Dan Royles

Assistant Professor at Florida International University

Starting an Online Writing Group

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Image: keyboard and pen, by Ala_z

Winter may be stubbornly hanging on in much of the United States, but believe it or not, summer is right around the corner. Do you have big plans to spend those months writing? If so, you could think about attending a writer's retreat at the Berlin Summer University of the Arts. It's easy to imagine just how much writing you could get done while lounging in high-ceilinged, tastefully austere rooms. Of course the fee -- 750 Euros, plus travel expenses -- probably puts a writer's ashram out of reach for most of us. So what to do instead?

One solution I've found is to host a writing group on my personal blog. I did this for the first time in the summer of 2012, and have organized a handful of 12-week writing groups since then. As with any writing group, the goal here is to use goal-setting and mild social pressure to help your writing process along. All you need is a blog.

Here's how it works: About a week before the beginning of the writing group, I make an announcement on my blog, inviting people to join. In the comments, I ask participants to introduce themselves, and to lay out what they hope to have accomplished at the end of the 12 weeks.

At the start of every week, I put up a post asking people to outline their plans for that week in the comments. At the end of the week, we post our results, and our plans for the following week. Often the weekly posts include a word of encouragement or a reflection on my own writing progress. If I find a useful productivity tool or a good blog post on writing, I'll share that, too.

If you're interested in starting your own writing group, here are some things to consider:

  • How long will the group last? I don't remember why I chose 12 weeks for the first writing group, but that's the model that I've stuck with. Perhaps I was drawing on Wendy Laura Belcher's Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, or perhaps it shows how thoroughly I have been disciplined into the semester system. But for both the moderator and the participants, 12 weeks can be a long time to maintain enthusiasm for weekly goal-setting and reporting. However, that length of time does map well onto the summer break, which is when we tend to do the majority of research and writing. In any case, think about what makes sense for your own goals and schedule.
  • What will you ask of participants? Will they check in once a day? Once a week? Every two weeks? The frequency will likely vary according to the length of your writing group. For example, Academic Ladder's writing club organizes four-week writing sessions (for a fee) with daily check-ins and sophisticated analytics. Will participants be asked to engage with one another's work? Real-life writing groups usually consist of a group of scholars who periodically meet to read and critique each other's work. Instead of, or in addition to, having participants set weekly goals, you might use Google Docs to comment on one another's work, or set up a live chat session to discuss a draft face-to-face (more or less). The latter approach gives participants the opportunity to get valuable feedback, but requires a greater commitment from participants, and may not scale well for larger groups.
  • How will you encourage consistent participation? Will you impose a penalty for participants who don't post updates? When Notorious Ph.D. and Another Damned Medievalist ran a writing group in 2011, they dropped participants who went two consecutive weeks without updating. I have generally taken a more laissez-faire approach because the group is voluntary, after all, but with the result that the retention rates for my groups are somewhat lower. In any case, think about other ways to encourage a sense of group solidarity. For example, you might organize a "work blast" on Twitter, where you all agree to sit down and write at the same time once during the week, and report your results.

Whether your writing group attracts 5 participants or 50, weekly goal-setting and reporting is a great way to keep yourself on track toward your summer goals. Not only that—when you're all done, you'll have a record of the work that you accomplished along the way.

Have you organized an online writing group in the past? Share your thoughts and advice in the comments below or start a thread in our scholarly writing group.

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