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Kelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can find her on Twitter at @krh121910.

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Beginning the semester can feel like a fresh start for those of us who weren’t quite as productive as we wanted to be this summer. But it can also feel overwhelming—so many things to do and to schedule. When and where and how to get research and writing done? Writing every day and making a daily/weekly schedule are both important facets of productive writing. But the most important part for me is support and accountability. I find this need best met through some sort of writing group. Writing with others around helps me focus and work, and knowing that I need to show up with others gives writing time a structure that it wouldn’t necessarily have on its own. Plus, I find it helpful to be around people doing the same type of work I am doing, since we can support each other and talk about writing or research trouble.

This is where the DIY aspect comes in: Do It Yourself. Surely, you’re asking, isn’t that what we’re all already doing with writing groups, or grad school? Not quite, I would counter. DIY refers to independence and thriftiness. It is a project built from your own labor, with raw materials, and without the aid of experts. With a DIY project, you don’t buy pre-packaged products or pay a professional to assist you: you do the research and labor yourself. In this case, this writing groups costs you nothing and is made simply by you and the people in your group. It doesn’t need to involve fancy bootcamps or writing retreats. DIY isn’t for everyone, always, but for graduate students in need of writing support, it’s an inexpensive way to help structure your writing time and build a writing community.

Over the last two years, I’ve participated in various writing groups—some aimed at a specific goal (everyone is trying to get an article ready for publication), some that met weekly for one semester, some that were organized by our campus writing center for dissertating graduate students, and (most recently) a weekly long-distance writing check-in with a colleague dissertating from afar. All have been helpful in different ways. Below are my tips for helping your fledgling writing group thrive during the busiest of semesters.

Come One, Come All

Finding people to write with might seem difficult at first, but trust me, everyone is in the same boat here. Reach out to your colleagues in-department or folks in other departments. Send out an email to your department listserv, post an ad in the library, post an ad on Craigslist—there are writers everywhere. Not everyone has the same writing needs as you, but many people who write in different genres and mediums can benefit from the support a writing group can provide. Different writing backgrounds can offer you fresh perspectives on your work when it comes time for sharing and commenting.

Location, Location, Location

Pick a quiet and easily accessible location where there is space for everyone to work. You’ll want to make sure outlets are available for laptops. Libraries (public or university) are great spaces. Many have group or co-working areas available, though these may need to be reserved ahead of time. Specialized libraries are often less crowded than the main library, which might offer more (or better) space for writing groups. If several of you share or have offices nearby each other, and work better with closed doors, this can also offer a quiet writing space. Coffeeshops or cafés can be useful as well, but remember that choosing a place of business means everyone committing to spend money while at writing group each week (or each day!). Overall, the key is to finding a space that works for you and your group members.

Begin Each Day by Setting Goals

It is best for everyone to get started writing as soon as possible. However, it is also a good idea to structure your writing time. Make your group writing time more productive by sitting down for 5-10 minutes and laying out manageable goals for the writing session. Make sure these goals are realistic and achievable in the period the group meets. What can you accomplish in two hours? (On the note of realistic goals, meeting for more than three hours at a time is likely to become unproductive. Aim for 1-2 hours of solid, uninterrupted work time and some time at the end for discussion.)

Checking In

Build in some time at the end of your meeting for the group to take 10 minutes and discuss how everyone’s writing went today. Did you all meet your goals? Did anyone struggle with something? Are you unsure of where to go next? Use this time to really focus on what you all did and what you’re working to do. Avoid whining or complaining about school, advisors, the dissertation process, etc. This is a writing group. Focus on the writing.

Distance and Digital Spaces

If you’re dissertating from afar and find you lack a writing community, try to reach out to colleagues digitally. This might involve online writing bootcamps, checking in with friends or colleagues via email, over the phone, or through social media (such as Twitter hashtags) before or after your writing session. You may also opt to “meet” with your writing group digitally, over Skype or through Google Hangouts (or just a good old-fashioned conference call) once a week. Even if your people aren’t around you, they can still form a supportive writing group.

For Those Who Don’t Play Well With Others

If you know that you don’t work well in groups or find the structured writing time less productive, find a writing partner whose work style gels with yours and work or check in with them. The goal is to find people you both like working with and can be productive around.

Have you started your own writing groups? Do you have useful tips or tricks to keep them from fizzling after a month? Tell us in the comments!

[Image by Flikr user Gildas_F and licensed under Creative Commons]

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