Nine Steps to Understanding Twitter

Tamara Hogan once described Twitter as a worldwide cocktail party (albeit a virtual one in which everyone is limited to writing messages no longer than 140 characters). Millions of people are registered users, so the trick is in filtering what you want out of all that nonsense.

Here are the nine basic steps you need to follow to get started with Twitter.

1. Establish your intentions.

Are you going to use Twitter to talk to your non-writing friends and post pictures of your kids? Or are you going to use it to connect with industry professionals and chat with your writing buddies? I like to keep my personal life separate from my professional life, but that’s a question each of you must answer for herself. Do answer it, though, before you register. Make it clear in your head what your boundaries are, and don’t cross them.

2. Get a username.

To register with Twitter, go to Click the yellow “Sign Up” button. Follow the directions, but be sure to pick your username carefully. Your username can comprise up to 15 letters, with no spaces allowed between letters. If you’re an author, I suggest picking something based on the name you use in the writing world, or just that actual name, if still available. While there are certainly authors who choose to pick something less quickly identifiable, like bookluver or alphamalewrytr, the most famous writers on Twitter use their real names. You don’t see Eloisa James calling herself historicalgrrl, do you? Likewise, it seems short-sighted to select a name based on whatever book you are releasing next. Think long-term. Many bloggers and book reviewers, however, pick a Twitter username based on their blogging or reviewing identity, such as SmartBitches or SuperWendy.

3. Create a profile.

Once you finish that first registration page, you’ll be taken to a page where Twitter gives you a few options for selecting topics of interest. I *strongly* suggest that you bypass this page. There will be plenty of time to find friends and listen in on conversations. Click “next step: find friends” or something like that near the bottom of the page, I think. That will take you to another page where Twitter suggests that you import a bunch of friends from your email contact list. Again, I urge you to skip this step (click “skip import” at the bottom of the page.). If you start running up to people and listening to what they’re saying before you’ve even introduced yourself, you’ll come across as rude, and you’ll miss opportunities to forge valuable relationships.

So skip those two steps, and you’ll arrive at your Homepage. On the right are a few steps Twitter recommends you take. Step 3 includes “Write a short bio.” Click that. As you fill out the information on the personal details page, keep in mind what your goals are for Twitter. If you’re approaching this as a writer, both your picture and your bio should reflect that. Write a bio that’s snappy and current, and that might make people want to listen to what you have to say. Do upload a picture. Users who leave their picture blank are sometimes dismissed as spammers.

4. Examine your settings.

You’ll notice that “Profile” is one of many tabs available in the “Settings” section of Twitter. Click through each tab (Account, Password, Mobile, Notices, Profile, Design, and Connections) and familiarize yourself with your available options. At the bottom of the Account tab, for example, is the option to only allow people who follow you to see your tweets. I suggest that you leave this option off, for you’ll have trouble gaining followers if no one can see what you’re tweeting. Also of particular early important is the “Notices” tab, which allows you to adjust the circumstances in which Twitter will contact you. You are likely to want to to select “Email when someone starts following me” and “Email when I receive a new direct message.” Under the Connections tab you won’t find much yet, but as you cruise around the web, you might begin to allow certain other websites or applications to use your Twitter account. Those approvals can be viewed and revoked here.

5. Check out your Tweetstream.

Click on the blue bird Twitter icon in the upper-left corner to return to your homepage. On the left is a big, blank white space where tweets will soon appear. There are a few tabs at the top of that white space. You start off in the Timeline tab. Clicking on the others would show you anytime someone mentions you in a tweet (@Mentions), re-circulated something you tweeted (retweets), as well as any searches you’ve performed or lists you follow. To send a tweet, click into the box underneath “What’s Happening?” Type your message (feel free to say something generic like “My first Tweet EVER!”) and hit ENTER on your keyboard. Your tweet will then appear in the Timeline tab. Do post a tweet before adding friends, or else you might be perceived as a spammer.

6. Find your friends and favorites.

Under the Find Friends heading, you’ll see several popular email programs listed. If you use one, click it and walk through the steps to find friends on Twitter out of your address book. If you’d rather not allow Twitter inside your email, then you’ll have to search for each one individually. On the right, under “1. Follow your first 10 accounts,” you’ll see a blank white text box as the third thing listed. Enter anyone’s name and hit “search.” See what pops up. You can search for friends or people you’re a fan of, like the aforementioned Eloisa James. Famous people want you to follow them, so don’t be shy about hitting the “follow” button when you see someone you like, including any agents or editors.Β The more people you add, the more tweets will be added to your Timeline. You can also follow whole lists of people, such as agent Rachelle Gardner’s great @RachelleGardner/agents list — but I’ll cover that in a future post.

7. Understand Favorites, Replies, and Retweets.

If you hover your mouse over a tweet in your tweetstream, you’ll see a few options appear in the box. Clicking “Favorite” puts that tweet into your favorites folder, which gives you quicker access to comments you want to review at a later date.

Clicking “Retweet” opens up a small box that asks you to verify that you want to resend this particular tweet out to your followers. In concept, it’s very much like forwarding an email. The tweet will be automatically prefixed with the letters “RT,” which indicates a retweet. Note that at this time, Twitter’s main interface doesn’t let you comment before sending a retweet, but other interfaces (like TweetDeck and Echofon, which I’ll discuss in a later post) allow you to comment or change the retweet before sending it out to the people who follow you.

Clicking “Reply” opens a dialogue box in which the @username to which you’re replying to is already listed at the beginning of a tweet. You can then type your response to that person’s original tweet. A Reply is sent publicly, so anything you type will be visible to your followers and anyone who searches for any of the terms included in your tweet.

8. Differentiate between Mentions and Direct Messages.

A Mention is when you include someone’s username in your Tweet, but you didn’t hit “Reply” to create your tweet. Use this method when you want to initiate a conversation with your followers about a person or her work. Example: “Just finished @JeannieLin’s Butterfly Swords and loved it. Has anyone read the novella?” Jeannie Lin probably keeps track of every time her username is mentioned in a Tweet, so be nice. She’ll probably see your message and might respond. But by not sending her a direct message, you’re not requesting a response, and it’s perfectly acceptable for her not to respond.

A Direct Message can only be sent to a user if the user follows you. If she does, and you know her well enough to initiate a private conversation, you canΒ begin your tweet with a lowercase “d” followed by a space, followed by “@” and the person’s username. For example: “d @JeannieLin Just finished your fantastic Butterfly Swords! Can’t wait to download your novella.” Keep in mind that just because your original message might have gone directly to someone doesn’t mean that they can’t retweet it to the whole universe via old-fashioned cut-and-paste. Of course, Jeannie Lin’s too discreet to do such a thing, but not everyone is so professional. Presume that anything you tweet (whether via direct message or not) can and will be retweeted without your consent.

9. Use hashtags.

Anyone can bring up a new subject in this worldwide cocktail party. When you want others to be able to follow and contribute to a topic, you prefix it with a # (called a hashtag) and remove all spaces and non-letters from the phrase. You’ll often see silly hashtags that are fun and off-the-cuff, like “chocolateisahealthybreakfast” or “snowdaysarekillingme,” but there are plenty of highly organized subjects, too, like the massive #fridayreads subject that appears every Friday, as well as our own #RSSWWF hashtag that we’re using whenever we tweet about the Ruby Winter Writing Festival. If you want to start a new hashtag, you just do it. You don’t have to ask anyone permission or register your idea anywhere. You just write it down and see who picks it up.

It’s not a good idea to hijack well-established hashtags, though. For example, agents regularly offer to answer questions posted with the hashtag “#askagent,” so anything you post with that hashtag will apear on their radar sooner or later. Same goes for #askeditor. If you’re concerned about whether or not a given hashtag is already in use, type it into Twitter’s search bar at the very top of the screen. There’s no Twitter monitor who will kick you off for using an existing hashtag, and in fact you’re welcome to jump in on any conversation you feel that you can contribute to, but you might piss people off if you tweet to their hashtag inappropriately. It’s like running up to a group of people at a party, hearing one word that one person says, and spouting off about that word without really knowing that in the heck they were talking about.

There’s a great deal more to learn about and do with Twitter, but that’s enough to get you started. In a few weeks, I’ll post about Twitter again. By that time, you’ll probably be feeling limited by Twitter’s static interface, and you’ll be looking for a efficient way to access it.

Until then, do you have any questions about these steps? Are you already on Twitter? What’s your username (so we can follow you!)? Have you had any fun (or not-so-fun) Twitter experiences?

66 responses to “Nine Steps to Understanding Twitter”

  1. I am already on Twitter, and I think some of you follow me. @arlenewrites … it wouldn’t let me have “arlenewritesromance,” which you explained was too darn long.

    I actually have three different Twitter accounts (one for writing, one for my weight loss blog and one for my food journal, which I haven’t used in months but am thinking about reviving). Does that make me a tweet slut? πŸ˜‰

    I try to keep track of everything on TweetDeck, but my stupid computer is so old that it doesn’t like to run both Safari and TweetDeck at the same time without one or the other freezing up. I’m waiting for Verizon to get the iPhone, so I can load TweetDeck there.

    • Hi Arlene,

      I think I follow you — or if not, I will!

      I have two Twitter accounts, too. One I hardly use, but it’s in my back pocket in case I want to. It sounds like you’re on a Mac. I am, too, and I use Echofon to access Twitter, which is a program similar to Tweetdeck that makes it easy to tweet from multiple accounts. There’s a little drop-down menu next to the tweet entry box that lets you pick which name you want to use.

      Tweetdeck is a bit of a monster. There are many, many other Twitter access programs, and most of them use less system memory, though they won’t be as powerful. Echofon might be a bit less intense, and I really like its Mac-like interface. It’s free, as long as you don’t mind the occasional ad popping up here and there.

      • I’ll check that out. I LOVE TweetDeck, but I don’t think it’ll work until I get a new MacBook. (I still have the iBook G4. Started a special savings account to replace it about a month ago. It has $26 in it. Have a long way to go!) πŸ˜‰

      • Doh … I just noticed Echofon is for Mac 10.5 or higher. Crap. Mine’s at 10.4.11 and I can’t upgrade any higher. πŸ˜›

        • That sucks!

          There are other clients, though. I can cover them in another post, but if you search “twitter client for mac” I bet you’ll come up with a bunch of “best-of” lists you can sort through, if you want. I’m certain that you can find a less memory-hogging client than Tweetdeck.

    • Meghan says:

      Have you tried HootSuite, Arlene? They have a really nice browser interface (with excellent support for multiple accounts), and they have a really nice app for Android and iPhone, as well. It might help some–I actually prefer it to TweetDeck.

  2. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is really helpful, Jamie! I’ve managed to figure out Facebook, but Twitter is an absolute mystery to me.

    I think I feel like I’m outside the Twitter-sphere because I don’t have an iPhone or other fancy phone (heck, I’ve just recently learned to text on my $20 no-frills cell.)

    Do most people do it via phone, or is it really computer-friendly?

    Is it yet another digital timesuck?

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      –> Do most people do it via phone, or is it really computer-friendly?

      I’m a telecommuter for my day job, so I’ve got TweetDeck installed on my desktop computer at home and fire it up maybe 5-10 minutes at a time between meetings, because YES INDEED, it IS another digital timesuck – and you all know how little tolerance I have for that.

      I don’t acccess Twitter from my cellphone – mainly because a) I rarely use my cellphone, b) timesuck – see above and c) really, will the world stop if I don’t tweet for a day? Nope. I’m just not that fascinating.

      • Yeah, Tweetdeck is such an attention hog! I have to open it, check it out, and close it if I expect to get any work done.

        Echofon (for Mac, don’t know if it’s available on PC) doesn’t give me pop-up warnings when I get new tweets. I like that. It’s also cute, and takes up much less desktop real estate. Tweetdeck’s popups, which may well be an option I can turn off, distract me.

    • Elisa, I’m right there with you! I got a new phone just last week that appears to have the ability to access twitter, but I haven’t sat down to figure it out yet. At RWA last year, I felt like there was this whole other conversation happening on Twitter that I was completely missing because my phone couldn’t tweet. There were all sorts of “meet me here!” and “this cool thing is happening now!” tweets that I missed, so this year, I decided I’d attempt to get in the loop by getting a phone that could tweet.

      I hope that makes sense. I’ve only just now taken my first sip of coffee.

      Even though my phone probably can tweet, though, I’m not the sort of person who carries her phone around with her all the time. I often forget it at home, and I definitely don’t carry it around the house.

      Twitter IS computer-friendly, though. That’s currently the only way I do it!

  3. Diana Layne says:

    Oh, gosh, I’ve already done the first three steps. Um, what is my profile? I think @diana_layne. I’ve even tweeted a reply to a couple of whatever those things are that appear on my page–posts? But beyond that, you’ve lost me. I’m going to have to print this out and study it. It just all seems so…manic maybe? Hurry, hurry, rush, rush, is the feeling I get when I’m on twitter, like I can’t possibly keep up!

    • Diana, that’s a great name! Looks like I already follow you.

      I should emphasize that you DO NOT have to be on Twitter every minute of every day to stay abreast of the conversations you care about. I think that checking in once per day is sufficient to stay current, though you won’t be considered a “power user” at that rate. But you don’t NEED to be a power user. You might, however, want to tweet more than once a month, though. πŸ˜‰

      Don’t get down on yourself if big-wigs like agents and editors don’t respond when you reply to something they’ve tweeted. Sometimes they will, and that’s a good feeling, but other times you send a tweet out into the universe and nothing happens. That’s OK. Eventually, if you’re active enough, you’ll start getting replies to YOUR replies, and you’ll engage in real, though short, conversations with people you’d otherwise have little access to.

      I just tweeted a message and mentioned your name, so you should be able to see it if you search for “@diana_layne” in Twitter’s search function. I also appended it with the hashtag “#RSS,” which stands for Ruby Slippered Sisterhood.

  4. Cat Schield says:

    Terrific post, Jamie. I’m really new to Twitter and don’t post much. It’s interesting to follow people, especially when they talk to each other. It’s like eavesdropping at a cocktail party. What else I find interesting is that famous people are very relaxed when they tweet so you get an interesting take on what they’re really like when not in the limelight.

    And I love the ability to put up pictures or link to websites. It’s really a very cool tool.

  5. Hi Jamie!

    You’re timing couldn’t be better! I’m planning to take the leap into Twitter this week. Now I’ve got a set of great instructions to make sure I don’t screw it up!

    Thank you!

  6. Personally, I love Tweetdeck! It really streamlines the process and gives you access to several things at once. While I’m still not much of a Tweeter, I do like to catch up on the goings on of friends.

    #pubtips is a really great hashtag and one I follow regularly as is #writing and #amwriting.

    My user name is @darynda

    I hope everyone posts their user names so I can follow you! Don’t forget!

    • Darynda, you really got a great username. Lucky you!

      Yup, I love #amwriting, especially.

      I’m thinking about doing another post in which I compile lists of great people to follow and hashtags to track. I’ll put these on the list. Thanks!

  7. Laurie Kellogg says:

    The idea of tweeting still gives me hives, Jamie. I’m not a naturally techie kind of individual. But I know when I sell (note: I say when and not if), I will need to do more social networking to promote my book. I’m already on FB, but I can’t handle one more thing chewing up my writing time right now. Thanks for all the great info. I’ll be filing this away for that long awaited day when I finally get THE CALL. Until then, I’m going to remain gloriously unconnected.

    • Laurie, I totally understand. We only have so much time we can give to online social networking, and you’ve made your choice for now.

      My only suggestion would be to urge you to obtain a username. You might still be able to get @LaurieKellogg! Even though I think you’ll sell soon, that username might be taken by then. πŸ˜‰

      • Laurie Kellogg says:

        Good suggestion. Thanks. Now I’m going to have to go figure out how to do it. πŸ™

        • Laurie Kellogg says:

          I’ve been saved! I procrastinated long enough that my name is no longer available. So now there’s no hurry. πŸ™‚

  8. Hope Ramsay says:

    Thanks for the instructions, but I’m going to pass. I’m a tech savvy person, but I’m not a naturally SOCIAL person.

    So all this social media just seems like a big waste of time to me. I just don’t wish to be that connected — really, it’s like way too much information.

    I would much rather spend my free hours playing guitar or knitting or reading a really good book.

    • Yup, and I’m sure that’s going to be just fine. I’m not the sort of person who thinks Twitter makes or breaks an author’s promotional activities. I honestly think it’s just another way to be social online, and if you’ve made the choice not to do that, then you’re not missing anything.

  9. Wow, Jamie – LOTS of great info here. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    I’ve been timid about jumping into Twitter. Not sure why, except for the reasons already mentioned – time suck, not understanding the etiquette, etc. However, I recognize it can be a useful tool. I think, because of your post, I’m finally ready to make the plunge. And now I gotta go see if there’s a decent user name still available…


  10. Judi Romaine says:

    Well thanks! That wsa great – a simple step by step. Since joining Twitter four or five years ago (I think I joined the second month since an IT friend insisted I do so), I’ve had little use for it. Want it to promote – doing a little RT’s but nothing major. A friend who went on from Twitter to getting a sports anchor at Cnn said that’s how she got there – with her Tweets! Sounds good – thanks again

    • I’m so glad to hear that you’re delving into your Twitter account. If your personality is part of what you’re selling (such as may be the case with a TV sports anchor) then Twitter CAN get you a job. You just have to be willing to let your personality shine through.

  11. Donnell Bell says:

    Haven’t gone there yet, Jamie. Will bookmark this. Very scared of one my time drain!

    • Donnell, Twitter CAN be a time-drain. I really think that it works best if you schedule it into your day, and don’t check it constantly. It’s much less visually stimulating than Facebook, for example, and I find that it’s pretty easy to skim through the day’s tweets and find things that interest me.

      • Donnell Bell says:

        Thanks, Jamie, I feel better, but it’ll be a couple of months before I do it. But this has been a great explanation. And if Rita H. is afraid of it, I don’t feel so bad now πŸ˜‰

  12. Shea Berkley says:

    Twitter still alarms me. It has the flavor of virtual stalking. Not sure I’m okay with that. I do like what Tammy said though, a worldwide cocktail party … and 140 characters is just about the limit for a note on a cocktail napkin. It’s not as scary looking at it in that way.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Sometimes it’s fun to eavesdrop on all these fascinating conversations. Other times, like at real cocktail parties, I find the volume of chatter to be overwhelming. All the ‘read my blogs’ and ‘plz RT’ messages just becomes hissing static to me. That’s usually a signal to me that I need to reassess Jamie’s #1, and possibly prune my Follow list.

      • Yup. I think I’m going to address Twittiquette on a separate blog! We really can’t just Tweet “I’m blogging today at XYZ Writers. Come join me!” and expect anyone to care.

        Tweets have to be more provocative than that if we expect anyone to want to join our conversation. We have to give people a reason to reply, RT, or click through to a blog post, and that reason can’t just be “Oh, I know that lady. Guess I’ll throw her a bone.”

    • I hear you on the stalking thing, Shea, but keep in mind that if anyone doesn’t want you to read her tweets, she’ll keep them private. That’s an option many people take, though not one I recommend for authors. You can certainly do that at first, if you’re uncomfortable with it.

      Twitter’s just a lot of fun, and I hope you join us!

  13. I haven’t gone there yet, either. But I appreciate the information and will bookmark as I know the day is coming.

    • Jerrie, glad I could help. Do consider at least reserving a username for now, even if you don’t want to use it for a while. It would suck if someone else took your name!

  14. This is great, Jamie! I’m not on Twitter yet but you’ve definitely simplified it…if I’m ever brave enough to join a worldwide cocktail party. Thanks!

    • I hope you do, Bev. It’s a fun time over here in the Twitterverse. One of my favorite things about it is how quickly and EFFICIENTLY I get news about the publishing world. Rather than sift through PW or wait for the wire to pick up interesting news, I get it from the horse’s mouth.

  15. Rita Henuber says:

    I am on twitter and feel like a twit!
    I have a file folder on the subject with 22 items on the subject.
    Looking this over it is a good guide to weeding out and keeping what I need.
    Thank you. it really is a help. the only thing better is if you’d come and sit next to me as I learn.

  16. All things that twitter and tweet are outside my window. I like it that way, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?

    Great post, Jamie. I’m bookmarking in my “Just in Case” folder!

    • Gotcha, Gwynlyn. Looks like you’re sitting on the shore with Laurie and Hope — and a few others, I think. That’s fine, of course. I imagine that Twitter won’t exist in a few years, or it’ll be in some rather different incarnation.

  17. Misty Dietz says:

    Wow–completely awesome post. I too had not signed up for Twitter due to the fear/confusion factor. I did today. Thanks for the useful info!

  18. kelly fitzpatrick says:

    I am on Twitter alot, Tweeting, but I don’t really understand it. I throw stuff out there like little messages in a bottle. A lot of it looks like code and I skip over that sort of stuff. I don’t “get” hashtags and I don’t “get” the tiny little urls. I tried to minisize my website address and it wouldn’t work, so I gave up.

    I treat FB and Twitter different. I guess instead of putting the same news on both, I use them differently. And I’m not using them to their full advantage for sure.

    So, you had me until #9. Maybe I should try Tweetdeck, but I’m afraid, very very afraid.

    • Kelly, it sounds like you need my intermediate Twitter guide.

      Hashtags aren’t complicated. They’re only exactly what they appear to be: mashed-up phrases that people use to link conversations. Anyone can make one up. Anyone can use one. But beware of using something like “askeditor,” because editors watch that one.

      Tiny URLs are simply regular URLs that have been shortened by a redirection service for the sake of keeping tweets tiny. Many twitter clients (like Tweetdeck and Echofon) either automatically shorten URLs or offer you the choice to do so within your tweet window. If you want to shorten your link on your own, you can use, which is a free and VERY easy URL redirection service. You simply paste the URL you want to shorten into the text window, hit “shorten,” and it gives you a much shorter link to share. records all of those URLs with their new partners in its servers and automatically redirects anyone who clicks on that weird short URL to your sensible long URL.

      It’s really not hard. You should play around with it, just to see how it works. There are newer services that keep a portion of the original URL in the shorter URL, which is nicer for sharing.

      I think it’s a VERY good idea to treat Twitter and FB differently. I’d never say most of the crap I say on Twitter on Facebook. And since Twitter offers no image storing capabilities, Facebook remains a nice way to share pictures (though you can upload pictures to a Tweet, it’s just a few, and they’re not stored long-term in your profile or anything.)

      Tweetdeck makes everything EASIER. Trust me. Moving from Twitter to Tweetdeck was what made everything finally make sense for me.

  19. Jamie, you have delivered my favorite kind of instruction: simple, clear and entertaining. I’m looking forward to more of your insights about Twitter. Maybe I’ll be inspired to..uh..tweet? LOL

    • Jeanne, you’re very kind, and thanks for stopping by. It’s clear to me (thanks, Kelly!) that more Twitter education is still needed for this crowd, so I’ll certainly put another Twitter FAQ day on the calendar, perhaps a month or so from now.

  20. Tina Joyce says:

    Wow, Jamie, I kept using an if/then statement to justify my avoidance of Twitter: If I don’t understand Twitter, then I can just pretend it doesn’t exist. Rats…you’ve made it seem too easy. Now I have to go see what all the fuss is about.

    Seriously, thanks for the easy-to-understand instructions on how to sign up! I’ll still need a future Twittiquette blog, though, so I don’t shoot myself in the foot somewhere along the way.

  21. Wow, thanks for this informative post.

  22. Thanks for an informative post. It’s really helpful. Is there a place where established hashtags are listed?

  23. Dara says:

    Yep, I’m on Twitter. I only recently got caught up in it though. But I’m glad I did! And now I must go and add you all πŸ™‚

    BTW my name is dmarie84. I may change it in the future to my full name but hesitant to do that since my name is so unique.

  24. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Misty Evans, Jamie Michele. Jamie Michele said: On Twitter, but feel adrift? Run through my 9 steps to understanding Twitter and see what you're missing. Q&A, too! […]


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