This is a guide by Charlotte Frost to setting up a regular communal writing session. The focus here is on the type of group that meets primarily to write with company, get support, and hold themselves accountable. If you run other types of writing group – where you offer feedback or target different writing tasks – please tell us more in the comments section.
To run a regular writing group you need to start by arranging at least one set time a week that a group of you can all meet, at a designated location, for about 2 hours. Usually it takes a least 2 hours for a writing session to be productive. Using a Doodle Poll can help you narrow down your time-slot options.
To begin with, make sure you have a regular location so people can get into a routine. Consider in advance if there is a kitchen close-by where participants can store and prepare refreshments and also whether the space you have chose permits the consumption of food and drink. You might also consider the availability of power points and how the room is set up – for example can you all sit together or will you be distributed around a busy library? If the latter, you might find your writing group doesn’t really feel like a group and the support and accountability working together can provide will be diminished.
You should also get everyone to agree to rotate who brings refreshments or each contribute to a refreshment kitty. If you have a kitchen nearby tea and coffee runs will be easy. We all have writing rituals and having the right hot drink often features heavily in these so don’t miss this part out. And remember that the odd indulgent cake doesn’t go a miss when you’re struggling with a section of writing.
To build a format for the session, it’s worth beginning each week with everyone taking just a couple of minutes to each publicly identify the following:
- What the ongoing project is.
- What you have achieved since the last session.
- What will be achieved during this writing session.
- What is proving problematic (this can range from theory you’re struggling to understand to getting your citations in a tangle, just say what’s bothering you.)
When everyone has announced their goals and issues, agree to work for an hour without interruption. If people wish to eat or drink during this time, they must agree to keep noise and disruption to a minimum. After the hour is up, everyone is given 15 minutes to get something to eat or drink, to chat, visit bathrooms and generally refresh themselves.Agree to work for the remaining time (if in a 2 hour session) or for the next hour and then take a break again. You might even consider buying a timer so that everyone can see (and hear) where you’re all at in the session. It could even be a Pomodoro timer and you could run your group in 25 minute sessions. If you do do this, remember that, initially, some people might struggle to get the hang of working in such short blocks.
Its really important to make writing group meetings habitual. Encourage all participants to be consistent and attend every session. Help them see you must all take joint responsibility for making the group work. Of course sometimes there’ll be a schedule conflict or an emergency, but try making playful punishments up for no-shows – like they owe everyone a cookie or some proof reading next session.
At the start of the session remind everyone to turn off/silence their mobile phones and to bring headphones if they want to listen to music. Let people know upfront that they are allowed to leave the session at any time, but they are not permitted to make or recieve calls and if they are working in pomodoros to take their 5 minute breaks very quietly and wait for the whole group to break before making too much noise.
Mix It Up
- Location. Although it’s useful to have a set location, if everyone can make it, why not try a new venue every once in a while. How about all meeting in a coffee shop or at someone’s house. Different locations can refresh your thinking.
- Games. Get everyone to write a writing task on a piece of paper (these might include footnotes, editing, introduction, conclusion…). Fold up all the task papers and put them in hat/cup/jar. At half time, invite everyone to take a task out, announce it, and commit to working on that for the rest of the session.
- Themes. Sometimes you might like to dedicate a writing session to a particular issue or project type. If you’re doing your PhD how about a literature review session. If you are early career academics why not have a session where you all work on job applications together. If you do a themed session, be sure to leave some time to discuss the issues you faced.
- Procrastination jar (as devised by Dimitrina Kaneva). Tell everyone that each time they get distracted they must write down what distracted them on a piece of paper, fold it up and put it in a hat/cup/jar. At the end of the session, pass the receptacle around and get everyone to read out at least one distraction. This provides light relief but it can also help you stay focused next time as you’ll have had a public reminder of what gets in your way.
- Free-write/brain-dump. All take 10 minutes at the start of the session and write down everything you can think of that relates to your writing project. Just get it all out onto paper or into a Word document (or similar) and don’t you dare think structurally or critically. This will clear your mind and give you a number of places – literally listed on a piece of paper/screen – to start.
If your group is willing, you might all agree to become a test audience for each other’s work. You might dedicate a writing session to giving each other feedback on previously circulated material. Or you might all agree to offer feedback on any drafts emailed to the group. However, if doing this, set some ground rules. Perhaps everyone is only permitted to share one draft per writing project and only with a long lead time.
If you can’t assemble a whole group of other writers to meet and write with you, find just one. Buddy-up with another writer and try and work together using the same principles described above. And when you can’t write together, make a point of checking in with each other to listen to problems and progress. Your email/call to check on your writing buddy might mean the difference between them finishing a draft this month or next.
And if you can’t write as part of a group in a physical location, use the #acwri (#acwrimo during November) tag to keep in touch with other writers virtually.