One of the main tools that boosted my productivity when I was earnestly trying to write my dissertation was a writing group. Despite having written countless papers, reviews, and articles in the past, I found myself frozen and overwhelmed when facing the prospect of writing a whole dissertation. Instead of trying to write something, anything, I simply procrastinated the entire writing process. It was a writing group that I formed with a couple of my colleagues that ended up being my salvation. The support and accountability that the group offered me significantly increased my productivity, helping me to produce drafts on a regular basis and make steady progress toward completing my dissertation. That’s why I always advise the students and scholars with whom I work to form their own writing groups.
What is a writing group?
Many of you have probably heard of writing groups before, but let me share my definition of a scholarly writing group with you: a group of academics who meet and exchange drafts on a regular basis in an effort to make progress on their individual writing projects (whether it’s a literature review, dissertation chapter, journal article, or other piece of academic writing). Every writing group is a little different depending on the needs and preferences of its members—the important thing is to design it in a way that works best for you. Here are a few common questions that I get from academics regarding forming a writing group:
How will a writing group help me?
For many scholars, the most challenging part about writing is having both the discipline and the motivation to sit down and write on a regular basis. When there is no one to hold you accountable with your writing aside from yourself (and perhaps a distant advisor who you hear from once in a blue moon), it’s incredibly easy to make other things in your life a priority—teaching, lab work, committee meetings, conferences, you name it. We can all find something other than writing to take up our time.
That’s where a writing group comes in. When we have other people who are invested in our writing progress and in keeping us accountable, it can be incredibly motivating. It’s even better when those people are in the same boat as you—they need you to hold them accountable just as much as you need them.
A writing group is a way of formalizing this relationship of accountability, while also offering you an avenue through which to receive regular feedback on your writing. For the many graduate students out there whose advisors or chairs are too busy to read their work on a regular basis, getting feedback from your peers is an excellent alternative. It always helps to bounce your ideas off of other people, if only to force you to get outside of your own head for a while and try to see things through other people’s eyes. When our writing becomes too insulated, things can easily get muddied without us noticing. Your fellow writing group members will give you a fresh perspective and the opportunity to talk through your concepts out loud, which is always a useful exercise.
Finally, who doesn’t like commiserating with other people who are going through the same thing as them?! I always found myself looking forward to my writing group meetings because I knew I could count on two things: 1) I would get some really useful feedback that would help me make progress on my dissertation, and 2) I would have the opportunity to vent to my group members about my struggles with writing. Our meetings gave us a chance to check in, share our challenges with one another, and feel heard and validated. Sounds like just what you need, right?
How exactly does a writing group work?
There are different ways to go about it, but what I’ve found works best is the following:
- Schedule a regular time and place to meet—say every other Thurs. at 3pm at a local coffee shop.
- Set a deadline prior to the meeting time for submitting your drafts to each other (maybe by Sun. night of the week that you’re meeting).
- Email each other a Word document containing your draft by the agreed upon deadline.
- Carve out time to review your colleagues’ drafts before your scheduled meeting time. You can mark them up by hand or use track changes in Word. The general idea is to focus on higher-order issues like argumentation, clarity, and structure, although most people would also appreciate more detailed copy edits as well if you have the time. You can always share specific concerns about your writing for your group members to focus on when reading.
- At the meeting, focus on one individual’s draft at a time. Each person should present him or her with their feedback in hard or electronic copy (which they can review in detail later) and then verbally share some brief thoughts on their drafts. The idea is to provide constructive feedback, not to be disparaging or overly critical of someone’s work. It’s important to have the mutual understanding that everyone’s draft is a work in progress, not the final product.
- After you’ve all shared and received feedback, make sure to confirm the next meeting time and deadline for draft submission before you leave.
Who should I invite to be in my writing group?
It depends on what your goals are. A writing group can be made up of individuals from a single discipline or with a similar specialization, or it can consist of scholars from various disciplines. I found it helpful to have people with backgrounds in different fields read my work because it forced me to write for a broader audience and to prioritize clarity in my writing.
Getting feedback from diverse readers often helps authors make their writing more well rounded because it challenges them to consider their work from different perspectives. For example, if your study is on diversity in higher education in a post-affirmative action era, having a writing group member from history or political science might force you to better contextualize the themes that you’re exploring—i.e. in relation to contemporary historical events or political issues—in order to establish a stronger foundation for your research.
If you know that you could benefit from discipline-specific feedback, however, then recruiting colleagues from the same program or department might be a better option for you. A fellow psychology doctoral candidate can comment on your application of specific psychological theories with much more ease than someone from outside your field, for example.
Writing groups work best when their members are all equally motivated to make progress on their writing, are committed to the group, and are willing and able to give helpful feedback on other people’s writing. That being said, choose your fellow group members wisely. You will likely get the most benefit out of a writing group if it consists of scholars whose work and opinion you respect and who are disciplined enough to make the group a priority.
How many people should be in my group?
It’s important not to make your group too big or else it will become cumbersome: you’ll have too many people’s drafts to read, the meetings will take too long, and you’ll have less time to dedicate to your own work. That’s why a tight-knit writing group with 3 to 4 members is ideal.
How often should we meet?
The trick to an effective writing group is meeting often enough that you’re driven to write regularly and make incremental progress, but not too often that you don’t have enough new material to share. For the majority of academics, meeting every two weeks is the most often that will be feasible and productive for their busy schedule. Talk to your fellow group members and agree on a schedule that works for you—even if you only meet once a month, having that hard deadline to schedule your writing around will likely motivate you to make progress during that time.
Still not sure if a writing group is for you? I strongly recommend that you give it a try and see how it goes. If you don’t feel like forming your own group, look for existing writing groups that you could join. Many universities or departments have more formalized versions of writing, reading, or research groups. There are also different types of virtual writing groups that might be a good option for you. Try to stick with it for at least a couple meetings before you make any decisions. You might just find that a writing group is a helpful tool after all!
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