don’t, you’ll have immediate access to what they have to say.

The sparse amount of information required for an account—name and email address—adds to the privacy level. Controlling the information you release on Twitter involves nothing more complex than evaluating your own words. Rather than worrying what old, embarrassing, and perhaps incriminating picture a friend might post and tag with your name—one of the scariest parts of Facebook now that everyone’s boss, mother, and grandma has an account—you just have to watch what you say. That’s all Twitter is: words and links.

The Basics

Once you’ve created an account, you can begin following people. To make it easy for you, click here and log in, if you aren’t already. Then simply click the Follow button under my picture (yes, that’s me). Congratulations! You just followed your first twit.[1]

There are a few ways to find more people worth following.

Every twitter user’s page shows their friends in the right sidebar.

kristophrenia's Twitter friends

A selection of people I follow.

Click the View All link under the block of pictures, hover your mouse over each twit’s username, and see if their personal description catches your interest. If it does, just click the Follow button under their username. Or go straight to their Twitter feed by clicking on their picture. See some interesting tweets there? Click the Follow button under their picture.
kristophrenia's Twitter profile

Following a user is as easy as clicking a button.

Another useful method is through @replies. When you want to reply directly to someone’s tweet, simply place the @ sign and the person’s username before your tweet.

A real life example:

20orsomething: I love books and I love publishing, and Twitter is a fantastic resource for both. Reveling in words and soaking up the knowledge…

kristophrenia: @20orsomething I know! I’m continually amazed by how useful this is, once you’re following the right people.

If someone following me were curious to know more about Susan Pogorzelski, a.k.a 20orsomething, they can simply click the link to her profile in my reply. I’ve followed many people after seeing the interesting conversations they had with my friends; conversely, I’ve gained several followers after they saw my own conversations with their friends. You can keep up with @replies directed at you by clicking the @username link on your homepage, or by using the many applications designed to bring your Twitter feed to your desktop or your iPhone.

Once you’ve built a decent base of friends, you can start using the information they post—and disseminating information you find by tweeting links to interesting articles and blog posts. Twitter automatically shortens any URL under 30 characters; other ways to convert links include TinyURL, bit.ly, and Snipr. Copy and paste the URL you want to shorten into any of these websites, then copy and paste the resulting shorter URL into your update box. For example, the URL for http://www.toasted-cheese.com/ becomes http://bit.ly/p3fn. Posting URLs is a great way to connect others to interesting articles, making you an important resource in their world; it can also be wonderful self-promotion. The number of unique visitors who came to my blog last month was twice the number that found me the month I joined Twitter.

Did someone post an update that you find interesting, something that you want to share with your friends? Give credit by placing the letters RT (which stands for “re-tweet”) at the beginning of your update, followed by an @reply for the original twit, then paste their update. Just a few days ago, my friend strugglngwriter posted a comic cracked me up. I showed it to my followers and gave him credit by tweeting:

RT @strugglngwriter As a writer, this comic from Wondermark made me laugh: http://wondermark.com/519/.

Certain subjects tend to blow up quickly on Twitter as everyone tweets on a trending topic; Twitter keeps these organized using hashtags (#topic). A great example is “Follow Friday”. Every Friday, many twits post an update listing their favorite, funniest, or most useful friends using the @reply feature. With the addition of the tag #followfriday to the update, users can easily search for Follow Friday posts without having to weed through every update that includes the word “follow” or “Friday”.

How to Maximize Your Time

If you intend to use Twitter as a professional resource, it’s important to streamline your list of followers. This greatly reduces the amount of useless or inane information that will appear in your feed, and we all know there’s a massive amount of inanity out there. Feel free to follow your friends, but don’t feel obligated to follow every “social media expert” that follows you.

But how can you find all the people you should follow? One great resource, aside from the methods mentioned above, is WeFollow. Here, users can add themselves to a database with up to three descriptive tags; for example, I chose #fantasy, #youngadult, and #writer. Add yourself to the database, then skim through the listings for writers, agents, editors, and the genres in which you write.

The first site that helped me find compatible twits to follow was Mr. Tweet. Simply follow Mr. Tweet on Twitter, and he’ll Direct Message (DM) you back. Once he’s analyzed your followers, he’ll DM you a link to a personalized site, where you can find a list of recommended twits based on who you already follow. Mr. Tweet updates bi-weekly, so you can find more great people to follow every other week. The more writers and publishing people you follow, the more information you have access to.

To get you started, here’s a list of agents and editors who tweet:

With the increasingly fast pace of news on the Internet, our ever-decreasing attention spans, and the rising ubiquity of the agent or editor blog, something like Twitter is desperately needed if you want to keep up. So come on out of the cave, dodge that pterodactyl, and follow me.

I promise I’ll follow you back.

Tips

  • Make sure you have the option “E-mail when someone starts following me” turned on (Settings ? Notices). This ensures that, when someone follows you, you can follow them back if you wish.
  • Like so many other useful tools, Twitter can be addictive and distracting if you allow it to be. To avoid getting irrevocably sucked into the information black hole, give yourself time limits. Use Twitter as a reward for writing. And by all mean, keep that browser closed while you’re writing.
  • Be a part of the conversation. Don’t be afraid to reply to tweets you find appealing or funny. Just make sure that what you have to say is interesting, informative, or at least entertaining. As with everything on the Internet, think before you tweet.

Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

[1] I’ll freely admit I’m not the most useful twit; I aim more to entertain myself and my followers, and I enjoy having moderately wacky conversations. I’ve met a lot of hilarious, interesting twits that way. But I also post interesting links to industry articles, and I follow every agent, editor, and writer I can find.

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