WriteCast Episode 62: How to Start and Sustain a Writing Group
© Walden University Writing Center 2019
CLAIRE: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Claire Helakoski,
KACY: and I’m Kacy Walz.
Claire: We’ll welcome a special guest today to discuss writing groups.
Kacy: Hi, everyone! In our last episode, which was on lessons from creative writing workshops, Claire and I got into a discussion about our experiences with writing groups. We wanted to extend this conversation with a colleague of ours who has had lots of writing group experience and is currently in three different writing groups while she works on her dissertation! We last spoke with Writing Center writing instructor Cheryl Read on episode 49, one of our Meet Your Reviewer episodes. If you’d like to learn more about Cheryl, her background, and her approach to reviewing student papers, check out that episode link in our show notes.
Today, thanks for joining us again, Cheryl, to talk about writing groups and what can make them successful!
Cheryl: Thank you for having me! I’m excited to be back on the podcast.
Claire: Hi, Cheryl! I’m so glad you’re willing to share some of your experiences with writing groups with us today. I know that they’re definitely something that can benefit our students. We were talking before the recording and you mentioned two main types of writing groups; could you tell our listeners about them?
Cheryl: Sure. I think of writing groups as being either reader response or accountability groups. Accountability groups give some external accountability to get writing done, which is often what writers need most when they’re working on large projects without firm deadlines. Reader response groups allow writers to get feedback on their drafts from peers, either in their field or not, before submitting to a professor or editor. Because these groups typically schedule who will share work when, they also provide some accountability. I think that reader response groups, like our paper reviews, can be beneficial at any stage of any kind of writing project.
Kacy: Both types seem beneficial! Do you have personal experience with one or both? What is your background with writing groups?
Cheryl: I guess I’m kind of in three different writing groups right now as I work on my dissertation. One is with a friend who was a couple years ahead of me in my PhD program. We have a shared googledoc where we update each other on our progress, provide words of encouragement, and strategize about the writing process. She finished her dissertation a few years ago, so there is a great mentorship component there that I definitely benefit from.
The second is with you, Kacy. Kacy and I are in the same stage and the same field—we're both working on PhDs in English literature--but we attend different universities. We periodically check in with each other about how the work is going and talk through ideas. We also sometimes exchange drafts, and I always appreciate your feedback, Kacy!
The last group is a great accountability group on Slack, which is a cloud-based collaboration and communication tool. The group is open to anyone, so I could actually share the link.
Kacy or Claire: Oh, great, we’ll link to it in our Show notes. What is that group like?
Cheryl: We report in on our progress and share strategies, and there are also writing meetups that give us a sense that we aren’t working alone. This has been a great group for me because it’s international, so no matter what time I’m awake and writing, someone else probably is, too!
So these are all accountability groups done virtually because that’s what I need right now. I’ve done reader response groups in person in the past, and that was less successful, I think because people didn’t necessarily need readers’ feedback on their work.
Claire: Thanks for elaborating, Cheryl. You mentioned that you picked the right type of group for you—how did you come to that decision or realization and how might students do the same?
Cheryl: This decision depends upon a lot of factors. I’m a strong and confident writer, so I’m not currently looking for much feedback on the writing itself. When it comes to ideas and content, I’m working on a dissertation, so my committee is best equipped to help me with those questions—and I’m lucky to have a chair who’s willing to look at early drafts. I found that what I really needed, as someone who’s juggling a dissertation with full-time work and parenting a toddler, and who is also living 15 hours away from my university, was accountability and a sense that I’m not alone in all this. Having multiple accountability groups helped me get my butt in the chair each day until it became a habit.
Students should do some self-reflection to think about where they might be getting stuck in their writing and what support they need to get through that. They can also think about what support they’re already getting or could get from their faculty and the Office of Academic Support, including the Writing Center, and what they could use from a peer group.
Kacy: At Walden, our students are online since we’re an online university—what do you think about virtual versus in person writing groups and how might students use one or both?
Cheryl: There are certainly differences between virtual and in-person groups, and both can be helpful! Virtual groups might be the obvious choice for Walden students—they could arrange writing groups among fellow students in their program or people they meet at residency or in the capstone community. But there are also a lot of opportunities through social media as well as in person writing meetups in many areas.
One thing I’ll say is that students don’t need to limit themselves to a writing group of writers in the same field—people from outside your field can be really helpful, too! Some writers may find that they thrive with one virtual group of students at the same stage of the same degree program as them for working through content and another, in-person group just to be around other writers for some accountability and solidarity. After all, there’s a lot more motivation to write when you know someone is waiting to meet you at the coffee shop or library.
If you aren’t able to attend an in-person meetup--and that’s the case for me right now--some writers have success scheduling writing time on Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. They briefly check in at the beginning of their sessions and then write in silence together, sometimes even leaving their webcams on.
Claire: These are all wonderful tips for our students! Do you have any more tips for students who want to get a writing group started? Where would someone begin?
Cheryl: The first thing students will need to do is find their people. Look for existing groups that you can join, or find some writers who are interested in joining you. An accountability group can be any size, but for a reader-response group, I recommend keeping it to no more than five writers so that everyone regularly gets feedback on their work.
Kacy: So, once someone has started or joined a writing group, what should they do—or not do? In your experience, what makes a writing group succeed or fail?
Cheryl: The single most important thing you can do is make sure everyone is on the same page. If your accountability group is going to have regular check-ins or synchronous writing sessions, everyone needs to commit to them. If your reader-response group is going to rotate through drafts, everyone needs to stay on schedule. When one person falls off of a writing group, especially when it’s a small group to begin with, the whole thing can fall apart. It’s important to let everyone get their needs out there from the beginning so that you can create a group that meets those needs.
Kacy: That’s so helpful, Cheryl!
Claire: Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Cheryl. Do you have any final advice for our students?
Cheryl: I’ve been a member of several writing groups over the years, and they have each taken a different form. I think the key is figuring out what you want to get out of a writing group, finding others with the same needs, and building something that works for all of you. Writing groups have been really helpful for me throughout graduate school, and I hope listeners will benefit from them, too.
Claire: Thanks so much for coming in today, Cheryl and for the awesome advice to our students.
Kacy: Thank you, Cheryl! We’ll have a few additional resources in our show notes for you to start pursuing your own writing group.
Until next time, keep writing ...
Claire: ... keep inspiring.
If you’re a Walden student, and are interested in starting a writing group with your colleagues, you can send us an email at [email protected] (and include something like PodCast Writing Group in the subject line)
KACY: WriteCast is a monthly podcast produced by the Walden University Writing Center. Visit our online Writing Center at academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. Find more WriteCast episodes on iTunes,Stitcher, TuneIn or your favorite podcast app. We would love to hear from you. Connect with us on our blog,Facebook, and Twitter, and at [email protected]. Thanks for listening!