That Overused Word “Community”—But Why We Still Have to Talk About It

by Richard O York / via Flickr

by Richard O York / via Flickr

I’ve just wrapped up another semester at the University of Virginia, where I teach digital media and publishing. Many of my students undertake 10-12 week publishing projects that involve generating content from scratch and trying to get attention for it. The ones who gain traction are inevitably those who feel more comfortable reaching out to people through social media, or trying to spread the word through influencers in their network. (In the case of UVA, everyone talks about “getting Dean Groves” to participate in some way. He must be bombarded with innumerable requests for his time. Sorry, Dean Groves.)

At the end of their project, I ask students to reflect on what they might have done differently, and the responses are almost always identical (even though I tell them exactly what their response will be on the first day of class):

  • I should’ve posted more often to my friends [via social media] what I was writing.
  • I wish I’d done a better job connecting with people who could’ve helped.
  • I didn’t start spreading the word soon enough.
  • It was so hard to get readers, I wish I had tried different tactics sooner.

Early on, I recommend they identify people who might take a natural interest in their content or the goals of their project—identifying the online or offline community who cares.

Similarly, writers trying to build a platform are often advised to “engage with the community,” or “be an authentic member of the community,” or “share valuable content with the community.”

This advice is mostly a cliche now—meaningless and empty words. What does it mean to “engage with a community?” Even I have a hard time putting it into concrete terms. It’s probably easier to describe what it looks like when you try to platform build without paying any attention whatsoever to community.

1. Are you blogging in a complete vacuum?

Writers often receive the misguided advice to blog. (I discuss that in-depth here.) Even worse, they’re given no instruction on how important it is to research and understand the community they’re about to enter. That doesn’t mean you need to know and meet every blogger out there (or comment regularly), but you should identify every blogger already well-known for the topic you’ll focus on. If you’re blogging about literary fiction, you better keep an eye on sites like The Millions or Large-Hearted Boy, among dozens of others.

Why is this important? Because your early traffic will likely come from other bloggers or sites in the community, and you should be talking about or sharing their stuff, engaging on Twitter or elsewhere, and offering your own perspective on topics they cover. This helps them become familiar with you long before you might ask them for a favor. (See No. 3 below.)

Bloggers who acknowledge the importance of community often do link round-ups and point to valuable content elsewhere (these sites know when you link to them and send them traffic). Even if your footprint is small, being a thoughtful literary citizen is a first step to becoming a blogger (or online writer) anyone pays attention to.

What was my first community-driven initiative? Best Tweets for Writers, a weekly roundup of the best tweeted links I found, sharing other people’s compelling content. That’s how I began building a meaningful presence through my blog—and also through social media.

2. Are your social media posts bereft of any mention of other people or organizations?

When you just tweet or post your own stuff, you’re missing an opportunity to be noticeable to others in the community. When you show up only to talk about yourself, like at any party or social function you’re missing an opportunity to be helpful or to develop a relationship with a like-minded person.

For some writers, this is simply a lack of knowledge about social media tools; they’re too new to the platform to understand how to “work the room” with effectiveness. For example, you need to use Twitter handles when talking about people’s work if you want them to notice your tweet. Or you need to use hashtags common within the community when offering particular tips. You have to tag people on Facebook to make sure they know a conversation is happening around a topic they’re interested in (or mentioned in). You shouldn’t do these things nefariously, of course, only when merited. (See No. 3.)

3. Are you making an ask without any engagement beforehand?

This happens all the time on social media. Someone uses my handle, or posts on my wall, or otherwise shouts in my ear—in the hopes I might look at their work or share their stuff.

But there’s no prior relationship. I’ve never heard of them in my life.

Sometimes writers think social media “networking” is about bugging people to help them. But if you want to ask a favor, it’s far better to warm up your connection first. Retweet or share their stuff. Comment on their blog. Offer something useful to them. Act like a real person who cares beyond the favor you plan to ask later. That’s the best way to ensure that when you ask for help, your “target” doesn’t feel used.

4. Are you in a big rush?

I receive a lot of consultation requests from people who want to build their platform and “break out big” … within the next three months. Or from people who realize very belatedly that it can take a village to properly launch a book, and are now scrambling to get attention … months after their book has launched with disappointing results.

When gurus talk about building platform, mainly they’re talking about your ability to sell books—because you’re so highly visible. Unless you have some important connections to speed you to success—or the benefit of timing or luck or accidental celebrity—then the most important requirement for building platform successfully is TIME.

If you lack the time or patience to see results, you’ll end up doing all kinds of crazy Hail Marys, or engaging in bad behavior on social media. You’ll look for shortcuts that probably don’t pay off, or you’ll pay too much to reach people who ultimately don’t care about what you do.

But when you’ve understood the value of community long before you need to put it to work? When you’ve spent years in genuine and sustainable conversation with people—at both “real life” events and online? Then you’ve authentically “engaged the community.”

Posted in Marketing & Promotion and tagged , , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Vishal Ostwal

I read this post right after making my Facebook Page. I am in the process of building a community for my blog. But sometimes it feels like I’m doing it too early. And sometimes I do things quickly so as to not have the regret of being late. (The confusion is always there)

I got to read this post at the right time Jane.


Ann Stanley

Thanks for the reminder that we have to connect, but I’m confused about something. If we blog, tweet, and so on about writing, so that we have a face in the writing community, won’t we turn off potential readers who could care less about craft and publishing? If that means having two sets of social media streams, how can someone who has to work a ‘day job’ find the time to do all of that?


I’m most active on FB, Twitter and my blog Afghan Culture Unveiled. I mostly write and share about Afghanistan related items. Should I plan to have a FB & Twitter page for novel (currently in edit)? I see a lot of authors do that but I’m not sure if I can manage more sites. Is it better to stick to what I already know, the folks who know me through my personal pages.


You’re right!! It’s one of the most important and fun parts of social media, connecting with others in our field, learning from them, supporting them. I’ve made so many good friends this way and I truly LOVE to support them when they need it.


Hi Jane ~ Brilliant and timely post for me, thank you. I have just added a Jane Friedman slide to my presentation for this Saturday on 3-2-1, Launch (How to give your book the best lift off) that I’m presenting to Georgia Romance Writers (@GARomance). This illustrates my point perfectly: “-I should’ve posted more often to my friends [via social media] what I was writing. – I wish I’d done a better job connecting with people who could’ve helped. – I didn’t start spreading the word soon enough. – It was so hard to get readers, I wish I had… Read more »

Moriah Jovan

Here’s the thing. Our audience is tired of being sold to by “authenticity” and exposure. They don’t necessarily want to find out who we are (a sentiment I heartily agree with), but they’ve got author-pimping fatigue. That unfollow is just an easy click aeay and they use it. Jane, you know me and how long I’ve been doing this. The audience is tapped out.


[…] Community Service […]


I just shared this valuable bit of information with the 87 members of my Posse. I also wrote an article for P.J. Nunn along a similar vein: Are You Clueless Or Just Lazy?

Stuart Horwitz

There were a lot of favorite quotes in here for me, Jane, from crazy Hail Marys to bad social media behavior. But my favorite was, “being a thoughtful literary citizen.”

It made me think of other uses of community such as in Buddhism where the first Bodhisattva vow is: equalizing self and other. Meaning, everybody gets their time to shine. If you’re only waiting for your turn in the spotlight you’re going to be lonely while waiting for a brief flowering….

And besides supporting other people really does feel almost inexplicably sublime doesn’t it?

Frances Caballo

Love this post, Jane. What you say is so true, too. Since I first began to blog, I’ve always included a roundup of posts I really liked by other bloggers. And this is the heart of my podcast too. After providing my own tip, I always feature posts by other bloggers and outline main points they made. And I always tell writers in my workshops and those who read my blog that at least 80% of their social media posts need to refer to content they didn’t create. Writers who are new to marketing always balk at this at first.… Read more »

Creative Essays

Nice blog. Thank you for sharing…….


[…] Friedman on Jane FriedmanThat Overused Word “Community”—But Why We Still Have to Talk About It “I’ve just wrapped up another semester at the University of Virginia, where I teach digital […]


[…] Do we need writing communities? […]


[…] interested in the topic of community, you should know that I’m far from the first to discuss it. Jane Friedman and Betty Kelly Sargent have both written informatively on the subject as […]


[…] cover. This helps them become familiar with you long before you might ask them for a favor.” ( and from other linked posts that you’ll find by going to this one. Spend some time reading around […]


This is an awesome and timely post for me. I’m just starting to build my web presence as I go through my MFA Program. I’m excited and nervous and was ruminating over the eternal question (To blog or not to blog?) I think, for now, thanks to all I’ve learned from your posts Jane, I will wait to see if blogging is really the best option for me. I don’t want to start building content and then drop it later or worse, get it wrong from the start. Thanks so much for this and all that you do.