January 2018 Blog Post

Organizing an Effective Writing Group

By: James Dean Ward, University of Southern California

A couple weeks into my first semester of graduate school was my first exposure to a writing group. Nine of us sat around a table – four PhD candidates preparing for their defenses, three more advanced PhD students, my advisor who is an endowed chair, and me – critiquing an article written by a fifth-year candidate. Although this was stressful at first, I have become more comfortable over time and see the writing group as a highlight of my graduate education. As an aspiring faculty member, I hope to participate in or organize a new group at my future institution. Here I’ll discuss the benefits of a critical writing group in an academic setting, and strategies for making the most of the group.

Organizing a Group

In order to maximize the benefits of a writing group, you must think critically about who is involved. A certain level of cohesion is necessary in order to facilitate knowledgeable feedback, however, a diversity of ideas will spur dynamic conversation and useful critique. While all members may be interested in higher education, having members with an array of topical, methodological, and theoretical approaches can help the presenting author develop a stronger manuscript. This range of ideas likely reflects the broader audience of the manuscript and thus helps the author address the concerns of multiple types of readers.

In addition to a variety of backgrounds, including researchers from various levels can spur interesting conversations and opportunities for mentoring younger scholars. The inclusion of a senior scholar in our writing group provides invaluable scholarly feedback as well as important insights into the publishing process. Graduate students at various levels can benefit from the advice of faculty. Moreover, advanced candidates can help bridge the gap between new students and tenured faculty and serve as mentors themselves. This provides opportunities for students to both learn and develop their own mentoring skills.

When putting together a writing group, one should also think about the size. In order to achieve diversity around the table, the group needs to consist of a sufficient number of individuals. However, with too many opinions, some members of the group may feel less comfortable contributing and there may not be enough time for each member to provide thoughtful feedback. We have found that between five and ten participants works well.

You Get What You Give

For a writing group to be successful, members must be committed and held accountable. It is helpful to plan months in advance in order to ensure the meeting is on every member’s calendar and so conflicts can be avoided. For example, consider scheduling a full semester of meetings before the term begins. If attendance is inconsistent the benefits of the group will be compromised. In addition to the presenter losing feedback from those who are missing, the motivation of all members may be diminished when people are consistently absent. Holding individuals accountable for attendance helps to preserve the value and seriousness of the group.

It is also helpful to assign presenters to specific dates before the semester begins. Just as ensuring all members show up having read the manuscript, presenters must be held accountable for meeting the group’s deadlines and having completed drafts when they are assigned. If a presenter is unable to meet his/her commitment, it is unrealistic to expect reviewers to take their roles seriously. Holding members accountable and only involving people who are committed are necessary to maximize the benefits of a writing group.

Opportunities to Learn and Grow

The presenter should send his/her manuscript to the group in advance so everyone has ample time to critically read and formulate thoughts. It is helpful to provide readers with any necessary contextualizing information (e.g., what journal or granting organization is being considered, or if the manuscript needs to be a specific length) in order to focus their comments. During the meeting, the following list of questions can be used to guide the conversation:

  • What are your overall impressions of the manuscript?
  • What is the main point of the article?
  • Is the tone and writing style appropriate and effective?
  • Is the problem/research question properly framed and situated within the broader literature?
  • Is the theoretical framework properly explained and usefully employed?
  • Are the methods and data thoroughly explained?
  • Do the results fully answer the research questions?
  • Are the conclusions well supported and relevant to the journal’s mission?

By addressing each section of the manuscript, the conversation can be managed and steered in a logical and useful way. This helps avoid a meandering discussion and scattered feedback.

Benefits of a Writing Group

The obvious benefit of a writing group is the valuable feedback one receives. Feedback from a diverse set of members can help the author address potential concerns of journal reviewers or further develop a working paper to be submission ready. In addition to explicit feedback, the process of presenting one’s work can help members develop confidence and help alleviate social paranoia often linked with academia. The writing group is lower stakes than a conference, yet requires a similar level of preparedness. For new students, a writing group can serve as a soft introduction to having one’s work critiqued publicly. Moreover, seeing the vulnerability of more senior students and faculty when their working papers are critiqued can help alleviate a new graduate student’s impostor syndrome. These “soft” benefits of a writing group are just as important as the actual feedback.

The benefits of a writing group are extended to all members regardless if they are presenting in that particular meeting. For new scholars, merely hearing the comments and thought processes of more senior contributors is helpful. The spillover effects of one thoughtful comment can be felt by all members of the group. A writing group also gives all members the opportunity to develop their skills as reviewers. Critically reviewing research is necessary for conducting research as well as contributing to the academy through service. Writing groups allow members to practice reviewing as well as expose themselves to others’ reviews. Hearing the strengths and weaknesses others identify help all members of the group better consider a multitude of perspectives when writing future manuscripts.

A writing group can benefit students and scholars at all levels, as long as the group is organized well. Graduate students should consider taking initiative to start or join an existing group as a key part of their doctoral studies. Faculty members should consider using writing groups as an integral part of their mentorship and the training of their graduate students. The educational and community-building effects underscore the utility of critical writing groups for students and faculty alike.

 

James Dean Ward is a PhD candidate at USC Rossier. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and History from Cornell University. James spent five years in Washington, DC and Boston working as an education consultant for Hanover Research and ASR Analytics, a research analyst with the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and an institutional researcher at Harvard University. He is currently a research assistant for Dr. William Tierney in the Pullias Center for Higher Education. His research employs quantitative methods to analyze public policies in higher education pertaining to access, equity, postsecondary funding, and performance. With the support of an AERA dissertation grant, James’ research seeks to understand the relationship between fiscal dependency and colleges’ responses to performance-based funding policies.

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