Academic Creating Effective Peer Writing Groups
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By Elizabeth Bynum
Whether you’re working on a dissertation, a class project, or a piece of fiction, writing can be a solitary task. As graduate students, our seminars and classes are all about dialogue and learning from our peers. However, in many fields, when it’s time to write, it’s just us and a blank page. Writer’s block, coursework, family obligations, and other responsibilities can sap our motivation and make it difficult to make progress. As a PhD Candidate in Penn’s School of Arts and Science working on my dissertation, I also found that the isolation created by the pandemic became yet another obstacle to my writing. Over the past year, I’ve received a lot of support and motivation from my peers through supportive writing groups.
Based on your goals, you might approach a peer writing group in a few different ways. You might use a writing group to co-write with your peers at a specific time each week. Alternatively, your writing group might be a support system for regularly sharing goals and creating accountability. During the summer of 2020, a few of my colleagues in the Music department created a WhatsApp group. Each weekday, we shared our writing goals and checked in with one another. It was nice to be more in touch with this set of colleagues, and the group helped me feel more accountable for completing the goals I established. In January of this year, I signed up for the Grad Center’s virtual dissertation boot camp. Through that program, I was paired with a few peers for daily goal check-ins. After the boot camp ended, we continued to meet each week to share goals and scheduled regular co-writing sessions via Zoom.
If a writing group sounds like something that could help you meet your goals, there are a few concrete steps you can take to form a group.
Identify people you would like to form a writing group with. These may be people in your cohort, your program, a class you are taking, or even friends from outside grad school. They may be in your discipline, but they but don’t have to be. Your initial ask can be simple: is anyone interested in forming a writing support group? You can also join the Virtual Grad Center’s Slack channel or be paired in an Accountability Group.
Agree on your goals collectively. Once you’ve found people to form your writing group, it’s time to work out the details. What do you each want from a writing accountability group? To make these decisions, ask your peers questions like: do we want to organize co-writing sessions? Do we want to share goals on a weekly basis? Is anyone interested in exchanging drafts for feedback? Last summer, with my colleagues from music, we exchanged writing regularly, including abstracts, essays, and grant applications. This worked especially well since we were in the same discipline.
Establish a set meeting time. This could be the time you meet to write together or when you share goals. Try to pick a day and time of the week that will work for you consistently. I found it helpful to have a consistent meeting time when my peers and I were trying to have synchronous check-ins. Of course, you don’t have to schedule synchronous meetings. You can share goals via a group chat, or other platforms. However, I've found that regular meetings helped me to stay connected with my peers.
Implement a clear process for meetings. Think about how you’ll start meetings. Do you want to each share your progress from the past week, and then outline new goals? What kind of feedback would you like to offer each other? If you are doing co-writing sessions, think about how you might build in breaks to those, and check in with each other to chat and build community.
Regular communication between meetings. Think through how you’ll stay in touch. One of the most important things I’ve found for staying consistent with a writing group was having a specific way to stay in touch. That way, when schedules changed or something came up, it was easier to reschedule and regroup. Would your group like to use a shared WhatsApp chat, Slack thread, or another forum for staying in contact? Additionally, if you’re all connected on one thread, you could share goals throughout the week in between meetings. Try to check in periodically every few weeks to confirm that the schedule and system are working for everyone.
Building in peer support through a writing group has encouraged me to think through specific goals each week. Over the past year, when I hit stumbling blocks, the regular check-ins have also been a space to troubleshoot. Writing feels a lot less lonely with peer support to help me meet my goals and create a community around the work we’re all doing.