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Making a Writing Group that Works

Advice for structuring and operating a writing group to help you get that dissertation finished.

November 10, 2015

Travis Grandy is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can find him on Twitter @travisgrandy or at his website.



I've had a lot of ups and downs as a writer in grad school. When I was making the transition from coursework to working independently, I started having trouble writing and reading at the same pace as I did for my grad seminars. At times it can be hard to stay motivated, especially when some of those external accountability structures fall away. It can also be helpful to know where you work best (i.e. not at home), and be mindful about your writing process. While it’s easy for guilt to creep up if you're feeling isolated and/or not making a lot of progress toward your goals, finding other people to write with can really turn things around.


Thanks to encouragement from people smarter than me (i.e. my professors and senior grad students), I started seeking out support from writing groups and it's helped me in making progress toward completing my degree (take that, comprehensive exams!). By having regular due dates and lots of feedback, I found my writing has dramatically improved. If you're not sure how to approach other people to start a writing group, remember, they're probably feeling and working-through the same things as you, so it never hurts to ask!


Last year, GradHacker Kelly Hanson did a great piece on the DIY Writing Group. If you’ve never done a writing group before, below are a few examples of how you can format a group, and more importantly, how to keep them going.


(Some) Ways to Structure a Writing Group:



It can help you be more productive to be around other productive people. You might be less inclined to check Facebook and Twitter when there are other keyboards clicking around you. Try making a recurring date with friends to meet at a public place and write together for a couple hours.


Writing swap

Get a group of people together and take turns sharing writing. For example, every Thursday, I get together with four other people from my program where we drink beer, and discuss works in process from one or two writers per meeting. Let me tell you, it's great to get feedback from four different perspectives!


Working at a distance

If you're working on completing your degree at a distance it might not be possible to find people who can meet up in-person. Don't be discouraged! Set up an online exchange with other writers and establish expectations for reciprocal feedback. You can swap writing entirely by email and send back annotated drafts, or set up a recurring meeting to check-in via a video conference.


Social media cheerleaders

Sometimes you just need a little positive reinforcement--tell your friends when you're planning a writing day, and post your goals on social media. At the end of the day, you can check back in about your productivity ("Hey, I wrote 500 words today!"). Reciprocity is really key here--you can't expect people to encourage you unless you're encouraging them back. If you’re looking for some online encouragement, be sure to check out Shut Up and Write, a Twitter group that holds an online “meeting” every other week for an hour of intense writing productivity. There are groups for Australia, North America, and the UK.


Planning and Accountability:


Check-in on a regular basis

Ever have a day where you had set aside time to write, but then that time ends up getting canceled or scheduled over by things like lesson planning, meetings, or your bus running late? Your writing group doesn't have to be every week, but it's good to have a regular meeting time in your calendar to encourage you to plan ahead and set aside enough time for writing (because you don't want to let your colleagues down, right?). For example, with my weekly writing group, I'm usually submitting writing every three weeks which is actually plenty of time to process feedback and then make revisions on my work. However, I also need to schedule and keep time to actually do the writing, otherwise I won’t show up prepared when it’s my turn to share.


Establish concrete due dates or deliverables

Go into your writing group meetings with a clear plan of what you're going to bring, whether that be written feedback for a peer, or a certain amount of progress on your own project. Don't say, "Oh, I'll make progress for next time," say, "When we meet next week I'll have at least 3 new pages." If you’re doing a write-on-site, have each group member say what they plan to do during your work time, then check back in at the end of the session.


Set due dates in advance

If you're working toward a big due date or project, backwards-plan and set some intermediate deadlines. This can be the number of pages you want to have written, or sections of an article or chapter. Once you establish due dates, put them into a shared calendar. This way your group members will know what you’re working on and where you’re supposed to be based on your plan. Group members don’t need to enforce your due dates (that’s up to you), but they can offer encouragement if you’re struggling, and celebrate when you meet those milestones.


Plan a format for your meetings

While you don’t need to run your writing group like a timed exam, it is good to have some expectations shared among group members about how you will share writing (in advance over email, at the meeting) as well as how you want to spend time during the meeting discussing each person’s project. If you’re using the meeting as a chance to just do some writing in a supportive space, consider using the Pomodoro Method to organize your time. This strategy can also be useful to set aside chunks of time in your workday, and there are some handy apps you can use as a timer.


Allow time to talk and catch-up

Writing is hard! Sometimes it can be really productive to talk about your lives outside of school, the trashy reality TV shows you watch, or that funny Channing Tatum .GIF you saw the other day. Consider the social time you get before and after a productive group meeting to be another way to stay motivated.



Have you had success and recommend additional ways to organize a writing group? What helps you make progress as a writer?


[Image from Flickr user, Drew Coffman, used under Creative Commons license]


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