(this was the first thing that come up when I Google-imaged “online writing community”)

Last week Darby Larson and I had a brief discussion over at HTMLG regarding Annalemma and its submissions policy, but that’s not what this post is about. Without recounting the entire conversation (it’s at the bottom of the thread, you can read it here), we got on the topic of community, to which Darby said:

“i come at it a little differently maybe as an editor, not so community-driven. i dont think of submissions as potential forgings of relationships or trying to help writers get better. just words for me. ones i like stay, ones i dont go away, not much else.”

This comment cocked my head a bit. Wouldn’t it be in your best interest to be community driven? Wouldn’t it benefit you in the long-run to forge relationships? That’s why communities are formed. So a group of like-minded individuals can work together towards a common goal. I was going to bring this up in the thread but it was Friday and the weekend loomed and I had steam to blow off. So I bring it up here now.

There is a very good chance that if you’re reading this you are a member of the online writing community. Let me ask you this: Are they just words to you? Are you simply interested in publishing wherever you can, regardless of the format? Are you working towards a goal that benefits your own interests of becoming a famous writer? Or are you publishing and writing with the community in mind? Do you wish the success of the places you publish? Wouldn’t that ultimately mean the success of your own writing?


  1. ce. says:

    When I first began submitting in my later undergrad years, I had no real thoughts of community or anything–simply getting my words out there, and sure, when my first pub came out in a journal, I tried to entice my friends and family to check out the journal, but again, it was simple promotion of my own pub, not necessarily out of any sense of community.

    Now, I’ve a much different mentality and approach to it. Having now lived and written for a couple years in a place devoid of a real writing community, and now having found a community of like-minded and equally impassioned writers and editors online, I have become a firm believer of what community-building can do for the success of the whole, even if that whole is somewhat esoteric in its online nature and scattered around the U.S./world.

    This also comes on the back of what I’ve been doing locally with bicycle advocacy, how making community-building a priority in the overall mission creates a loyal and energetic audience, simply because they want and feel as though they’re a part of something, as though they’re making a difference and being heard.

    And so this mentality has begun to overlap with my thoughts on the writing/small press community. At a base level, I think we all write because we want to be heard, and editors edit because they want their aesthetic to be heard, and possibly both want to make something of a difference, if not in the world at large, then in the literary world. I know personally, I don’t know that I care to be a “famous writer,” but I like to think I’ve something to share, and community is about sharing in one sense.

    It strikes me as odd that someone would care to simply get their words out without caring about an underlying sense of “sharing” their words, receiving feedback and response, reading and engaging with what others are sharing. I mean, I get it I suppose–some people just want to read and that’s that, but as writers, I’m not sure how one and just consume and submit in that way without wanting to share.

    (These are roaming thoughts; I’m at work so I can’t much time to really create a cogent “argument” so to speak. Just some immediate reflections I had on the subject.)

  2. chris says:

    I’m thinking the same thing, Chris. As I mentioned in the HTMLG thread, I’m interested in writing and publishing in order to connect with readers and expose some of the best writing I can. And while I haven’t talked to them about it, I like to think that this is the same goal that some of my favorite publications are working toward as well.

    It seems to me that if your run a publication your goal would be to “share” it with as many people as possible. And the building of a community can only help spread that word, so why wouldn’t you want to do that?

    I don’t know if this is getting close to the art-for-art’s-sake argument, I’m not really interested in going there. I’m more interested in figuring out the purpose of publishing if you’re not working toward creating a network of readers and writers, through which you can share your work and ideas. If you’re running a publication, aren’t you doing that by default?

  3. Roxane says:

    I don’t… no, I can’t look at the editor/writer relationship as a means of simply collecting words I like. At PANK we definitely like sustaining relationships with writers. It’s one of the reasons we give feedback. We’ll publish a writer more than once. We try to start conversations on the blog, all to try and be some small part of the larger writing community. One of the main reasons we do this is because we live in a remote place where there isn’t a writing community so in that void, community has become more important than ever. As a writer, I definitely have ambitions but community is always a consideration.

  4. Brad Green says:

    Community all the way. If you divorce words from a sense of community you end up with arrangements of alphabet that tend toward solipsism. This is not beneficial for the world-at-large, the world we must live in.

    Publishing is becoming a more social activity.

  5. Ian B. says:

    It seems to me that if there isn’t a community, there isn’t really anyone to read your work in the first place. After all, it seems to majority of the audience of lit mags is other writers. And most of our “press” is actually word of mouth. So just for the sake of having a place to publish at all, we’d need a writing community.

  6. michael says:

    I don’t know. is it different for editors and writers?

    For writers, it’s nice, especially in the beginning… but at what point does “community” trump the work? Where does striving to be a community member take precedence over striving to make something singular and great? And once we create a community, aren’t we naturally creating walls. Those in the community and those not. Small tribes of writers and editors who mostly publish each other. (Which is fine and basically the way it’s always been.) But in a community based on online feedback and socializing, there’s a popularity-contest element that is a little disconcerting. Traditional NYC publishing is/was a community and it had clear paths to entry. The communities that are forming now are a little different and the idea that you need a FB account to be in, says something, not sure what.

    It’s nice that writers are no longer ‘alone’ and have easy access to like-minded people. But there’s a pretty strong argument that, traditionally, being alone is where the good work happens.

    To completely contradict this… for editors, it makes sense to create a stable of writers whose work you know and like and you can nurture. It’s your name on the journal and it only makes sense that the journal and its writers represent your aesthetic and efforts.

  7. darby says:

    hi chris, thanks for forwarding this discussion a bit. i think my editorial philosophy w/r/t community is still developing and im not as adverse to community as i used to be, but i’m still wary of it. i dont have a ‘goal’ in all this except filling saturday slots with a kind of aesthetic im interested in. im not trying to harvest a readership. i dont even track readership. the project is simple and sustainable as long as people are willing to submit, so im not interested in growing beyond that. i dont have to sell anything. im in a position of just doing this in my spare time with no desire to make it full time. the practice is solipsistic i suppose, but theres no harm really, i mean read it if you want, if not, dont, or submit if you want, or not, no skin. i have no expectations for readers or for the writers who submit.

    i view a desire for community as a healthy thing, in and of itself. i get my community fill in other spheres, and i have no problem with journals that attempt to build communities. i always, i guess, think of reading and writing as very solitary things, and i love that they are solitary things, its where i go when i need solitariness and introspection. i kind of dont want other people crowding around it. i just want to sit in my chair alone and read a good book is all.

  8. chris says:

    Michael: I get that. Creating a community, by definition, creates divides. Even if the community claims to be all inclusive there’s still probably going to be tacit agreement in terms of what flies an what doesn’t, what deserves praise and what deserves to be ignored. However, my vision of an online writing community is something that promotes unity regardless of aesthetic difference. I may not be into most of the stuff muumuu house publishes but I respect the hell out of Tao Lin for doing it.

    Regarding having an FB account in order to be a part of the burgeoning community, I don’t see that as a negative. What it amounts to is a lot of water cooler talk and cheer leading which is, at best, encouragement and at worst, a distraction and marketing tool. Besides, there’s countless talented writers within the community, successful and not-so-successful, that have no FB account, so I’m not really seeing that as a password into a secret club. Though social media skills are a boon these days, a writer lives and dies by their words. And no amount of twittering can change that.

    And regarding the idea that the best work happens when you’re alone, I absolutely agree. Good writing hardly comes out of committee think, and that’s something to be wary of when entering a workshop. But I think this is a totally different situation. There’s a very strong argument that you get better at writing by being around writers better at it than you. And if you don’t have a lot of writers in your area, the next best thing can be sending out an email or starting a conversation on a blog…

    Darby: Thanks for weighing in. I get where you’re coming from and it sounds like a damn good place. One of the appeals of reading and writing is the solitary pleasure that it can provide. That’s one of the reasons I love it too.

    But I’m the type of guy who needs a crusade. One thing that changed my life is writing and storytelling. It’s become my gospel. And I go out and preach it as much as I can. Not really to convert people, cause I know you can’t change anyone’s mind who doesn’t want it changed, but to locate people who feel the same way. I know there’s kids out there in small towns without good lit scenes and they’re hungry for it. I want to be yet another outlet for them, cause there really wasn’t one for me when I was growing up.

  9. Hee – you stole my picture (but I don’t mind because it makes Molly, my beagle, look like such a rock star)!

    I am the coordinator of an online writing community – Shenandoah Writers Online – no doubt a reason you found Molly’s famous bee picture and my site through Google. The whole reason I started SWO was to create a sense of community. I’d recently moved to a new state and switched careers from, you know, *having one* to writing full time – heh – so I’d lost the social aspect to my job in an instant.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Chris: it’s not essential to Tweet, FB, or blog in order to be successful. These are marketing tools. and, though *successful* marketing tools, I sometimes find they can hinder my writing in that they can take me away from writing that which is most important to me (my MSS).

    And, yes, it’s true that a writer’s best work comes from being alone (in the “butt in chair and WRITE” sense), but I find great comfort in being able to sort out the details of a plot or just bouncing ideas off my writing friends. Feeding off another’s energy can give me the recharging I sometimes need. Spending the weekend at a writers’ conference can do that, too. At most of those, you’ve got writers of several genres, coming together for a common goal – and yet, just being around like-minded folks can be just what one needs to spark his productivity. Sometimes talking with a writer whose goals lie on the other end of the writing spectrum from your own can give you a kernel of something you never would have had, had you not had differing opinions.

    But writers feel a need to share – that’s why we write. To contribute something to an audience – to connect with others. To leave a mark on someone. Somewhere.

    In terms of writing words just to get as many of them out there as possible, however/wherever you can, I don’t host live chats and contests and write blog posts to stroke my ego or make myself seem more important than I am; I do it to share what I’ve learned in hopes that others may benefit from it. I write novels in order to connect with an audience and, hopefully, leave some kind of impact on their lives. And my group members follow suit. Sharing ideas makes us all better writers.

    Just like anything else, however, one needs to achieve a balance of community and alone-time in terms of writing. This will lead to optimal results – one who gets the words written and also cultivates an audience eager to read them. I don’t know too many writers who wouldn’t consider that being successful – no matter how small the scale.

    And, I’m sorry, but if one is writing merely for the “glory”/to be “famous,” they obviously don’t know enough about the business or haven’t been doing it long enough. So much of the business of being a writer is so agonizing – and it’s often for little reward. More often than those who make the NYTimes bestseller list, writers’ dreams of being published aren’t even realized – let alone becoming famous from writing. Anyone in it for “the fame” is grossly under-informed.

    People’s motivations vary, but to me, a true writer does so to leave a mark on the world – and does so with purpose. Anyone can start a blog and Tweet/post on Facebook about articles just to write words. But if he has nothing to say, his audience will dwindle in a hurry.

  10. chris says:

    Well said, Ricki. Thanks for letting me poach the photo! It’s a good one.

  11. It’s a form of torture, I know. :)

  12. Nathan Goldman says:

    Ian makes an important point: when we’re talking about literature (particularly short form), the writers, editors, and readers are usually all the same crowd of people. I don’t know a single person who subscribes to a literary magazine and is not a writer seeking publication themselves. (I’m sure there ARE non-writers who read lit mags, but I doubt it is the majority.) So a community in some sense of the word is essential to the model.

    As a writer, I would love to be published – not anywhere – but almost anywhere. Anywhere my writing would be read and maybe liked. There are definitely publications whose aesthetic I love and that I love to read, and to be published in one of those would mean much more to me than being published in some journal I have one sample issue of that I don’t even like. But publication is publication, and you do have to start somewhere. I would definitely wish for the success of anywhere that published me – I would wish for the success of any literary publication, because the world would suck more if such things didn’t exist any more.

    I understand how frustrating it must be for editors to constantly receive work that makes no sense for their publication, because writers send out manuscripts rapid fire and many don’t bother to learn anything about the places they submit. I think the cause of this is lack of patience. Writers tend to feel, once the writing/editing is done, that their piece needs to be sent out instantly and constantly so that maybe, just maybe, someone will print it, and maybe someone will print the next one, and maybe they can get an agent, and maybe they can quit their day job … etc. It’s a race. And for that reasons I think it’s a hard trend to stop. Personally, after seeing a lot of discussion on this topic, on this site and elsewhere, I’ve tried to become more considerate in my submitting, and I think in the long run this will help me develop relationships with editors and find places where my work fits.

  13. chris says:

    I think you’re on the right track, Nathan. I agree that the main crowd reading lit mags is the writers themselves. What I’m interested in is getting outsiders reading indie lit. I don’t see why this isn’t possible. People like shopping at independent bookstores, they like going to see independent movies, why not indie lit?

    I don’t know about yall but 90% of my friend base has no clue about the quality of writing that goes on in this scene. And people want to read. It makes them feel good. When was the last time you recommended a book to your friends that wasn’t a classic or a bestseller?

    The onus is on us as writers and publishers to expose this scene to readers outside of ourselves. There’s a big blog post on this subject. I can feel it.

  14. Nathan Goldman says:

    Excellent point. I don’t know why non-filmmakers go crazy over Sundance, non-musicians read Pitchfork daily, but non-writers don’t read indie lit.

    Let’s expose the scene! Blog it.

  15. Nathan Goldman says:

    I’m not sure how you go about exposing, though. Super Bowl ad?

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