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Why you should start an academic writing group

Originally published on Patter

It might be a little weird, but I like to read about the process of writing. Sometimes this might be procrastination, but the more I have gotten the opportunity to speak to others about their writing practices the more I have gained confidence that reading about writing has done me some good.

I want to share some of what I have learned because it has made me more productive and helped in getting over feelings of guilt about work/life balance. Mainly, I want to convince you of the value of setting up a writing group, suggestions for the format of this and justification for why it works. Essentially, my favourite insights gained from reading about (academic) writing.

At the beginning of this academic year my supervisor became co-head of a housing research centre that is a 20-minute walk from our main School building. While it isn’t far, it is enough distance that the research centre is a bit isolated. My supervisor and I were talking about a way to create a community ‘out there’ and thought a writing group might be a nice way to bring everyone together, without adding another meeting/seminar/commitment (which can sometimes start to feel like a burden when they take too much time away from your research). This idea also came after an extended conversation about writing habits (and binge writing), and we thought it might help establish ‘good’ writing practices. The first session five of us trialled writing together for 2 hours, with some breaks for discussion; we were all pleasantly surprised at how focused we were, so we agreed to do it again. I was so excited about the writing group that I was telling everyone and a few colleagues started their own in other Schools (Geography & Geosciences, Management, and Biology). The writing groups, and even individual sessions, vary slightly in structure/feel depending on who attends, but no matter the format the collective energy generally helps you stay on task and feel accomplished.

Why you should be in an academic writing group

In this blog I only include 4 links, these are to other posts that I found motivational and offer some inspiring, and inspired, tips on writing regularly and as Pat Thomson says being ‘writerly.

An important part of being an academic researcher is remembering that you are an author. Your job is not about research for the sake of collecting and analysing data, the goal is to share your findings and assertions. In order to do this you need to think of yourself as an author and part of that is considering how to cultivate good writing habits.

You have hopefully heard that trying to write every day is a good idea. One study suggests that academics who write daily and set goals with someone weekly write nearly ten times as many pages as those without regular writing habits. I appreciate I’m writing for researchers who might have questions about the methods and assumptions of this study, but no matter the point stands that writing regularly, setting goals and having someone else to report to will increase your writing output.

By writing regularly, and for shorter periods (2-3 hours a day), you remove some of the fear related to writing, and binge writing in particular. Writing, like any skill, is something that you need to practice to improve at; by being in a writing group you ensure (at least) two hours per week of protected writing time. Furthermore, writing in a group is incredibly motivating, so as long as you turn up you will likely be focused during the session. Often my most productive part of the week is in my writing group(s).

Being part of a writing group creates a space in which to talk to others about your research and writing habits, share tips and support one another. The PhD is notoriously lonely, but writing is something all academics should be doing and is a common ground that can bring us together. I am part of three separate writing groups that sit in different departments/disciplines and yet an almost instantaneous sense of community and camaraderie has come from my participation in these groups.

Finally, writing groups are a way to practice good writing habits and to maintain them. It is like joining weight watchers and weighing in every week; you’ve publicly made a commitment to start writing regularly and as a group you keep each other accountable. More than that, you encourage and support each other through the struggles of writing.

Suggestions and considerations for the format of your writing group

The way I structure my writing group is to have a two-hour session with 4 pomodoros and I prefer smaller groups with only 2-6 people. To start everyone writes their goal for the session on a white board/flip chart, making your goal public so that you can talk about your progress. This relates back to that idea of sharing accountability but is also part of learning about your own abilities and setting realistic goals. Before I was part of a writing group I had no idea how many words I could reasonably hope to write in an hour. The structure of the pomodoros and goal setting helped me understand what I could reasonably achieve in two hours on different writing tasks. It can be useful to track when/where/how many words you write so that you know about your own writing abilities and do not set unrealistic goals. Meeting daily goals, even if it’s just taking satisfaction from being on task for 2 hours without any Facebook/Twitter/email/news breaks, is incredibly rewarding. Furthermore, I find working with others helps you realise your accomplishments. We seem to belittle our own achievements, perhaps feeling like we should always be able to do more, and often members are surprised when someone else in the group points out that they have indeed achieved their goal.

There is no single way to use your writing group time, but I have taken a few ideas from Rachel Aaron who explains how she went from writing 2,000 words to 10,000 words a day. I prefer to work on more ‘generative writing’ during writing groups; I’m just trying to get my thoughts out on paper or a rough first draft. That way I can spend the rest of the day guilt-free responding to emails, preparing for teaching, editing or planning my writing for the next day (or maybe even taking a cheeky nap). Following Rachel’s lead I spend the first five minutes making a quick plan of what I want to write and then expand on this structure; it helps to know where you are going before you start writing. I have also been reminding myself to get excited about what I am writing. If I am bored writing it, why would I ever expect someone to bother reading it? The collective energy of being part of a writing group can make writing more enjoyable, and you should enjoy writing about your research, otherwise why are you doing it?

Are you in a writing group? If not, why not? If you are, do you have any tips or suggestions?

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