How To (and how not to) Have a Writing Group

“Hey…maybe we should start and writing group! We could read each other’s chapters and stuff.” Almost everyone I knew in graduate school had been a part of a writing group at one point. Some of these groups met in person. Others were conducted on Facebook or by email.
Every time someone suggested forming a writing group, I’d smile and nod, expressing feigned enthusiasm for reading other people’s writing. Inwardly, I would groan. I suspect that a fair number of my fellow graduate students felt the same. Dissertation writing groups seemed like just one more tedious chore. I dreaded wading through messy drafts of other people’s writing and trying to come up with helpful feedback. After all, I could have used that time to work on my own writing. The groups often met once or twice, but few had staying power. Most fizzled out just as quickly as they were formed.  We slunk away from our fledgling writing groups, reverting back to the solitary and isolating writing habits that left us exhausted and depressed.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on making my writing more social. Much to my surprise, I’ve changed my tune on writing groups. I’m now shocked by how helpful a writing group really can be.

I’ve been thinking about what makes for a great writing group, rather than a mediocre, or worse, a dismal writing group.

The difference, I think, is this: as graduate students, we were desperate for feedback on our ideas. We felt insecure about the ideas we were trying to develop and wanted to know if we were on (or off) the right track. On top of feeling insecure generally, we often dealt with absent advisers, passive-aggressive committee members, and deconstructive criticism. We needed lots of reassurance from our peers that we weren’t total failures or dummies. Rarely, if ever, in these writing groups did we talk about the process of actually writing.    

A few years later, I think I’m finally getting the point of having a writing group. It’s not about talking about the ideas per se; it’s about setting and achieving goals. In fact, in my current writing group, we have yet to read much of each others’ writing, much to everyone’s relief. Instead, when we meet, we stay focused and talk about the writing process. Who’s writing regularly? Who’s not? Why not? Who’s making progress on their writing goals? What’s next week’s goal? We set goals and measure our progress towards them.

Our individual and collective goals are often small, manageable, and concrete. For example, one week, we agreed to all write for fifteen minutes a day on our respective projects. Sometimes someone sets a goal that might be as small as revising an abstract or writing a query letter. My writing group increases my accountability. I don’t want to let the other members down, so I’m motivated to complete the goals we’ve set for the week, no matter how small.

I should note that although some people love doing actual writing with other people, having a writing group need not involve doing the actual writing with other people. I’m an easily distracted person; trying to write in a coffee shop feels to me like trying to write in a zoo. There’s too many people, too much stimulation, and too much noise. To do my best writing, I need quiet spaces and solitude. I’m like that. But when I need some motivation to reach my writing goal, I turn to my writing buddies for help and support.

Writing groups also don’t need to meet physically. Me n’ my group would love to meet in person, but we’re all in different places. Nevertheless, I do think it’s important to have actual conversations with other people, rather than just interacting on Facebook. We meet via video and send frequent text messages on progress; one member records and sends us short video updates if she’s unable to meet with us.

I’ve been reading Paul Silvia’s book, How To Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. In addition to revealing the magic key to productive writing (plot spoiler: making a schedule and writing), Paul Silvia recommends that writers form their own agraphia (Latin: fear of writing) groups. Silvia recommends the following:

  • Set concrete short term goals
  • Stick to talking about writing goals
  • Reinforce good writing habits with rewards
  • Students and faculty need different groups
  • Drink coffee

[The chapter on writing groups is Chapter 4. I’d cite page numbers by Amazon hasn’t provided any for this book. Hey, Amazon, “locations” are not page numbers. /end rant]
And that’s it!

I never thought I’d say it, but a good writing group really can make the difference between crippling procrastination and productive writing!

[Photo: Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado, March 2016]