Writing Groups: How to Build Them, How to Run Them
I signed up for a writing group through the university writing center on a whim - I was cleaning out my inbox, a nearly obsessive form of procrastination for me, and saw the notice that groups were forming soon. It was the fall of my fourth year (of a five year program) and I needed some motivation. I had a draft of my prospectus that needed polishing, a schedule that was becoming more and more freeform as I advanced through the degree, and more and more pressure to research, write and publish as much as possible. Though it went through several permutations, my writing group was one of the most persistent, helpful, and supportive spaces through my candidacy. Here are a few of the important lessons I've learned, in the hopes that you can build yourself something similar!
- If possible, let someone else do the organizing. Many universities, departments and student groups offer writing spaces. If you're nervous about putting your writing out there, joining a pre-formed group, or bigger, more established program can feel more comfortable that connecting with a close peer or colleague.
- Interdisciplinary groups can be amazing! I was initially very skeptical that my group would be able to offer me anything, because the members were so far away from me in a disciplinary sense. But actually the insights of their Cultural Anthropology and Early Judaic studies trainings were incisive and thought-provoking. Because they weren't as familiar, if at all, with the literature and conversations I was referencing, they were relying on my writing to understand my topic. Any problems I was having concisely or clearly conveying my ideas were much more apparent to their fresh eyes. Colleagues can often read between the lines and fill in details or context that you have not included, leaving you thinking that your argument was clearer than it actually was. My writing group challenged me to be more judicious with my secondary literature (do you really need this to support your argument, or are you just name dropping?) and more forthright with my own contributions, and my work was stronger for it.
- Different writing groups can serve different purposes. During some summers, my writing group was just people with whom I gathered to write, never sharing drafts or talking through our work. I also had incredibly focused writing workshops with graduate students in my department, where I had to articulate how and why this fit into the larger field. I often showed rough drafts to my interdisciplinary group, as they weren't close colleagues and I could feel more comfortable sharing less polished work, and full chapters with my graduate student colleagues before they went to faculty members. Having multiple spaces pays off.
- Be clear about what you need. When sending my drafts to my writing group, I took care in the email to explain what I needed my writing group to do. Sometimes I needed help understanding if the sections flowed together, after putting together a month's worth of free writing. Other times, it was more helpful to ask if the argument was clear and well supported. I most of the time instructed that they ignore copy-editing tasks, unless the errors were glaring and felt so inclined - I had other places and resources for that, and I wanted feedback on the ideas. But nothing is more frustrating that spending time carefully rearranging sentences for flow and style only to find out that this was a very rough draft and the writer wanted feedback on structure. Clarity can make sure that you're getting what you need, and respecting your group members' time.
- If possible, record your sessions and the conversations. I am a person who needs to "talk it out." I loved seminar spaces and the chance I got to explain my thinking, as I am often much more concise and compelling in person than I am in writing. I got in the habit of recording (with permission, of course!) my writing groups, where we discussed my ideas and writing. I usually didn't transcribe those conversations, but would play the back as I was editing or going through and processing their feedback, because often there were important phrases I said that I wanted to steal from myself. Capturing that verbal processing was essential to making the best use of those meetings.
- Ask others to restate your argument. After a sprawling conversation where my group helped me to hash out the main points of a chapter's argument, my group member had the foresight to take a few minutes after the meeting and write down her version of my argument. This was incredibly useful for me, as it gave me a chance to see the space between the argument in my head and how it was communicated. Even if it is just verbally, or in the margin notes, this can be a useful tool for writing in the early stages.
When I passed my defense, two of my first emails were to my writing group, to share the news and thank them for all they did. I was lucky to have readers who helped me to form a community in a process that so often felt isolating and solitary. Writing groups don't have to follow the high pressured critique model - build one (or several!) that meet different needs for you. It always helps to fill out the team.