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Writing groups: When, why, how, and best practices

Academic writing can be a solitary, isolating experience for many authors. While that may work for some, solitary writing can leave many writers feeling unmotivated, lonely, and lost. I propose, and research has proven, taking a more collaborative, community-based approach to writing can be highly beneficial in terms of productivity, success, and enjoyment.

From feedback to accountability, to pop-up groups to writing retreats and workshops, when faculty meet and talk about their writing, they reduce isolation and improve their craft. Consequently, over time, faculty become more productive and less stressed because they are accomplishing their goals. In addition, they become part of a community of writers.

How do you start a writing group and what are writing group best practices? Gleaned from the research literature and my many years of belonging to and leading writing groups, here I identify five main themes and practices that groups should consider no matter what kind of group is formed. These best practices provide the foundation to building a successful writing group.

1) Be Organized and Consistent

While it is important to establish who will be the group “lead”, it is also crucial that the group members themselves decide how their group will run, as this helps build buy-in and commitment. All members should weigh in on decisions such as what is the schedule, what will the group do, how long and where to meet, how many members, etc.

2) Build Personal and Professional Relationships

Writing groups should not ignore fundamental communication and relationship-building among members. It is important to build trust, lay out ground rules, and establish positive communication using active listening strategies. I also recommend spending at least one session building trust and having a conversation around the ground rules. These conversations lead to rapport-building with a shared sense of mission for each member in meeting his or her individual writing goals.

3) Develop Shared Vision

Writing group members should try to generate a common vision and share their accomplishments. With decisions made about leadership and the establishment of positive relationships, the group can focus on being goal oriented for the group members and for the group itself. Pay attention to time limits so that members feel that the time is not wasted or overextended. In addition, seek to be consistent about expectations for accountability.

4) Foster Positive Interactions

Each member of a writing group is personally responsible for fostering positive ongoing interactions that meet member goals and contribute to constructive interactions among the members. Initial excitement for the group may waver as time passes. The group may wander away from the ground rules established early on. By being supportive of and respectful to each other, the group works well. It is not a bad idea to check in on the initial ground rules about midway through the term. Some members may need encouragement in commenting on how the group is working for them.

5) Celebrate Accomplishment

Devising ways to reward progress encourages more progress. The reward might be doing lunch, dinner, or happy hour at a local restaurant.  If members reframe events as rewards for meeting writing goals, these can be a seen as more enjoyable.

Dannelle D. Stevens, Professor Emerita at Portland State University, is the co-author of four books. For the last six years she has been the Portland State Faculty-in-Residence for Academic Writing where she initiated the highly successful Jumpstart Faculty Writing Program. Her fifth book, Write more, publish more, stress less! Five key principles for creative and scholarly writing was released in fall 2018.