Writing is hard work; the fact that we typically write in isolation only makes it more difficult.
Whether you’re a grad student trying to finish your dissertation, a fiction writer starting your first novel, or a faculty member balancing writing with other obligations, your challenge is likely the same: finding a way to cultivate sustainable writing habits. For many writers, joining a writing group can help.
This handout focuses on two primary kinds of writing groups: accountability groups and feedback groups. The purpose of an accountability group is to increase member productivity with most of the meeting time spent writing. Think of the accountability group as exerting positive peer pressure; being connected to other people engaged in the same task can help you establish a regular writing routine. On the other hand, a feedback group, where members share work and receive critiques, can provide you with suggestions to improve your work and challenge you to do deeper revision, in addition to spurring you to get more written.
The first step in starting a group is to recruit members. A good bet is to look for peers facing the same writing challenges as you—fellow students in a seminar or your peers in your academic department, for example. Consider the size of your group. Bigger groups can be livelier but more difficult to manage. Also decide what you’ll do if someone drops out. Will you replace them? How will you recruit new members?
Accountability groups can be large; even as many as eight to ten members can work. Usually, the common bond bringing members together is the need to combat procrastination, manage time more productively, or carve writing time out of a busy schedule.
Feedback groups are more difficult to organize and manage. A smaller group with three to four highly motivated individuals is probably ideal. To find willing partners, be specific about the goals of the group—for example, to give honest and specific critical readings of work in progress—as well as the time commitment.
The First Meeting
Once you assemble a group, select a facilitator who will begin and end each session. Choose a back-up facilitator, too, because life happens.
Some of the most basic decisions should be made in the initial meeting:
- Format. Will you meet virtually or in person? If you’re meeting in person, do you have a quiet place to meet consistently?
- Day/times for meeting. Ensure the schedule is consistent, even if that means some folks will miss some meetings. Consistency in time is key for long-term habit building. Also decide how much time would be productive. Two to three hours twice a week would be typical for an accountability group, while a feedback group might meet for two hours once a week.
- Long-term Schedule. Will the group meet for a semester? A calendar year? Indefinitely? Schedule in needed breaks and holidays.
- Attendance. How will the group encourage attendance? Will the facilitator email members if they miss a session? Should members be expected to notify the facilitator or group if they are going to be absent? Should the facilitator send a reminder before each session? Will repeated absences lead to someone being removed from the group?
- Agenda. For an accountability group, you’ll likely want to start each meeting with participants sharing their goals for that session. How much time will be allotted for that? And how much time will be spent at the end of the session sharing how much work was accomplished? Will there be any other kind of wrap-up? For a feedback group, will all participants share work during each meeting, or will the focus rotate? How much time will be devoted to the discussion? Will there be any other general sharing of goals and challenges?
- Ambiance. If you’re meeting in person, will there be food? Music in the background? For virtual sessions, consider beginning and ending each meeting with some fitting background music, such as a lo-fi beats or instrumental playlist. If people want to socialize, set aside a separate time for that.
Make sure to review your group’s basic ground rules and procedures with any new members.
Tracking progress is key for accountability groups but can also be a helpful part of a feedback group. The facilitator can do the tracking, or the work can be shared among the group.
- Attendance. Attendance should be noted for each meeting, especially for larger groups.
- Goals. The facilitator can ensure that each member has time at the beginning to state their goals for that session. At the end of each session, each member can describe what they accomplished. The facilitator or another group member can record everyone’s progress on a Google sheet that can be shared. Making goals public can increase motivation.
- For an accountability group, goals should be measurable and reasonable for the time allotted. A goal might be to write 200 words or edit three pages. Goals work best when they are challenging but not overly ambitious.
- For a feedback group, knowing the rest of the group expects you to show up with work to share might be all the accountability that members want. However, if the members like, they can also state their goals and describe their progress to the group.
- Time. The facilitator should keep track of time. In an accountability group, you want to be sure everyone has enough time to write. In a feedback group, be sure everyone presenting gets an equal amount of time to share and receive feedback.
- Feedback. You may want to provide guidance on how to give and receive feedback. It can be helpful to set the expectation that feedback will be honest and specific but also tactful. The person receiving feedback should remain open to listening carefully and avoiding defensiveness; one way to curb defensiveness is to establish a rule that the writer sharing their work can respond to the feedback they receive only by asking questions.
In an accountability group, the facilitator would typically begin by noting attendance and asking each member to state their goals for the session (10-15 minutes). Then everyone writes on their own for the allotted time, say two hours. At the end of the writing period, the facilitator brings the group back together to report on how close they came to achieving their goals (10-15 minutes).
The Pomodoro Technique can provide an effective structure for accountability groups. This popular productivity strategy allows for both focused work time and breaks. Start by setting a timer for 25 minutes and working until the timer rings. Next take a 5-minute break and then work again for another 25 minutes, followed by another 5-minute break. In 120 minutes, you should be able to get through three “pomodoros” and still have time for checking in and out with the rest of the group. See https://pomofocus.io/ for an online timer and instructions. Separating a longer writing session into these smaller chunks—and scheduling breaks—can improve focus.
In a feedback group, the facilitator might start the group by noting attendance and asking members to share goals (10 minutes). Then members might spend about 40 minutes reading each other’s work, focusing on the type of comments requested. Reviewers can write comments directly on the draft or keep notes on a separate page. After that, they can discuss their comments and answer the author’s questions. The group might use the last 10 minutes to review goals. Another popular format is to have each author read work aloud to the group for a set number of minutes and then get feedback from the group before moving on to the next author’s reading.
Group members should help each other when challenges arise.
- If writers are routinely failing to meet their goals, encourage them to consider why. Are the goals too lofty? Does the writer need to resolve an issue with the project before making headway? Or maybe the writer needs to write at a different time or place that better suits their schedule. Discussing the issue—without shaming the writer—can help everyone in the group learn to approach setbacks strategically.
- To help with procrastination, keep a word count score and track attendance to enhance accountability. Some people are more motivated by incentives and others by disincentives, so consider letting members select their best motivation technique. “Gamifying” things can be fun—like granting each person a virtual star when they log in for the day or acknowledging when a group member hits a bigger goal, such as writing 5,000 words. Apps that can help include https://clickup.com/, https://www.beeminder.com/, and even https://www.stickk.com/, a platform that requires you to give money to a charity you hate when you fail to meet your goal.
- Check in to see if the group is meting members’ needs. Be open to suggestions and flexible about modifying things.
- Celebrate success! The goal of the group is to help people write more—and more consistently. Be sure that group members get to acknowledge their achievements.
Running an Effective Writing Group, UCLA Graduate Writing Center
Setting Up Your Own Writing Group, The Writing Center, George Mason University
Shut Up and Write, Inside Higher Ed.
Writing Group Starter Kit, The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill