Academic work can feel very isolating. Research, reading and writing in graduate school are often solitary acts. We labor alone with only our doubts and anxieties to accompany us.
Even when we become aware of the shared sense of stress inherent in everyone’s graduate school experience, our work still feels isolating. We sit alone in cafes, in libraries and at our kitchen counters reading and writing until exhaustion or boredom take hold.
Writing groups are one way that graduate students can turn this isolating experience into an opportunity for collaboration, friendship and growth. But how do you go about building and maintaining a successful writing group for graduate students? Here are five tips.
You don’t have to write with close friends. Writing groups don't have to consist of just your friends. In fact, writing with friends may not be as beneficial as it seems. That may sound strange, given that one of the goals of a writing group is to ameliorate the sense of isolation of graduate school.
But consider why you like your friends. They are people whose presence you enjoy, you can share important things with them -- both good and stressful -- and you can relax around them. While important, those aspects of friendship might not be conducive to a productive writing group.
Say, for example, you and your friend set a time to meet at a cafe to study, and you are running a bit late -- which you are able to do only because you feel a deep level of comfort with your friend and trust that your tardiness will not bother them much. When you arrive, you will both be excited to see one another and will spend time catching up, venting and chatting. Such relationships are important, but it should now be clear that this may not be the best person to work with.
So if you shouldn’t write with friends, then whom should you write with instead?
You should write with peers you respect professionally. Ask yourself: Who is someone I’ve had a class with, or had a series of pleasant professional encounters with, whom I would like to develop a better relationship with? This requires you to think of someone you both respect and whose respect you would like to have in return. In other words, a good person for your writing group is someone to whom you would say, "We should get coffee sometime," but never actually make the time to do so. You would enjoy a chance to share ideas with this person and hope that they reciprocate. Asking them to join your writing group is one way to do that.
This approach can be validating for both parties. Someone you took a class with two terms ago and wanted to get to know better because you think highly of them agreed to work with you. This person was also just asked by someone they probably feel the same way about to join their writing group. Both people should feel flattered and affirmed.
Even if the members of the group start out as just colleagues, you will develop an investment in each other’s growth as writers. As you continue to show up for each other week after week and month after month, it becomes clear that you want the best not only for yourself but also for your fellow group members. You all want to share in holding each other accountable and being held accountable.
Consistency is key. You should strive to get together at the same place and time for each meeting. That way, you will begin to associate the location and time with the act of writing. Most important, though, consistency requires respect among everyone in the group. You are all held accountable to each other’s writing time. You will want to honor your fellow members’ time, and they will want to honor yours.
Consistency has the added effect of building a bond with your writing group. Not only will you look forward to your group as a place where you know you will get work done, but you will also see it as a place to share your successes with others and to share in theirs. You may start the group annotating a text or trying to make an outline of the themes you discovered in your last trip to the archive. Your peers will have the experience of watching your work grow and flourish as you continue to get deeper into your project and further along in your writing. You will also come to feel similarly about their projects. This investment in each other’s work helps to maintain the group and make it increasingly fruitful.
Be flexible. Establishing guidelines that are too extreme can set up your group for failure. Understand that sometimes you or another member may be unable to meet, or a work session may have to be cut short. Don’t let such minor hiccups become frequent -- they can disrupt the group’s consistency -- but be willing to allow them to occur occasionally.
A writing group should reflect group members’ needs. For instance, you may select your partner or group members based on a specific focus. Your group may concentrate on pressing deadlines: a fellowship application or a seminar paper. What is important for this group is that you have guaranteed time to work on writing. Or you may want to have a group based around working on your respective dissertation proposals.
Ultimately, a writing group is a great way to turn the feeling of isolation into a one of shared commitment to growth. It can be a valuable experience in learning how to work collaboratively with others, as well as an opportunity to develop a community based on respect for one another.