Academics live with the expectation that they must produce scholarly publications to remain in their given fields. For some, this is a privilege and a pleasure to carry out. For others, it may or may not be so pleasurable, to put it euphemistically. Balancing a fluid yet ever tighter schedule of service, teaching, administrative responsibilities, and scholarly pursuits can be formidable for many, particularly in an environment that lacks temporal structure and where support for the process of scholarly writing is often left for individual faculty members to discover on their own. Writing groups have been demonstrated in many cases to successfully address the at-large professional challenge of producing written work for publication. This piece presents what writing groups tend to entail and what issues they can help the profession alleviate.1
What Is a Writing Group?
Variations on writing groups abound, yet they share a number of core features. As Claire Aitchison and Cally Guerin state in Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond, virtually all types place “value in creating separate, safe and collegial possibilities where researchers can focus explicitly on writing as a central activity of academic life” (“Writing Groups” 12). Companionship and connectedness are hallmarks. I note the variations here:
- Location: On- or off-campus are possibilities, including residences, eateries, and out-of-the way campus locations specifically dedicated to writing.
- Participants: Two to twenty or more members, of varying or homogeneous ranks, disciplines, and sexes. Some single-sex groups emerged in recognition that women in academia statistically take longer than men to obtain promotions (Alexander et al.; MLA Committee), and solidarity in all-female groups has proven valuable to participants.
- Formats: Range from loosely to heavily structured, with or without a designated faculty facilitator, with or without peer review feedback, often with a statement of goals at the onset and concluding acknowledgement of whether goals were met, planned recreation or refreshment times, and long-term or short-term group times.
When feedback is not a part of the process, specialists in faculty development refer to accountability writing groups. The value comes from the group expectation that one will take part according to an agreed-upon schedule. This obviates one of the most vexing problems among researching academics—that virtually all of one’s time (in addition to overtime) can easily end up devoted to teaching and service responsibilities, leaving nothing for what is often mischaracterized as one’s own work (i.e., scholarly writing), a misnomer that floats in a mix of impediments to professional success.
What Holds Writers Back?
Hindering academic writers from producing manuscripts are the mixed messages on campuses about the type of work that is to take place there. We have students and classrooms, so there is no mistaking that teaching and advising have to happen. We have endless streams of e-mails and meetings for a plethora of service and committee work, and we often set no bounds for these myriad activities, and thus we can have a tendency to allow service (and teaching) to know no bounds. But where does scholarly research happen? If one typically works in isolation, a ubiquitous occurrence, this prime function of the profession often gets relegated to certain weekends, holidays, or summers, if it happens at all. Taking place during one’s so-called private time lends credence to the falsehood that it is one’s own work.
Working in isolation is problematic for other reasons as well. It can lead to a “competitive academic individualism . . . connected to the fear of falling” (Holt and Anderson 197). When unable to free time for writing and research or when experiencing writer’s block, academics can suffer a further freezing effect when hearing about the publication successes of fellow colleagues. Anthony Paré suggests that this psychosocial destructive pattern is “perverse” and “ridiculous” (24, 25) and that a “social view of writing . . . offers a damning critique of the individualism imposed on writers within most educational settings” (23). The foundational problem is that concrete institutional support for the act of writing, a mandated act, is more often than not nonexistent at work sites. As with many deep-rooted social problems, this one is generally a taboo topic. For a colleague to express that they experience difficulties with the act of writing, one of the principle duties of an academic, is to risk perceptions of weakness and individual failure, traits that are anathema in a neutral environment, let alone in one that may be hypercompetitive. Those who summon the courage to carve out periodic times to write run the risk of acquiring reputations of being brutal, ruthless, disloyal, and unprofessional (Murray 81). The perception frequently is that one’s colleagues suffer through being put on hold unfairly while one attends to publishing needs. Thus, while star authors are heroes for emulation, the procedural work to attain that status is a tortured and lonely exercise. Such a culture is schizophrenic. The systemic failure and dysfunctionality associated with the usual isolationism of the scholarly production mandate is all the more to be lamented when, at the heart of it, we readily identify the issue at hand and have even taught others how to navigate it.
When we teach our students to write, we emphasize the importance of finding an appropriate work space, following a schedule, making use of peer readers and editors, and enjoying the work. Certainly, a faculty member’s context is different from that of a student, but the basic principles can translate across contexts, if we temporarily ignore the psychosocial layers of added complexity at the professional level. The work space should be where one is uninterrupted. A schedule for someone with a professional requirement to write ought to be regular and adhered to over long periods of time to promote sustainability. Peers for feedback are beneficial but not always necessary. Here is where the variation in work group types comes in. If one functions more optimally with peer feedback, then that system should be cultivated, but one also has the option to receive feedback through peer review from colleagues working directly with journal or publishing venues. A writer can gain the other social benefits when working in an accountability group (i.e., without feedback). Colleagues provide a framework to work within that adds psychosocial gravitas to the event of writing, warding off stigmas of neglecting other work, increasing the likelihood that the schedule will be maintained, and allowing academics to more readily experience the joy of successfully pursuing their research.
Benefits and Testimonies
The benefits of creating a community and space for rewarding work are manifold. As social animals, we thrive under positive social contexts. Supporting one another in a group setting, however that is carried out, does much to push the institutional culture in a direction more welcoming to openness, intellectual curiosity, collaboration, and scholarly productivity. The benefits are borne out in testimonies of participants from a variety of writing group types: “After attending [the writing group], I was able to write over 100,000 words in 2012. It was literally just a tiny bit of feedback about my writing but it was a very big conceptual shift and I just knew what to do”; “The time and collaborative research atmosphere was perfect. Research was ‘the only’ thing in the world at that time. [The writing group] was delightful” (qtd. in Knowles and Grant 115, 114). “What has helped me most about [the writing group] is the feedback you get from people who read your work. They ask you questions and you have to explain what you mean, which forces you to organize your own thoughts’ (personal communication). Participants often prize the benefits of metatalk: “Talking about work during breaks was helpful”; “I was inspired by others, the projects they were working on”; “Camaraderie and moral support . . . helped me emerge with new energy for my own project” (personal communication).
The overwhelmingly positive experiences of participants noted in the literature attest to the great gains from participation in writing groups of all kinds. Some gains are finite in scope related to completion of a certain project (e.g., an article, book, and even dissertations—writing groups are also catching on among graduate students), including grant proposals. Other valuable outcomes are of the more durative sort, and they serve as powerful records speaking to the culture of change that is needed and that is taking hold in some institutions. These greater wash-back effects include changes in status, such as receiving tenure or getting promoted, receiving academic positions, and rediscovering the pleasure innate in research, and in enjoying the positive, supportive, and communal work structure that can flourish parallel to collegial endeavors such as writing groups. Growing numbers of participants at Indiana University attest to the success of their writing group programs: they began several years ago with 17 participants and are now managing 217 faculty participants. One colleague there notes that with “support like this, we are much more likely to achieve what is expected for tenure—importantly, we are much more likely to want to remain at IU where we feel a part of a unique community” (Alexander et al).
Implementing Writing Groups
Much of the evidence for writing groups is anecdotal, and more empirical research is needed, but the evidence thus far appears overwhelmingly in favor of the implementation of writing groups to enhance productivity and the work environment. Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler lay it straight out: “the most enjoyable but also productive institutions are those where writing is a collective practice and a common endeavour” (6). Below I summarize overall findings:
- A frequent ingredient in the recipe for success lies in the type of group with which one works.
- Colleagues should carefully determine what type of feedback they may desire or, if no feedback is sought, seek an accountability group. Taking either action ensures that a given amount of time each week can be scheduled for the all-important research work.
- Although most participants appear to enjoy and richly benefit from writing groups, they are not for everyone. Some colleagues carry out their research happily and alone.
- If underrepresented demographics are intentionally sought out for optional participation in a group, this can send the message that an institution is serious about matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Most groups, including the Indiana University colleagues, identified having a faculty facilitator and a structured orientation to set expectations as vital to success.
- If a writing group is supported or created by the institution, it is important for participants to understand that they are not being monitored per se by administrators but, rather, that systemic structures are in place to take advantage of and to enhance research opportunities.
Having institutional support of some kind can also send a powerful signal that the research process, not just the research outcome, is of paramount importance. Without a healthy research process, there is no sustainable, healthy research culture.
1 This article draws heavily but not exhaustively on “To Rally for Writing Groups: A Necessity for the Profession,” published in the ADFL Bulletin, vol. 44, no. 2, 2018 (pp. 81–89, doi:10.1632/adfl.44.2.81).
Aitchison, Claire, and Cally Guerin, editors. Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond. Routledge, 2014.
—. “Writing Groups, Pedagogy, Theory and Practice: An Introduction.” Aitchison and Guerin, Writing Groups, pp. 3–17.
Alexander, Joyce, et al. “Addressing Gendered Practices through Women’s Writing Groups.” Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP, May–June 2018, www.aaup.org/article/addressing-gendered-practices-through-womens-writing-groups.
Holt, Mara, and Leon Anderson. “The Way We Work Now.” Profession, 2012, pp. 192–203.
Knowles, Sally, and Barbara Grant. “Walking the Labyrinth: The Holding Embrace of Academic Writing Retreats.” Aitchison and Guerin, Writing Groups, pp. 110–27.
MLA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. “Standing Still: The Associate Professor Survey.” Profession, 2009, pp. 313–50.
Murray, Rowena. “‘It’s Not a Hobby’: Reconceptualizing the Place of Writing in Academic Work.” Higher Education, vol. 66, no. 1, 2013, pp. 79–91.
Paré, Anthony. “Writing Together for Many Reasons: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives.” Aitchison and Guerin, Writing Groups, pp. 18–29.
Thomson, Pat, and Barbara Kamler. Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals. Routledge, 2013.
Douglas Lightfoot is the chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Classics and associate professor of German at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He teaches courses on linguistics and on German language and culture. He has published on scholarly productivity, language change, and the teaching and learning of language.