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Writer Friends: The Rules of the Community

[clock] 7-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: April 30, 2013

writing community rules

The following post is part of our online companion to our Spring 2013 issue on The Business of Literature. Click here for an overview of the issue.

We met as fans, which is to say that we read each other’s writing and wished for more of it in the world. Few of us have met each other in person, although it’s always a bit of a jolt when we do—we’ve known each other’s minds and words, but have only had a thumbnail image of what those brains were wrapped in. The speaking voice is always a shock.

We talk up each other’s books and repost each other’s new publications on Facebook and Twitter. When we’re struggling with some business-related detail or see an interesting call for submissions, we call out on social media, “Hey, writer friends!” When we’re struggling with mojo gone missing, we look to the community for reassurance.

We’ve heard the gripe that there are too many writers—so many, in fact, that agents can’t read more than a paragraph of our manuscripts before making a decision. Editors take upwards of a year to respond. No one gets paid well because there are so many of us willing to work for free.

What are we to do? It’s not as if we’re going to be manipulated into participating in some literary hunger game, where the last one standing gets a plum regular writing gig with one of the big magazines or a juicy book deal.

Is there jealousy among us? Probably, because we’re human, although we agree it’s bad form to talk about it publicly. The jealousy was worse when were younger; we’re all now far enough along that we can recognize that only we can write what we’re writing. When we read somebody’s work that makes our teeth hurt with its awesomeness, it’s not exactly jealousy that overcomes us. It’s a certain kind of wistfulness, a certain awareness of what we lack in our own toolboxes. A sense of humor that makes the reader giddy. A doggedness in reporting. A talent for synthesizing seemingly unrelated ideas into a gorgeous piece of writing. A precise eye for detail, an intellectual edge, an ability to master more than one genre.

We writer friends, we swoon over each other.


However, there are some unspoken rules.

These rules can be summed up with the overarching theme of Act Like a Normal Person.

We don’t know what it is about publishing that makes some writers lose both their minds and common sense, but many of us have been victim to another writer’s bad manners. The more successful among us have felt the weight of other writers trying to ride our coattails.

The rest of us have endured conferences where other writers try to establish their importance, aren’t interested in an actual conversation, and vampire the energy from the room. We’ve spoken with writers who drop the phrase “my agent” so many times, one might suspect the two were lovers. We’ve been cut off mid-sentence at the mere appearance of someone better known than us. We’ve had writers we don’t even know ask big favors. We understand the blurb requests that come out of nowhere—we’ve been there ourselves—but the demands to post an Amazon review, the insistence that we publicize work when there’s been no reciprocal effort, the incessant social media without a glimmer of the human life behind it? It irritates us because it undermines our wish to be generous.

And we want to be generous—it’s practically the only currency we have. We’ve all been the recipients of good will from writer-mentors who’ve gone before us. We don’t dole out our editorial contacts to just anyone, but we have soft spots for people who are just starting out. But, while it sounds terrible to say, the key is to know your place. Put another way: if you’re a community theater actor, you don’t tweet to Meryl Streep that you’d appreciate a shot to co-star in her latest movie.


People say the power is shifting from the publishing industry professionals to the writers themselves. One of the more compelling bits we’ve seen on the subject was by comedian/actor/writer Patton Oswalt. In a talk at the 2012 Just for Laughs Festival, Oswalt read two letters—one to his fellow comedians and another to the gatekeepers.

(You can watch the talk here or see a fan’s transcription of it here.)

To his community, he wrote, in part:

I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.

We’re seeing this notion take form in a lot of our friends. A lot of you out there. You, for instance, the person we’re writing to. Your podcast is amazing. Your videos on your YouTube channel are getting better and better every single one that you make, just like when we did open mics, better and better every week. Your Twitter feed is hilarious.

To the gatekeepers, he wrote:

In a couple of years it’s going to be f—g equal. I see what’s f—g coming. This isn’t a threat; this is an offer. We like to create. We’re the ones who love to make shit all the time. You’re the ones who like to discover it and patronize it support it and nurture it and broadcast it. Just get out of our way when we do it.

This applies to us writers as well.

We’re seeing it happening. Some of the most exciting short-form writing out there is coming out of writer communities. The Nervous Breakdown began as a literary community headed by Brad Listi. The Rumpus was founded by Stephen Elliott and a cohort of his friends. Dear Teen Me started as a project founded by E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Keaneally, who’ve gone on to publish an anthology of primarily young adult authors writing letters to their teen selves. And those are just a few groups of writer friends finding ways to reach an audience.

Some of us are part of these communities, and some of us aren’t. But all of us are beginning to understand what we can do as a collective. We talk about VIDA (itself a community) and figure out the markets that do or don’t want us. We discuss the new realities of publishing: some of us are frustrated that few of us can make a living wage writing; others of us know, in our heart of hearts, that we were never going to make a living wage with our work anyway. We talk contracts and fees and all the little details that kept us in our figurative isolated rooms with the pen and notebook.

The talk of the nitty gritty is essential, but our bonds are made from the intangibles. We take heart when someone whose work we admire receives rejection, just like the rest of us. We’re the ones who advise each other to get as revved up about the potential good news as much as we want; it won’t sting any less if the deal doesn’t go through. We’re the living examples of writers whose prose has gotten better—deeper, more gripping, more assured—over the years. It’s easy to get drained of our individual dreams. Essentially, we writer friends are the spigot of hope.


About the author: Jennifer Niesslein (@jniesslein) is a writer and editor living in Charlottesville, Virginia; she blogs regularly for VQR. Visit her website at


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Christopher Schuck's picture
Wow. That’s somre really powerful, motivating stuff. Read like a keynote at Writer’s of the Future. Thank you for that.
jo bourne's picture
jo bourne · 3 years ago
I found so many insights in this. Things I knew, but hadn’t put into words. Thank you
Elaine Olund's picture
Elaine Olund · 3 years ago
Great points, thank you for this. Helpful to consider as we navigate a changing world.
Susan Kushner Resnick's picture
Great piece. I comfort myself by believing that those writers who thoughtlessly claw their way to the top have nothing else in their lives.
Jennifer Niesslein's picture
Jennifer Niesslein · 3 years ago
Thanks so much for the kind words, everyone! (And, Sue, on a related note, a long time ago, I was the calendar editor/ receptionist for a local paper. You wouldn’t believe how many people screwed themselves out of good coverage by not being nice to the lowly receptionist.)
Teagan Kearney's picture
Thank you, Jennifer, for this lovely summary of today’s fluid writing scene. I feel energized and raring to go now! Best wishes
Karen Wyld's picture
I’ve been feeling a bit social media fatigued lately, after seeing a few too many examples of look-at-me behavior, and unwillingness to put in the hard work; especially on writer facebook pages and G+ communities. So your words really hit the mark for me, thanks.
Gerry Wilson's picture
Jennifer, thanks for this remarkable piece. I expect most of us have been in a room full of writers, face to face with one whose eyes constantly wander in search of somebody more significant to talk to. I’m part of an online writing community that I value; we cheer each other on and commiserate when things don’t go so well. Yet I’m with Karyn–a bit social-media fatigued. You’ve reminded me that what really matters is sitting down to the writing work and making it the best it can be. This article is a keeper, one I’ll reread. Thanks much.

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