I recently joined a newly established academic writers’ group. As we are new, our first steps are to set goals or discuss strategies and structure.
I have written previously about the value perceived by many academics in having someone to whom you are accountable in terms of writing, whether it is about actual outputs or daily targets. The growth of initiatives like AcWriMo and Shut Up And Write indicates the appeal of not being on your own when you’re trying to begin or maintain a writing habit.
Coincidentally I joined this group shortly after I had picked up a couple of books in the library by one of my favourite writers about writing, Rowena Murray. The first one that I have started to read, Writing for Academic Journals, has a chapter (‘Dialogue and Feedback’) that discusses the benefits and aims of writers’ groups.
I’m aiming to write a few posts about my experiences in this new group and whether it has any effect on my writing plans this summer. Before I embark on the initiative, I would like to share my thoughts on what Murray has to say about writers’ groups.
Murray on writers’ groups
Unsurprisingly, the first point Murray makes about the purpose of a writing group is simply that it can encourage you to make time for writing. When writing might not feel like legitimate use of your time in the face of teaching, marking and admin demands, “cloaking” the writing as a meeting might feel more like an outwardly acceptable use of your time.
Trying to make more time, on your own, without support, would be more likely to fail (p171)
She then recommends that each group member think carefully about what they want to achieve from the group. Is it just accountability and collegiality? Or to share writing with each other and get feedback? Communicating with others about your ideas might lead to a new way to express those ideas. I can certainly vouch for this suggestion, with many a breakthrough coming from articulating my thoughts to others. Perhaps it is discussion about writing practices, or to share information about journals and their review process? These aims might develop and become more specific.
Crucially however, Murray advises that each group meeting involve at least some time spent writing, and not just talking about writing, since productivity is the bottom line for the group. I think this might be easier with offline groups compared to online.
Each writer will also, Murray says, need to have a writing project they are working on, and “everyone in the group should know each other’s writing goals” (p173).
So what should we talk about at each meeting? If everyone is in a similar field, we could analyse the journals we are targeting (this may not work because of my group’s disciplinary variety); discuss plans; do some writing; set goals and monitor others’ progress; give and receive feedback; discuss strategies for quality writing and publication (p174).
Ultimately there is scope for writers’ groups to support positive feelings and, later, success. From this advice I get a sense of the tone of the rest of Murray’s book (that I’ve read so far): writing needs to have small goals and doable tasks. For instance, “my next 30 minute task will be…” These work much more successfully than”finish xyz paper”. Her aims for writing groups fit in with this.
For me, I think my aim is to have a space on my calendar to state as writing time because of accountability to a group. I would want to have made progress before the next meeting! It is, I find, easy to put off the deeper thinking and writing tasks because of the feeling that they need long periods of sitting and concentrating – a valuable commodity. I am also hoping that sharing my plans with the group will help to clarify my next steps and my priorities.
The group I am in has its first online meeting on Friday.