Using Twitter for Writers

Before I joined Twitter, I thought it a bit of a frivolous, useless application. I wasn’t interested in telling people “I’m eating a muffin!” and I wasn’t interested in hearing which celebrities were currently eating muffins, and while I had heard that some people were really quite funny on Twitter, cheap laughs weren’t enough to interest me.

I think I eventually joined with the promise that it would enable me to build an audience, but even then I didn’t really know how. But I jumped in anyway, and slowly — every so slowly — I figured it out. Ok, so I still don’t have a lot of followers (just under 150 at the time of this writing, which is decent, but in the grand scheme of things isn’t a lot), but I have a much better understanding of why I have the followers I do, and what I want from my Twitter experience.

Because really, how you use Twitter depends entirely on what you want from it. I’ve had some people ask me about using Twitter, the hows and whys, so I thought I’d spend a few hundred words on my take.

Different Strokes

What you get out of Twitter depends entirely on what you put into Twitter. The key to getting what you want from it is to know what it is you have to do. I’ve found there are a few different kinds of Twitter users. (These are very broad and perhaps biased; your mileage may vary.)

Casual User: This is probably the vast majority of people on Twitter. They’re your broadest audience. They use Twitter to follow celebrities, or celebrity gossip, to get those 140-character bits of humour. Perhaps they use it among groups of friends to communicate or as a substitute for Facebook status updates.

They don’t put a lot of effort into Twitter, but they get entertainment and communication and perhaps (says the cynical me who has done this myself) the feeling of being closer to celebrity. I’m not passing a value judgment — this is a perfectly legitimate way to use Twitter, if that’s what you want from it.

Advertisers: Now I’m passing judgment. This could be coporations or it could be individuals with a product, service, or “brand” to share. But this kind of user doesn’t engage well with Twitter. Maybe they follow a few thousand people, hoping some will follow back. And then they blast their message. “Buy this, hire me for this, check out this deal.” If they’re a large corporation with an audience that wants to know when the next product is out, it might work. But generally, it won’t. See, there’s this funny thing about people: they don’t like being advertised to. If all you’re doing is asking me to buy your product, I’m just going to (gasp!) not follow you. And then you are rendered powerless.

The Engaged User: If you want Twitter to provide you with content, if you want a legitimate following that cares what you think and will ingest your content, if you want to form real relationships with people, then you must be an engaged user. You follow the people who will provide you with content. You find a community of voices in the areas that interest you. You retweet the kind of content you find most useful, in hopes that people will see you as a valuable resource yourself. You provide content, commentary, or links to things you find on your own. And you engage in conversation with those in the community.

Becoming an Engaged User

This is what I want from Twitter: to get content useful to me; to gain an audience for my own work; to make real connections with people and engage in discourse.

Fair warning: This is not a one-step process. This is not an overnight result. This is months of continual work and must continue unabated until you no longer want results.

Getting Content: Twitter is not a social network in the same way Facebook is. Twitter is, at its best, a way to find pertinent, timely, useful content and information. To do this, you must find people to follow who provide the kind of content that you want. This can be both people who create such content (bloggers, news sites, organizations) and those who aggregate it and send it to their similarly-minded followers (also often bloggers and news sites and organizations; they are the engaged users who do the next two steps as well).

Start with people you know, bloggers you read, people you’re interested in. Then watch what they’re putting on Twitter. Do they retweet someone else whose content you also like? Follow that person, too. Are you reading comments on a blog and come across one you particularly respect? Follow them.

You can also make use of hashtags — if you’re into transmedia, try searching the #transmedia hashtag and browsing the results to find people you think will be useful. Others that may be of interest to my readers: #writing, #epub, #pubtip, #askagent, #YAlitchat, #LGBT.

And don’t forget — you can always unfollow people. I’ve often followed someone thinking they’d provide useful content, and then removed them after a couple weeks when I decided that they weren’t worth my time. This can also serve as a warning as you seek to provide content.

Gaining an Audience: If one of your goals on Twitter is to gain a following of your own, then you need to be providing content that people will want to follow you to get. The most obvious way is if you’re writing your own blog posts, to tweet links to those. If there’s an appropriate hashtag, use it in the tweet so people not following you might still find it.

You can also provide twitter-wized commentary, the true microblog.

But also, retweet the content you find most useful. Be yourself an aggregator of content. On the one hand, you can become a valuable resource for people interested in the same things as you. On the other, the people you retweet may take notice, check out your profile, and choose to follow you. If you’re providing content, perhaps they’ll retweet you in return, immediately gaining you more potential views and followers.

Engage in the Community: Twitter is best served when it’s not one-way communication.

If Twitter is becoming an echo chamber, that’s your own fault; you choose who to follow. Choose wisely. —@glecharles

Retweeting is a part of this, certainly, but a truly engaged user goes beyond that. We comment on the things we RT, we engage in discussion with the people in our Twitter community. Conversations between two can turn into conversations between five, with dozens of others “listening”.

By engaging in this discourse, you immediately show your presence, and prove your value as a member of the community — and like I said above, that’s what people look for in who they follow when they want to make the most of their Twitter experience.

Final Thoughts

Jane Friedman wrote a great post about how her use of Twitter has evolved, which was partially the inspiration for this post. The comments there are particularly elucidating, as different people use Twitter in different ways — and some would disagree entirely with my approach here.

Nathan Bransford talks about how to use Twitter here.

Also check out this informative post about how Twitter is used, and where it’s going.

As you get into Twitter, you’ll also begin to see that a certain etiquette has evolved — thanking those who RT you is somewhat common, and shows a level of personal involvement; and always credit the source of an article or tweet. They’re things you’ll have to pick up — just watch how others act.

I don’t have tons of followers, but I only follow about 50 who would actually follow me back, which makes my ratio of friends to followers pretty decent (if what you’re looking for is a lot of followers). I know if I followed more people I’d probably get more followers, but that’s not how I want to use Twitter — the content I find useful would get lost in the noise. The important part is that I understand why I get what I get from Twitter.

How do you use Twitter? How do you get the most out of it? Have any tips of your own?

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