Getting Started on Twitter

photo by RuffLife

After weighing the pros and cons of Twitter last time, maybe you’ve decided to take the leap. But you’re understandably overwhelmed, because Twitter is a strange and mysterious land to the uninitiated. Never fear! I’m here with the basics of what you need to do to start off your Twitter life with a bang. And even if this Twitter thing is old hat to you, I hope you’ll give it a quick glance, because there are tips for everyone hiding in these basics. Let’s go!

1. Use the name you publish under.

If you’re joining Twitter for the sake of building your writing platform, you should use the exact name that you publish under. This helps readers avoid confusion. So if you publish under George K. Schmidt, that’s how you should fill out your name – not George Schmidt or George Karl Schmidt.

2. Make your handle as close to that name as possible.

Your Twitter name and your Twitter handle don’t have to match, but they should. Again, you’re working toward recognition and clarity. If the handle for your exact name is taken, choose the closest thing that makes sense and seems professional. Think @GKSchmidt, not @GeorgiePorgie.

3. Upload a photo of your face, or at least yourself. (No book covers.)

I know, I know. Some authors are so resistant to headshots. I can’t force you to come out of your shell, but I can say that people on Twitter want to talk to humans, not eggs, not logos, not your pet dog, and (sorry) not your book cover. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous your cover is or how smitten you are with it; people want to follow an author, not a book. Still can’t bring yourself to use a face shot? The next best thing is humanoid alternatives (silhouettes, profiles, cartoon renderings) – not landscapes or objects.

4. Fill out your bio.

You can edit your bio at any time, so there’s no need to be intimidated by this step. The trick to a Twitter bio is that it’s so short! Cover the basics. You’re a writer. Of what? Include published book titles or primary genres. If you’re agented, industry pros appreciate your sharing by whom. You can mention favorite topics or affiliations if you want, and infusing a little personality is always good.

Don’t waste bio space with website links; include your master website URL in the separate space provided. Don’t waste space with negatives. Skip the warnings and Twitter policies like “I don’t follow back” and “No DMs please.” And don’t clutter up your bio with hashtags! It looks a little tacky and makes your actual words difficult to read. Keep it clean, simple, and appealing.

5. Choose a design.

At bare minimum, choose a background image from Twitter’s pre-set options. If you want to stand out, use images from elsewhere (that you have the rights to!) to personalize your page. One of my favorite tips for writers who have many ‘homes’ online: make them cohesive with a color theme and/or design! That way followers familiar with your Twitter profile page will know they’re in the right place when they get to your website and see the same design. This is an easy way to “brand yourself,” and also to make new sites feel like your own.

6. Look around to get a feel for things.

Many of us, once we decide to do something, want to do it RIGHT THIS MOMENT. But you don’t have to cannonball into Twitter on the very same day you make an account. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Dip a toe in first! On the internet we call this “lurking.” Lurking at first is a good thing; it helps you get the lay of the land before you jump into action. So before you start spouting off tweets, browse around and see what other people are doing. Get a feel for what works, what doesn’t, and use that to guide you. It will likely save you some faux pas. Once you’ve lurked a little…

7. Tweet a few times to get started.

No one wants to follow spam accounts or inactive people. Before you start following people, tweet at least a few times so we can tell you’re just new – not a scary spambot.

8. Find some people to follow.

Find your friends, of course! You can find them by hooking Twitter to your Facebook account, email, etc., or just by asking for their handles. You can also follow the people your friends are following. And Writer Unboxed has a list of its contributors’ Twitter handles in their sidebar to the right.

Other ways to find people to follow? Twitter’s “Who to Follow” suggestions to the left of your timeline on the home page, people using hashtags that you’re interested in, and anyone else who looks interesting! [You can follow me @AnnieNeugebauer. If you say hi and/or mention you found me on Writer Unboxed, I’ll be happy to follow back!]

9. Say hi, introduce yourself, or join some conversations.

Not everyone follows back right away, and even if they do, you’ll want to interact with people. That’s the point, remember? This is not a mindless numbers race. So it’s a nice thing to do, especially when you’re starting out, to strike up conversations with the people you follow. It might seem weird at first, but that’s what Twitter is for! Think of it as a digital cocktail party; it’s expected and usually welcome to introduce yourself to new people and start chatting.

10. Start learning the basics.

As you go (it doesn’t have to be all at once), begin to familiarize yourself with the basics: the retweet, the hashtag, the @ mention (post coming soon), and Twitter lists. You won’t understand everything right away, but try to get a grasp on the essentials so you don’t feel so lost.

There you have it! Ten steps to get your feet wet. Just remember that Twitter comes with a learning curve, and no one starts out already knowing everything! Be patient with yourself, take your time, and stick with it. You’ll be chirping with the best of them in no time.

Are you on Twitter yet? What getting-started tips do you have to add?


About Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet with stories and poems appearing or forthcoming in over fifty venues, including Black Static, Deep South Magazine, Fireside, and Buzzy Mag. She's an active member of the Horror Writers Association and webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas. When Annie’s not frightening strangers with her writing, she’s most likely frightening her husband and their two cats, Buttons and Snaps.


  1. Markéta says

    I just returned to Twitter today! :)
    But not as much as writer as the SEO “person”, and mostly to read than post:)

  2. says

    Thanks for the great list! You offer a couple of suggestions that are helpful and I’ve been using Twitter for a while.

    I also use Hootsuite, it’s free and enables you to create streams for Sent Tweets, Mentions, My Tweets, ReTweeted, and Tweetchats that occur under a hashtag (at first, it felt a little intimidating to allow the APP to connect).

    I follow #litchat & #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) and a couple of others (chat groups). Anyone know of other hashtags that would be good for someone with a completed manuscript?

    Will follow!

  3. says

    I found Twitter intimidating when I thought about it primarily as Serious Writer Platform, but then I started tweeting about a TV show I’m ridiculously passionate about (So You Think You Can Dance) and had a blast joining in with other fans of that show. That was my entrance into Twitter, and I expanded from there. So starting with *non-writing* tweets was my key.

    • says

      I think you’ve just touched on one of the keys to Twitter for writers, Natalie! Twitter isn’t an inherently professional platform. (It’s called *social* media for a reason!) And yes, we want to remember that professionals can see us there and not cross certain lines, etc., but by and large the best use is a personal one. So tweeting about things we love really does help us connect with others on an individual level, and that’s really the whole point. Readers want to connect with authors, not books or corporations, so our individuality is really our strength. Keep up the good work! I’m so glad you’ve found a way in. :)

  4. Poeticus says

    For a promotional and publicity strategy, Twitter and other social media, for me, don’t fill the bill. They have partial benefits that are far outweighed by enormous resource committments: time, effort, thought, response research and development, maybe actual monetary costs, at least in terms of interferring with revenue-producing work.

    Instead, my social networking marketing strategy hinges upon a twofold approach that’s driven by each other; one, limit social network access; two, deploy on more difficult-to-establish yet less overall resource-consuming platforms.

    I would, however, select an expert “official” Twitter, and other social networking media, spokesperson to accommodate Twitter and such fans on my behalf. I’d stop by for meaningful visit episodes.

    Otherwise, I’d limit social media access to respectful, conscientious, thoughtful, and concise social network contacts.

    How? Web site with server-side text inquiry form to capture contacts’ concise, meaningful messages, a self-limited time committment and limited amount of inquiries to be responded to, of a meaningful nature, even if at times a message might be of a disagreeing though welcome, relevant nature.

    Frankly, I feel the number of embedded objects many social media-type sites’ web pages call from external sources clutters web sites — they are overdone — may and do cause page load problems and may and do cause site and system glitches. My writer web site won’t have them.

    • says

      There’s nothing wrong with not liking or using Twitter! In fact I’ve said that a few times in my Twitter posts here at Writer Unboxed. If it doesn’t accomplish what you want it to – and I agree that it’s not very powerful for most in terms of self-promotion – why waste your time? I think Twitter has other benefits, but if it’s not for you it’s not for you! I’m glad you have a plan and know what you want. Good luck!

  5. says

    Terrific advice, Annie. I’m a Twitter guy all the way. The sharing culture of Twitter and the valuable knowledge you can gain from following the right people are what hooked me.

    • says

      Thanks so much, CG! That’s pretty much what hooked me, too. There are things I’ve learned from industry folks on Twitter that I simply haven’t seen anywhere else. That’s great value!

  6. says

    I got on Twitter a few months ago and was completely flummoxed for awhile! =) But I’m starting to figure it out and having fun w/it. I’m glad I finally listened to my critique partner and joined!

    • says

      Hi Leandra! I was overwhelmed and frustrated for at least a few weeks when I first got on Twitter. I thought about quitting daily, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Now the whole culture and etiquette of it feels natural to me, and I’ve gained so much there that I wouldn’t have elsewhere. I’m really glad you’re sticking with it and catching on! Thanks for the follow, too. If you ever run into any Twitter questions I’d be happy to answer them as best I can. :)

  7. CK Wallis says

    Thanks for the tips! I’ve been putting #’s 3-10 to work this afternoon.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t get these tips in time to use the first two; I set up my Twitter account a few weeks using my name, instead of the name I hope will be my pen name (which I do use here). Now what? Is there any way to change it?

    And, since the first draft of my first WIP is only about half finished, do I really need to be concerned about any of this right now? I confess to feeling a little frustrated (and guilty) about spending so much of my writing time today on social media. How much time do people spend maintaining a social media presence? I’m sure it’ll get faster as I become more familiar with the various formats, but right now, while I appreciate the opportunity to connect with other writers and people with similar interests, part of me feels like this is a huge
    time waster.

    And, while I’m on the subject, I also confess that I can’t help but wonder what kind of work our literary role models would have accomplished if they had been devoting some of their time and attention to creating and maintaining “a platform”? Would Jane Austen have Tweeted? Would F.S. Fitzgerald been on Facebook? Would Tolstoy have blogged? Would Boris Pasternak have maintained a website? (Hmmm….) Not that my stories come close to theirs, but I do wonder if the modern (writing) world is conducive to creating “stand-the-test-of-time” classics.

  8. says

    Hi CK! Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and I’m sorry that it got lost in the black hole for a while. (WU has been experiencing some technical difficulties. I put it up myself this time so I could answer your questions.)

    First things first, yes, you can absolutely change both your Twitter handle and name! To change your name, go to Settings (the little gear in the top right corner) –> Edit Profile –> Profile –> and change your name in the blank that says “Name.” To change your user handle (the @Whatever part), go to Settings –> Edit Profile –> Account –> and change the blank that says “Username.” The only caveat is that your handle must be something not already taken by someone else.

    Your worries about wasting time are well-founded. Twitter can ABSOLUTELY be a huge time drain! On one hand, industry professionals all seem to agree that it’s never too early to start “building your platform.” On the other hand, as I mentioned in a comment above, Twitter is less useful for building an audience and more useful for networking, learning, and support. So if your main purpose right now is simply building a platform, I would definitely limit my time. A good starting place would be no more than 15-30 minutes a day. (You might be surprised by how much you can accomplish in such a short but concentrated amount of time.)

    On the other hand, Twitter is a good place for new writers to learn about the industry. You don’t want to get so involved you feel overwhelmed, but if you’re starting out it’s a great place to simply learn things. You might focus right now on following agents, editors, and people in the know (like many of the great columnists here at Writer Unboxed) simply to get inside tips rather than trying to build an audience. Then again, if you find it taking up writing time you’ll have to be your own judge of value and what the right balance is.

    Personally, I have no doubt that the literary greats would’ve been on Twitter, blogs, etc. if they lived today. Very few people are immune to culture, and like it or not this is the culture we writers live in now. That said, I also have no doubt that such quality authors were also work horses who would know when to shut off the internet and get back to work. :)

  9. Peggy Biggs says

    Great advice! I love your marketing tips about coordinating color themes & designs for your Twitter page and other websites, using the same pictures of yourself, and keeping your name exactly the same as the name you publish under.

    • says

      Thank you! That’s one of my favorite tricks. :) I don’t use the exact same designs every time, but I do use the same style of pattern (damask) when possible and the same shades (of orange and purple). I even use the same colors on my business cards! I learned the importance of keeping a recognizable head shot when some of the people I follow on Twitter changed their profile pictures and I couldn’t remember who they were. So now I keep the same photo as long as I can stand it and then give people a heads up when I swap them out.

  10. says

    Your post reminds me of the complete sense of panic I had when I first hopped on Twitter (back in 2010). Whoa… it’s been a long time! Great reminders, Annie.

  11. says

    I’ve just finished my first Promoted Tweet campaign after three years of a casual, low-level engagement with writers, publishers, and agents. It was immensely satisfying (in an adrenaline-soaked way) seeing who engaged with my campaign and who started following me because they liked the event I was promoting.

    That having been said, I know more than I did at the beginning of the campaign. I also learned that I knew far less about social media than I thought I did.

    • says

      Oh, that’s interesting, Ron! I’ve never tried a promoted tweet before, although I see them often. Did you feel it was worthwhile? I can’t quite see myself doing a campaign like that, but I’m glad you feel you learned from it.

  12. says

    I’m rather fond of twitter and have been on there for a number of years. Is fun as a unique form of social interaction, tho it’s not for everybody.

    I don’t entirely agree with #3, because I’ve seen people successful on twitter who use their book covers. Also, during a networking panel at FOGcon, it was suggested that in some cases using the cover can be beneficial, because followers entering a bookstore may have a moment of recognition that could bring them to buy the book. (It’s worked for me, as a book reader.)

    Also, another thing that’s important for new tweeters to remember is to not focus solely on marketing. Twitter is a form of entertainment itself and no one wants to be sold to all the time. A lot of people site the 80/20 rule, in which out of every ten posts, eight will be random tweets about yourself, links to good articles, and other content tweeters might find entertaining or useful, and then two posts that represent self marketing.

    • says

      Hi Andrea! There are exceptions to every rule, no doubt, and I only teach from the practices I find best, so there’s certainly room for disagreement. Interestingly, the 80/20 concept (give more than you ask for things, etc.) is why I’m not a fan of book covers as profile pictures. It’s very off-putting to me; it says right away that the person is on Twitter primarily for marketing a product. Now if the person is already famous or I’m already interested, that might not be a bad thing. But if it’s a product I’m not interested in, I get tired of feeling pushed all the time. Not to mention that Twitter avies are very small squares, and book covers don’t show up well visually. (And they change more frequently than a person does, going back up to Peggy’s comment.) I do, however, think building cover recognition is a very smart thing to do. I’m all for using book covers as header and/or background images, and for displaying them prominently on one’s own website. But that’s just me!

      • says

        I can see what you mean about the cover feeling solely like a marketing, ploy. How the cover is cropped for the icon can have an impact on that, I’m sure.

        I think it also works better for twitter accounts where I already trust the author, someone I’ve been following on twitter for a while or who’s twitter interactions are entertaining enough to make it feel less like marketing.

        • says

          Sure, I think that could work sometimes! As I’ve said before (probably far too often), all of the “rules” are actually guidelines, and most can be broken well. For example, I know at least 3 or 4 people off the top of my head who’ve used handles different than their names to great success! So as always, I encourage everyone to take what works for them and leave the rest. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Andrea!

  13. says

    Use the name you published under is excellent idea. I wish I heeded it. I’ve built my more than 1,100 Twitter following using lustful graces. Now I dread the idea of starting all over with Leanne Dyck. And I don’t have a book currently in print. So… (you can’t see me but I’m scratching my head)

    • says

      Oh, you don’t have to start all over! Luckily, you can change your Twitter handle and/or username at any time without losing your current account! If you scroll up a few threads to my response to CK Wallis’s comment you can see the step-by-step on how to do that. If you decide to change your handle, however, be sure to tweet from your current one a few times first letting your followers know that’s what you’re doing so they don’t get confused. Good luck, Leanne!