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How to Run an Effective Writing Group
Happy February, Manuscript Workers.
This week’s newsletter was prompted by a question I’ve received from scholarly authors many times — how do I start a writing group and get the most out of it?
As I don’t claim to be an expert on writing process, I’m always a little hesitant to offer advice on this topic. But instead of deferring the question forever, I decided to seek outside perspective from someone I do consider an expert, or at least someone with a track record of success when it comes to convening scholarly peers to exchange writing for mutual feedback.
Dr. Christina Dunbar-Hester invited me to join her faculty writing group way back in 2011 when we both lived in New York City and were working on revising our dissertations into our first monographs. We’ve been good friends ever since, but more importantly for our purposes today, I’ve long respected her commitment to exchanging work and providing supportive feedback that helps her peers (and herself) achieve their writing and publishing goals.
Twelve years later, Christina’s third monograph has just come out with the University of Chicago Press. It’s called Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond and I encourage you to check it out. Scroll down to read a recent conversation Christina and I had about writing groups and how they’ve helped her publish three scholarly books and many more articles.
LPS: How can writing groups help people be more successful with their writing and publishing goals?
CDH: It's just really good to have a friendly space to bounce ideas and try something, you know, and get friendly feedback first. It can make writing less isolating and less frustrating, and offer a kind of buffer or counterweight to if you get a harsh or biased review out in the world. It can also keep you motivated.
Having friendly people to share work in progress with can be confidence-building and help you show up to write in a way where you don't feel bad about it. Or if you're avoiding your writing, you can be honest about that in a less formal space.
The other benefit of working in a writing group is that it simply makes your work better to have eyes on it. It helps to have readers who are invested in helping you make it better and saying, “I really liked this part. But I didn't understand this transition,” or, you know, whatever.
Increasingly, I've been noticing as a peer reviewer that sometimes I'm seeing stuff that could have really benefited from that kind of internal round of feedback first. So working with a writing group would mean that the author is finding out prior to peer review that their readers might be really struggling to understand something that is maybe only clear to the author.
LPS: You’ve been active in writing groups from grad school through full professorship (congratulations on this recent change of title by the way!). Do writing groups have different benefits at different career stages?
CDH: Having a peer group at the same career stage as you, that you're moving through the world with, is really good to cultivate, full stop. Writing is one benefit, but it’s also about having other people to be in touch with and commiserate and share notes and stuff.
I'm not totally sure I had a peer group for writing my dissertation, but I did cowrite a lot of my dissertation in coffee shops with friends. And that provided some of the same benefits as a group where you exchange writing, where if you're a little bit stuck, you can ask someone a question, or just say, “does this thing I'm working on makes sense?” or talk through it
The time when writing groups can absolutely provide a huge benefit—in a moment that can be scary and without a lot of structure—is that immediate post-PhD, postdoc, contingent faculty, or early tenure-track stage. It’s a pretty lonely time in various ways. You have pressure to publish and other people seem like they already know what they're doing, and you don't have your committee anymore. So I think that's a really, really critical time to again, find people who are friendly, who you can just show up with regularly and not feel so isolated or stuck or bad or off on your own.
At later career stages, a writing group continues to provide benefits, even as you get to know the ropes better. It's just good to read other people's work. You learn stuff from them, and you get to bounce ideas off people regarding both the intellectual content of your work and other matters like structure and writing style.
LPS: How many people is an ideal number for a writing group?
CDH: I don't know if I have an exact answer, but I would say it's less about the number and more about having personalities where people will be committed and responsible to the group ongoingly. That said, five or six people might be a maximum, just from what I know about group dynamics and things getting unwieldy. Two to five might be good.
But really, it's just about understanding that everybody has too much work and other kinds of burdens. So you don't want the writing group to be another thing where you're making busy-work or making annoyance for yourselves and others. So you want people who will happily share the load of sending out emails when its their turn to lead the meeting and share their writing and don’t need reminding. And on the day when it’s your turn to share writing, you need to get it to everyone with some notice so they have time to read it and give you quality feedback. Writing groups might work better with a collection of self-starters — a small, friendly, responsibility-taking group is about right.
Speaking of people taking responsibility, what is the labor involved in maintaining a successful group? How do you make sure the labor is evenly distributed, or is that even possible?
It’s usually easiest to establish a standing date, like the first Monday of every month. That means less work to run a Doodle or poll everyone for every single meeting. Then if you have to cancel or move a meeting once in a while, it’s fine.
You can also have a rotating thing where one person takes the lead on organizing for one academic semester or year and then that role gets circulated around the group. You can make a list of dates and everyone signs up for one date and is responsible for sending the reminders and circulating their draft a week in advance.
Any system is fine, as long as it's clear, and people can stick with it. If you wind up with somebody habitually dropping the ball or somebody stepping in to do the work because other people aren’t, you want your group members to be people you feel that you can address that with candidly. Keep it light, keep it respectful, keep it fun.
Do you have any selection criteria for who you like to be in groups with? Do you aim for certain commonalities or differences among members?
My writing groups haven’t been that strategic, it’s just been based on who's around and who could also use the help. Often a couple people will know each other and then they bring in people so there’s a friendly basis but not everyone knows each other well, necessarily.
I think probably the most important thing is having enough field or discipline commonality to be able to critique each other's work meaningfully. It doesn't have to be that you're all in the exact same field or sub field. And in fact, in some ways, it might be better if you're not. But there are limits. Having people from completely different corners of the academy might be frustrating, unless there's some other reason that brings people together like you're all working on a similar empirical topic or something. You may not all be coming from the exact same place, but you’re at least somewhat legible to each other.
How often do you meet? What’s the format of the meetings? Any thoughts on in-person groups vs Zoom?
Regarding in-person groups, of course it's nice to have that connection with people, though it can be a little harder sometimes. In New York, it was challenging to find a space where we could all fit and have access and be able to hear each other. We would meet in public spaces where we could make noise but that weren't overwhelmingly loud, like a bar that had just opened in the mid-afternoon. That helped with having a sense of intellectual and social community across many campuses in the same big city.
But there may be practical reasons to consider online. As we learned from the pandemic, for a work meeting, Zoom or equivalent is perfectly viable too, especially if you want to convene people who aren’t located in the same city, avoid long schleps in big cities, and/or make it easier for people being Covid-cautious. My current writing group was supposed to be in person in Los Angeles but moved online because of the pandemic and stayed online.
How far in advance is ideal to circulate a draft for feedback?
What my group is doing right now is, at the beginning of the semester we hammer out our meeting dates and assign people to dates. That gives people a friendly deadline to finish and circulate their draft. A full week before the meeting is nice, five days sometimes works. If you’re sending your work 48 hours before the meeting, you just have the accept that not everyone will have time to read it or give you the most meaningful feedback. But it can be flexible.
I hope these tips give you a helpful starting point if you’ve been wanting to organize a writing group of your own. Thank you to Dr. Dunbar-Hester for sharing your insights!
For next week’s newsletter, I was asked by a reader to do a post on book acknowledgments. So I’d love to hear from you as a reader of this newsletter — what do you want to know about writing acknowledgments in your book? What tips have you received that you’ve found especially helpful? If you’re an editor, is there advice you frequently give to authors that you think should be shared more widely? Please feel free to reply to this email!