My writing group just celebrated our 5th anniversary. Although our idea for the group was born during a faculty retreat, it took us a year before we hashed out a plan. We were all tenure-track and anxious about the promotion process. What we wanted was a support structure for both writing accountability and boosting publications.
What we got was so much more.
For sure, we have become better writers.
We also have become better at securing publications, better at conducting peer reviews, and even better at teaching. Indeed, one of my favorite classes in my Women in Europe course is an ad hoc production by my students of Madame Maintenon’s Proverbs (Maintenon is the morganatic wife of the seventeenth-century French king Louis XIV). She wrote the Proverbs to help guide young girls from poorer aristocratic families through the treacherous waters of the early modern French marriage market. As you probably have guessed, I learned about the significance of Madame Maintenon—and became privy to translated sections of her Proverbs—through reading article drafts in my writing group.
The writing group has boosted all of our academic careers (three of us are now comfortably past tenure with growing publications). But we have come to realize that our story is anomalous. Many (possibly most?) writing groups deteriorate into social meetings or fizzle out completely within a few months of formation.
So how do you form a writing group that will both endure and be productive? I have a few suggestions:
1. Be selective about who you invite to join. This is not just about friendship—it is about establishing a committed group of scholars who will benefit from one another. Because writing groups do not work if members fail to submit manuscripts, make sure you invite people who are committed to similar goals and serious about the writing process (what do they have at stake?). Moreover, try to balance your group so that it is not skewed toward one department or particular area. This really helps in learning how to make research accessible to readers (such as journal reviewers) who may not be in your direct field. It also encourages new insight and even new methodologies into your project that you may not have considered. Our group, for example, represents four different departments–Professional Writing, Modern Languages and Cultures, Communication, and Medieval History. It can take time to get the right balance of members, so don’t be discouraged. We began our group with a core of three and then worked for about a year before we found a really good fit for our fourth.
2. Have a clearly established meeting time with a set beginning and end. We review our teaching schedules at the beginning of each semester and set a basic time (day of the week and hour) that works for all of us. We schedule the meetings for approximately three weeks apart and we usually meet for one hour each time. Although we have to adjust our meeting times each semester to accommodate changing teaching and administrative schedules, we have made it a habit to always schedule/confirm our next meeting date before the end of our current meeting.
3. Set ground rules and hold each other accountable. We meet every three weeks and circulate papers a week before our scheduled meetings. This allows enough time for each of us to review and bring comments. We often frame our submissions with reviewer comments (if applicable) or with requests for help in certain areas. This helps provide direction for the reviewers and makes our meeting times more productive.
4. Finally, don’t be a perfectionist about your submissions. My husband often jokes about cleaning house in preparation for the cleaning service. While I stand that this is necessary for my house (so that our vacuum isn’t clogged with the nerf bullets and paper clips my son leaves all over the floor), it isn’t necessary for writing group submissions. In other words, you don’t have to submit journal-ready selections. Sometimes members of my group submit completed articles and chapters; more often we submit partial drafts, raw ideas, and even quickly-written conference papers. In fact, I prefer to submit raw ideas and partial drafts as I have found that the insight provided by my group helps me think better about how to organize and articulate my projects.
Academic writing can be a lonely process, often with discouraging results.
Thanks to my writing group, it is no longer that way for me.