Getting the Support You Need: Starting a Writing Group

Writing is often seen as a solitary venture. Even when you’re writing in a public place such as the library or a coffee shop, you aren’t interacting with others. While this solitary environment is necessary for completing any type of writing project, you don’t have to write entirely alone. Drs. Sohui Lee and Chris Golde of Stanford University created Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group, a guide designed to help doctoral students navigate the dissertation process through creating a writing group. While Lee and Golde’s advice is geared towards doctoral candidates, this guide is helpful for forming a writing group regardless of your project.

Some of the benefits of forming a writing support group are immediate: you receive emotional support from your peers; your group members will likely be tougher critics than your faculty advisors, which will better prepare you for faculty review; your group will help keep you accountable for your progress; and group members may be able to provide fresh ideas or new resources for your writing. Other benefits are long term and will help you professionally. In some cases, group members will go on to collaborate in research and you’ll learn how to develop an intellectual community without the guidance of faculty mentors.

Lee and Golde offer ten questions to address concerning group dynamics when first starting out. While there is no right answer to these questions, your group should come to a consensus and record the decisions.

How often, when, and where will your group meet?

By determining the logistics of your meetings, everyone is clear about the time commitment for meetings. Meetings can take place for one hour every week in a local coffee shop or two hours every other week at a group member’s house; it doesn’t matter as long as the expectations are acceptable for all group members.

How big will the group be?

Small groups of four or five make the work load more manageable for each member. Not to mention, four schedules are easier to coordinate than ten!

What are the rules for group membership?

Are you getting together a group focused on writing research articles, articles for publication, creative writing, theses, or dissertations? Do the topics for your group members need to be related? Do all writers need to be in the same stage?

What format will you follow at each meeting?

Work with your group members to determine how much time will be allotted for giving updates and feedback, reflective writing, and discussing the next week’s agenda. Discuss any other exercises that will help your group members continue moving forward in the writing process. Consider how many group members will receive feedback at each meeting. If your group meets weekly, you may want to give feedback to one member each week, while bi-monthly meetings may mean meeting longer and giving feedback to multiple members. Then determine how much of each meeting will be devoted to each part of the meeting.

What are the "formal" roles for the group and who will play them?

Lee and Golde suggest assigning the roles of facilitator for keeping the discussion on task, a convener for handling logistics (locations, reminders, etc.), a time keeper to keep the meeting from running over, and a note taker to keep notes from the meetings. These roles can rotate regularly or remain the same for the duration of your group.

What kinds of work will the group read?

Will your group only give feedback on drafts? What kind of drafts, rough or polished? Can members submit outlines or free writes?

When, how, and how much work will members submit for feedback?

Discuss how members will exchange work for feedback. Drop-off locations work well and UNL Drop Box provides a safe way to send large documents electronically. Also, be sure to determine when members should distribute work for feedback.

What kind of feedback is reasonable to expect?

Do your members want overall feedback about structure or detailed editing? How much time outside meetings should be devoted to evaluating work?

How will members respond to each other’s writing?

Should each member give instructions for feedback with the text? Will comments be given verbally, on paper during the meeting, or electronically before the meeting? Can the method of feedback be determined individually by writer preference or will the group agree to one method?

What is the initial commitment?

Lee and Golde recommend giving your group time to settle in before determining what kind of a commitment will be useful for your group. After two or three months, spend time as a group revisiting the rules and decide if they still make sense for your members in light of the commitment involved.

Forming or participating in a writing group can be a significant time commitment. You’ll meet with your group regularly and read the writing of group members between meetings. However, many students find the benefits of participating in a writing group far outweigh the extra time commitment.

Are you writing a dissertation and want support from a writing group? The Office of Graduate Studies will be hosting sessions about dissertation writing, including dealing with writer's block and how to work effectively with a small support group. We'll break participants into small groups and provide information for making your group successful. 

Reference

Lee, S., & Golde, C., Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://vpge.stanford.edu/docs/DWG_starter_kit.pdf.