When I was younger, adults warned me to be careful about who I talked to on the internet, because they might pressure me into doing something I didn’t want to do. More than a decade since I made my first online friends, I realized it was a fair warning. People I met on the internet are always pressuring me to drink enough water, take breaks, and exercise.
If you’re like me, you weren’t all that good at making friends in person. I’d say too little or too much, berate myself for days (or years) over things I said or didn’t say, and had a poor sense of social norms when it came to what was bonding and what was oversharing.
Online, I get to think before I speak, learn etiquette, and lurk on conversations without seeming like that weird kid hovering on the edge of social interactions trying to figure out how in the world people know what to say to each other. Which means it actually worked.
I’ve been lucky to find community in most corners of the internet I’ve ended up in — and not just ‘people to talk to’ but people who really get me, indulge my weirdness, and, as mentioned, pressure me into begrudgingly taking care of the body I’m stuck in.
When it comes to making friends in the writing community, here’s what worked for me. A lot of these can be applied in person, too, but I’m going to focus on the robust group of hundreds of thousands of writers that live in your back pocket already.
Look for relationships, not ‘ins’
No one, not a single person, wants to participate in an interaction with someone only to realize they want something. I know people who made friends when they were at the same step of their writing career, but when the friend got more successful, the other was left behind. I know people who get DMs of ‘hey I heard you are friends with Famous Person — can you get me their info?’ Not to mention the ‘heyyyy you are represented by my dream agent. Can you pass my manuscript along?’
This isn’t friendship. It’s using people for what you want, and people figure it out quickly. Conversely, if you go into a new friendship assuming you’ll get nothing from it than the pleasure of the other person’s company, you’ll both be better off, and you won’t come across looking like an asshole. Fringe benefits.
Plus, when you do find a real, genuine friendship? You’ll want to help each other out however you can.
Above and below and alongside
I edit a lot of self-help for work. A lot of these books end up talking about how important it is to befriend people who are doing what you want to be doing. Seek out a mentor. Remember that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so make sure to be the least smart person in the room. That type of thing.
There’s a small problem with this advice. If you’re busy sidling up to people who are smarter and more successful than you are, and they’ve been given the same advice, why would they want to be friends with you?
The thing is, not only do we need people to mentor us and people to walk alongside us, but we also need people we can mentor. Mentoring is deeply beneficial for both mentee and mentor. Pulling people up the ladder behind you is one of the most important things you can do to give back.
But there’s more to it than that, too. Writing is a career that looks slightly more like a roller coaster than an upward trajectory. I got involved with a community of authors looking to publish their first books. We were all at the same place in 2013. Since then, about half got agents, half of the agented ones got decent book deals, all but one of the agented ones left their original agent and are now on their second agent, and two fell in love, joined Medium, and are pursuing a different path now. (My own path led me into full-time editing, which I love.)
We walked alongside when we met. But none of us is in the same place now. Real friendship is the kind that celebrates these changes and the differences in our paths.
Be generous with your strengths
Despite everything I said negating the advice about seeking out people who are smarter than you, the truth is that you have strengths too, strengths people smarter than you might not have. Are you great at checking in or being accountable? Knowing genre or dialogue? Writing with an engaging voice? Remembering the difference between lay and lie? Wrestling the demons out of Microsoft Word? When you have something to offer someone, you’ll be extending not just a hand of ‘please be my friend,’ but ‘hey I think we can help each other out.’
No one is likely to answer someone who’s traipsing the internet declaring they need new friends and asking everyone else to do the work. Be the friend you wish you had, first. You’ll be like the sower scattering seeds all over the place, and that’s fine. If someone asks a question you know the answer to, share it, without any hopes of a returned favor. (Side note: this does NOT apply to ‘well, actually’–ing someone who wasn’t asking a question and knows their stuff. There are lots of times it’s better to sit and listen.) Whether it’s through forums or comments or Twitter replies, don’t be afraid to let people know what you know, and lift them up in the process. They just might thank you, and link to something interesting to read, which you then comment on, and, eventually, you have a friendship that wasn’t there before.
Friendship takes time
Just like anyone who says they can get you 5,000 followers in a month is selling you something (and lying), friendship, even online, is work. Like seeds, they need watered and nourished. And like plants, a few are never going to sprout, some are going to bloom for a season and die, and, if you’re lucky, some are going to grow like strawberries that take over an entire patch of your life until you can’t remember what your garden looked like without them.
No matter where they ended up (as seeds, flowers, or strawberries), or what particular corner of the internet they started, my friendships have developed along a similar path.
meet someone in a public-ish place (Twitter, a forum, Discord)enjoy conversation publiclyrealize you have something you want to tell them that doesn’t need to be on public record/they would be a great potential critique partner if only you askedDM themeither get caught up in real-life things, forget to DM for a while, and mention them as a ‘hey this is where I’ve been,’ or have a DM cut off when you have to go somewhere or attend to something, and say goodbye with something like, ‘Sorry, I have to go . I need to take the kids to ice skating.’start checking in about those real-life things
This is a reverse pyramid, too. The first step is a wide base. I’ve met a lot of people online. Fewer people whose friendship has moved to DMs. Even fewer who get to hear much about my real life. You have to wade before you can dive. And moving past general pleasantries online into the real work of friendship isn’t going to happen every time.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll talk more about how to nurture these friendships, and how to know when to move from one level to a deeper one without being creepy and scaring people away.
How Does Your Garden Grow? A Practical Guide to Cultivating Online Writing Friendships was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Read more: writingcooperative.com