Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing Groups

Image credit: AAAS
Amrys's recent post has inspired me to share my thoughts about the value of being part of a dissertator group (or any writing group, whatever stage you're at).

While the humor of the cartoon on the left is admittedly dark, I think it is so popular among dissertators in part because it actually offers an image of hope. We all fall off the proverbial writing wagon periodically. But have faith! The panic and despair of steps 3 & 4 do eventually give way to productivity.

Still, this image is misleading in one major way. The figure is alone. In my experience, the key factor in moving as quickly as possible through the inevitable steps 2-4 has been being part of a dissertator group.

Writing groups aren't just for the dissertation, of course. Back at Montana State, doing my MA, I was lucky to be part of a small, closeknit cohort. While we didn't meet formally as a writing group, we shared many, many drafts (and draughts--talking shop over beers was critical to honing my major arguments). That group kept me challenged and motivated through the entire MA process. Since beginning my PhD, I haven't had the same constancy––I've been part of several very different kinds of dissertator groups, and have gone through periods being without one. But hopefully telling you about my experience will motivate you to get a group if you don't already have one.

Dissertator groups come in different flavors. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Some involve members from all stages of the writing process. Others include people who are all at about the same point along the way. When I began to write my proposal, I joined a group in our department. For me, the most helpful part of that group was the fact that we were all at different stages. I got to hear what lay down the road for me and learn from more advanced grad students' experiences. Plus, the existence of people who were almost finished (!) proved that it really could be done: dissertations do get written! The downside there, though, was that successful, finished dissertators stop being dissertators––that can make it hard to sustain a group! So, "that" departmental dissertator group was really multiple groups, changing in membership and blinking in and out of existence. The groups I'm in now involve grad students at about the same stage and have been much more consistent in membership and stable over time. Of course, there is a chance that this sort of group can feel like a case of the blind leading the blind. But at their best, they provide a sense of solidarity that is immensely valuable. You are in it together. Others are facing the same questions and challenges that you are.

Some writing groups have members that share particular research interests, while others are more diverse. Right now I am a member of two different groups, one with a couple of history of science/environmental history folks, one with several "regular ol'" historians. (I don't necessarily recommend overbooking yourself like this, though I love both groups!) Although the range of individual topics is quite wide in both groups, it has been an enlightening exercise to pitch my work to such different audiences. In general, with a narrower group, you get somewhat more specific, on-target feedback about the content of your work. In a broader group, you will be constantly forced to answer that "so what" question.

Whatever the makeup of the group, it should probably include 3-5 dedicated people. With too many members, there's a risk that some will feel less committed and attendance can drop off. There are always exceptions, though. My "historians" group is exceptionally large, with 6 consistent members. What is most important is commitment. You must be committed to showing up, to sharing your work regularly, to giving a good reading of others' work, and to offering both support and accountability.

So, how do you start a group? Just ask around. Who in the department is at the same stage as you? Whose work, in or out of the department, do you find interesting? Maybe you have a friend in another department who has a suggestion. I think the Writing Center also has a general dissertation group, though I have no experience with it personally (do you?). I've had luck with simply asking friends or being asked. If any of you know of other avenues, though, please share! Also, check out Joan Bolker's advice.

As you get a group together, lay down some ground-rules. Decide how often will you meet––once a week, once a month? Will everyone share a small piece of writing at each meeting, or will one person sign up at a time? How will you balance being supportive with holding group members accountable for being productive? What you decide is less important than––once again––being seriously committed to the group.

What if you can't get a group started? When I've found myself without a group, I have still made sure to share my writing with various people on a one-on-one basis. (In fact, I still supplement my groups with on-on-one sharing.) As painful as it can be to share things that aren't "done" yet, talking to other people can help get you motivated, spark new ideas, and help remind you why you were excited about your project in the first place. And as much as you might feel reluctant to share, it's better (for your work and for your confidence) to share with a fellow grad student early on than to have your advisors' eyes be the first ones on it. Sharing is not just for when you have a complete first draft of a chapter and are starting to revise, it can also be for when you are stuck on a problem and need a new perspective. And you never know; sharing with one person may eventually lead to starting up a group.

Writing can be a lonely process. Particularly as a dissertator, it can be hard to know if you're on the right track. Holding yourself to a routine and personal deadlines is a constant struggle. With a good writing group, though, you don't have to do it all on your own.


  1. Thanks, Megan, for your post! It great to hear more about writing groups, since this is one of the things I've missed the most being away, and since they are so often something that is informal enough that they are invisible or at least a bit inscrutable to people who aren't in one.

    I enjoyed the image, also. I think I am in stage five, the post-panic-and-despair drudgery. Although sometimes I think that there is a slightly more complicated flow among these stages, something not exactly linear, but with some feedback, like a panic-despair-drudgery loop. I feel like I've been through that one a few times now, to varying degrees.

    Here's to the constant struggle, and to fellowship along the way!

  2. I've had a few major realizations about the PhD process lately, which is great, but also a little frustrating in that they're coming in my fifth year. One of them has been that the real locus of support and advice in grad school is your peers. I'm lucky to have excellent advisors, but faculty are extremely busy themselves and you're not their priority (not a complaint, just truth). It's been my friends/colleagues that have pushed my work further and helped me with writing the most.

    The image of historical work is often that of the lone scholar in the archive or writing at a desk. Even though it feels that way a lot, sharing my work with peers and talking about it is the number one thing that has made it substantially better.

  3. Well, I'm glad that now we've got our "virtual" group!

    And agreed. I definitely see it as a step 1-5 loop. And procrastination doesn't always cause it. Sometimes you just get stuck. Doing my best to move from 4 to 5 right now. Hopefully with the help of some "group" writing today. Just writing in the same room as someone else writing can be helpful. Hence the success of the "boot camp" at the beginning of the summer. Definitely had my most sustained productive period following that.

    1. So grateful to my own supportive writing group(s)! And hey, could we get another one of those "boot camps" going? Maybe something like once or twice a month? I'll bring snacks...

    2. Anna, would you be able to bring that up at the student meeting next week? I think it would be great if we could set a regular day for boot camp.

  4. Mer, we must have been writing at the same time! Cheers to that continuing the rest of the day! I'll be over in an hour!

  5. Great post! Really appreciate this , Megan. I'm so glad to have this blog--what a great sign of the community in our dep't. Thanks to those who are contributing and keeping it goin'!

  6. Let's have a writing bootcamp in the HoS library in early February. I'll get the ball rolling via email.