Louise Seamster

Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Why You Need a Writing Group

Full vitae writing group

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If you don't have a writing group, you need one. That’s true whether you are in graduate school or well into your academic career. Much has been written already about how a writing group can up your productivity and your publication count. So instead, I'm going to talk about other functions of a writing group — specifically, how this and other forms of peer mentoring can play a role in countering the pressures of academic life. Here I'm drawing on my experiences building a writing group over the past six years.

Join a writing group and rewrite academic culture. The isolating and competitive atmosphere of academia is enough to produce anxiety and depression in many a doctoral student. Ingrained in all of us is the idea that you're not doing grad school right unless you are regularly home alone in front of your computer. Professors trained under that culture tend to reproduce it in advising their own Ph.D.s.

A writing group is automatically subversive — a parallel universe outside of those games. It offers a place to find support and mutual collaboration, and can help you take control of your own destiny and define success for yourself. Doing so, as people like Regina Sierra Carter have noted, can be critical for your survival in academia.

Building your own support team is especially critical if you come from a demographic that is underrepresented in academia. You may have a hard time getting good mentorship. You may encounter discrimination or just strange treatment in classes. Writing groups are a way to get support from your peers, and to reciprocate. Placing the focus of the group specifically on writing will help you construct your identity as an independent (and interconnected) scholar in a community of thinkers, which, presumably, is why you wanted to seek a Ph.D., anyway.

You need more support than one adviser can provide. Every adviser has strengths. But no one adviser can, or should, help you with every aspect of your career. A writing group of peers gives you a readymade core of colleagues who will provide stability in your transition from acolyte to scholar. Keep the group going, and those colleagues, whatever their institutional affiliation, will remain your peers when you are teaching and writing.

Framing myself primarily in relationship with my peers helped me remember that I was a professional — one who is still developing. Holding that identity foremost in my mind helped mute the messages I was receiving in academia about my “status” — that I was “just” a student. It also gave me access to the information I needed to make it in this mystifying profession. How do you write an academic article, anyway? What does a successful grant application look like?

Isolation is not the secret to great scholarly work. Most Western pedagogy depends on the vertical transmission of information from teacher to student. However, some significant deviations — including Maria Montessori and Paolo Freire — focus as much or more on horizontal learning from one's peers. We are each other's secret best resources. A writing group is an important location for holding and transmitting institutional and practical knowledge that otherwise must be relearned painfully by each new student. There's a structure for much of what we do as academics, and copying templates from our peers is how we learn that structure.

So working alone all the time will not make your more productive or more inspired; in fact, it might make you less of both. Being in a writing group — where you share drafts and encourage each other to write, and revise, often — will keep you writing and bring you inspiration when your own is faltering. Those things can feel revolutionary in an academic culture in which we hide (or deride) unfinished scholarly work. Build the support you want to have.

How writing groups operate. There is no one set of rules for what a writing group should look like, except that it should meet the needs of its participants.

When forming a group, don’t feel like you have to look for people who share your academic interests. Instead, look for people you trust. You can look outside your department or institution, too. Your group could be online. It does not need to be large: In fact, it may be more successful as a small group.

My own writing group originally had seven people. Many of us had some form of community-organizing experience, which may have helped our understanding of the importance of a collective. I met one future writing group member in a meeting at which she spoke up — before she even knew anybody there — to challenge racism. That kind of fearlessness was what our writing group needed.

Remember: With a writing group, you are changing a culture and a way of thinking in academe, and not everyone is prepared to do that. Try to find people who share your philosophy on scholarly work and life.

Our group evolved over the years as our individual needs changed. We spent a few years meeting weekly at our various homes for dinner. Because our goal was to meet people's actual needs, there was usually at least one baby in attendance. Initially we mostly read and evaluated each other's fellowships and grant applications. Within our group, while we certainly didn't get every grant we applied for, we ultimately won three Ford fellowships, a Fulbright, and two National Science Foundation grants, among other awards.

Next, we worked through our dissertation proposals. When four of us were doing remote fieldwork simultaneously, we became a fieldwork group with biweekly videochats to talk through issues in the field and share notes and memos. Later we talked through coding and analyzing our data. As submitting manuscripts became paramount, we organized a larger group to work through (most of) Wendy Laura Belcher's great book, Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, which eventually led to my first article submission. Three of us discovered the Faculty Success Program and its wonderful two-week writing “boot camp,” which fosters daily writing habits.

These days, our writing group doesn’t have formal meetings, but we are still on call for most questions. We're even planning on rebooting it for some next-level intellectual co-production. We've had to be patient, but that patience has paid great dividends.

In an academic environment characterized by many transient relationships and temporary alliances, we’ve created something solid and, we hope, enduring.

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