Joli Jensen

Hazel Rogers Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa

Don’t Go It Alone

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Image: children writing a letter (1950), Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S92873 / CC-BY-SA

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I spent much of my writing life “going it alone,” and though I still managed to publish articles and books, I now know that my solitary approach made that life harder — and lonelier — than it needed to be. Joining an academic writing group can make all the difference in your scholarly career.

Trouble is, most advice on creating and using writing groups is geared toward fiction writers. Academic writers need something different.

Fiction writing groups tend to focus on content and critique, and members often read their writing aloud for others to evaluate. That kind of “workshopping” -- in which a bunch of people give off-the-cuff (and sometimes conflicting) feedback about what you’ve written -- is not what academics need. Thanks to the peer-review process, faculty manuscripts receive no shortage of feedback. Papers by graduate students are (or should be) critiqued by their advisers and mentors prior to submission. Meanwhile faculty members often seek guidance on their written work from trusted colleagues, mentors, and peers.

What academics need from a writing group is not criticism but, rather, encouragement and accountability. We need advice on overcoming the obstacles that keep us from writing in the first place. We need help getting our writing done — not just planned and agonized over. Productivity techniques often work best when someone is there reminding us of them. And committing to an academic writing group that focuses on setting regular writing goals helps hold us accountable.

My own writing group, made up of tenured professors, has been meeting every week for more than two years. As director of a faculty writing program, I also supervise a tenure-track group, as well as two other groups that emerged from workshops and include a mix of tenured and untenured writers. The groups meet weekly, monthly, or bimonthly — whichever schedule works best for the members.

Each group uses these guidelines:

  • Focus on process, not content. The group’s primary purpose is to help the members meet their individual writing goals for each meeting. Toward that end, it may be best to meet in an academic setting, rather than a home or cafe, so the focus stays on writing, not socializing or venting.
  • Size matters. Keep the group small for effective feedback. Four to six participants is ideal, and no more than eight.
  • Stick to a schedule. Meet regularly (weekly is best, but at least once a month) for no more than an hour.
  • Attend whether or not you’ve met your writing goals. If you haven’t written, you can seek advice on what’s holding you back. If you have written, you can inspire and support others.
  • Make concrete writing goals. Have each member set a daily word or page count for their writing, or devise benchmarks to guide their work on a specific project. Make sure that those individual goals are realistic and specific.
  • Put it in writing. Write your goals in a shared notebook, and leave each meeting committed to achieving your own specific set of objectives.
  • Make time for each member. Each person should have the same amount of time to talk about why they did or did not meet their writing goals. Group members should then have a brief window in which to offer concrete suggestions on what to try next time. No one member should dominate, and interruptions should be allowed only to get back on topic or on time.
  • Maintain confidentiality. What happens in writing group stays in writing group, so that everyone can be honest and feel safe.

In my faculty writing group, we use a seminar room in the campus library, and adjust our meeting time each semester to accommodate our changing schedules. We used to use a generic writing tablet to keep track of our weekly writing commitments; now we use a sparkly lab notebook. Writing down our next goal and sliding the notebook over has become the way we end our “share” and invite the next member to describe how their writing week went.

During our two years together, members of my group have weathered many challenges — a near-fatal car accident; a child’s serious health problems; the death of a department chair; an unwarranted lawsuit; cross-country trips for family emergencies; and other more mundane but still disruptive crises in work, family, home repair, and health.

Through it all we kept meeting and writing. We’ve had chapters completed, conference papers submitted, articles accepted, columns begun, books finished, and book contracts awarded. We have come to know and care about each other, as well as about each other’s writing projects. My group helped me sort out how to use a recent sabbatical semester. We help each other prioritize and balance our various writing commitments.

We’ve recognized our patterns of writing avoidance, and have seen (over and over!) how easily we let grading and departmental service derail us. Basically we learn what keeps us writing, and what keeps us from writing.

Writing group meetings can fall victim to three tempting distractions: content critique, personal therapy, and academic gossip. Every group needs to figure out effective ways to stay mostly on topic and mostly on time. If a member needs guidance on the content of a piece of writing, tell that person to meet with another colleague or offer to help yourself, but do it outside of the writing-group meeting. If a member needs significant emotional support, offer to meet another time to talk in more depth. And if there are juicy academic politics to discuss, feel free to gather later, maybe over food or drink, to dish about the details. A successful writing group acknowledges life issues, but keeps the hour-long meeting focused on how to meet writing goals, meeting after meeting.

If your university does not offer writing groups (and few do), use these guidelines to form your own group. If you join an ongoing academic writing group and they are “work-shopping” — doing content (not process) critique — suggest instead that the members focus on getting writing done, rather than on evaluating what has been written.

In a writing group, we academics can celebrate our successes with people who know firsthand what a struggle it can be to get the words “out there.” Getting to know colleagues through their writing process not only teaches and inspires me, but also encourages me. I no longer feel alone in my writing or in my profession. Meeting with my writing group orients, supports, and renews my writing commitments. I don’t ever want to try to “go it alone” again.

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