This article was originally published at Ideas on Fire on March 28, 2017.
A daily writing routine will help you regularly create work and make progress toward your writing and publishing goals. But writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Academic writers need community support to thrive. So how do you find support and accountability to help you stick with it and create awesome scholarship? One of the best ways to do this is through writing groups—a small collection of writers who agree to meet regularly to support each other and get writing done.
Benefits of a Writing Group
The benefits of a writing group are significant: a writing group provides support, intellectual stimulation, and (most importantly) accountability. Having a group of fellow writers who are also focused on regular writing can keep you on track with your goals. Further, writing group members often have fabulous suggestions and tips for things you may be struggling with.
Who Should Be in Your Writing Group?
Writing groups work best if they are relatively small. Between two and four people is ideal. With more members they get unwieldy, and there isn’t much time for everyone’s work to get individualized attention.
Smart, responsible, honest, and compassionate people make the best writing group members. It is often good to have folks outside your discipline—they are likely to be your book or article’s reader so their feedback is invaluable as you complete your project.
Who Shouldn’t Be in Your Writing Group?
Perhaps this goes without saying, but don’t join a writing group with people you don’t like or don’t respect. You are asking your group members for honest, productive feedback on your work, and promising to provide your own honest, productive feedback to others. So don’t invite the hotshot author whose work is great but who offers one-word comments or disrespectful feedback. And don’t invite the super flaky person who can’t meet a deadline and won’t return feedback on time. They may be wonderful people in other respects, they may even be dear friends, but they aren’t going to be great writing group members.
What To Do in Your Writing Group
There are several ways to organize your group’s activities, but I’ll focus on three common types of writing groups that can help you get your writing projects finished.
In this type of writing group, you and several other people get together in a physical or virtual space to write. You each work on your own projects, on your own devices. You might check in with one another at the beginning to see how everyone’s project is coming along, but this is not primarily a sharing session—it is a writing alone together session.
You can do this in physical space with folks from your city or university, where you all meet up at a coffee shop, library, or someone’s home at a regular basis. Or you can do it virtually with folks from anywhere in the world, where you all meet up on Slack, Skype, or another online meeting platform—you might check in via chat and then write on your own devices for a set time, checking in with each other via chat or video to keep each other on track.
In this type of group, you and several other people make a schedule to exchange writing on a regular basis and provide developmental feedback on big-picture issues like organization, argument, structure, genre, and narrative arc. Maybe you set up a bi-weekly schedule where every other week you all read one author’s work and provide feedback via in-text comments on the manuscript and/or verbal feedback in a physical or virtual meeting. Or maybe you have a group in which you have pairs of people exchange and read each other’s work. Experiment to see which way works best for your group.
Similar to exchange groups, editing groups exchange writing on a regular basis. They are different, however, in that copyediting is the focus. Instead of providing general feedback on the overall manuscript (like in exchange groups), you copyedit each others’ work. This can be helpful because it is hard for us to catch our own copyediting errors. This group is only recommended for people who are good copyeditors though—if grammar, syntax, consistency, and citation formatting aren’t your thing you probably don’t want to do one of these.
Case Study: Feminist Writing Group
I’ve done many writing groups over the years, but one of my favorites was a feminist scholars writing group I participated in several years ago for early-career faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. Two members taught in women’s studies, one taught in art history, and one taught in Africana studies. All of us researched the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race, but from different disciplinary positions: one member was writing about transnational US/Chinese adoption, one was writing about the cultural politics of blood in US medical, military, and media cultures (that was me), one was writing about performance and community formation in the Congo, and one was writing about women’s dance in the Weimar Republic art scene. We realized that if we could make our individual projects legible to each other—with our diverse disciplinary backgrounds—we could make those projects legible to publishers and ultimately a large community of readers. And our writing improved dramatically because of it—two books, several journal articles and book chapters, and numerous conference papers and public lectures came out of that group.
Writing groups can be enormously helpful in providing much-needed structure and accountability during the writing process. They can also help you see that the issues you encounter while writing, from writers block and procrastination to over-researching and even losing interest in your topic at times, are common and surpassable. So if this sounds like something your writing could benefit from, start brainstorming who would be good writing group partners for you and set something up. Chances are, your fellow writers will be just as excited as you are for the feedback and support.
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