Writing Group to the Rescue

I write this post sitting at a table in an Edinburgh cafe, with three other PhD students and two ECRs. At this very moment we are not talking, but focused on our laptops or notebooks, pausing occasionally for a swig of coffee. Some of us have met outside this group, and for some this is the only capacity in which we know each other. This is the (unofficial) Edinburgh Arts & Humanities Writing Group, a haven of writing productivity and mutual support.

The idea for this group was started a few months ago on Twitter, inspired in part by a writing group at Oxford University run by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (Torch).* I was about to loose my temporary office space, and with the prospect of lots of solo-working looming in my near future, I was very keen on finding a new rent-free, moveable workspace which centred on group motivation. We now have a Facebook group with 18 members, and we meet twice a week in various cafes around Edinburgh. At the start of the week we commit to the sessions we are able to attend, and usually around 5 or 6 people come to each session. The sessions are structured as follows:

  • 10-15 minutes of chatting, catching up and ordering coffees
  • 10 minutes of discussing what we will each be working on
  • 3 X 45 minute timed sessions of focused writing. No chatting, no social media, and no emails. We usually have breaks in between the sessions of around 10 minutes, but to be honest, these often run over.
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Writing group in action!

There are a few other important unwritten rules that keep this group going, the most important is that there is no judgement on how quickly someone is working, what they are working on or how many words they clock up in a session. If someone is struggling with their work, we’ll try and support them and give suggestions on how to overcome the issue.  We cover different subjects but all come across the same road blocks. And finally, we aim to grow as many trees as possible. (We are all loyal advocates of the ‘Forest’ app, which grows a tree if you leave your phone untouched for a set time period. I for one spend far too much time on social media, and this is a social media free space 90% of the time!)

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Forest app (emotional blackmail)

As someone who is easily distracted, I am incredibly grateful for this sacred writing space and the motivation of peers. I do appreciate that group working does not work for everyone, but I genuinely believe that if I had started this earlier in my PhD my thesis would be in much better shape by now! I asked other members of the group to share why this format works for them too:

Aparna, a Masters student, and Sam, a first year PhD student, both commented on the warm and supportive atmosphere in the group, with Sam noting: ‘I value the time to focus on writing, and enjoy hearing about everyone’s projects. Sharing ideas, challenges and strategies between periods of focused writing keeps my energy and enthusiasm up more than sitting alone!’

Three members who, like me, are in the final year of their PhD, picked up on why the group helps when you have pretty much constant guilt about not writing, but pressure to do so many other things. Catherine wrote about how great it was ‘to take a solid afternoon away from all the admin, tutoring and other distractions of the PhD to just focus on writing – it restores the feeling, I’ve found, that you’re actually doing work, and you’re surrounded by encouraging people who are in the same boat!’ Laura spoke about the benefits of ‘having other people around when writing not only to keep you accountable, but also to bounce ideas off of. I think we have all figured out tough bits of what we are writing by talking it out with everyone. I also like the fancy beverages!’ And finally Nell said: ‘It takes away the burden of making yourself write and the responsibility of deciding when and where you’ll do it. I don’t worry about writing as much as I did because I know there are a couple of times a week at least when I HAVE to do it. And magically, when I sit down with you guys to work on a bit I’ve been dreading, stuff just appears, cos I get total performance anxiety.’

Freya is one of a few ECRs who come to the group, and was in fact the main driver in getting this group going. (THANK YOU Freya!) Her comment shows that this format has leverage beyond the PhD; and it is certainly something I will attempt to emulate anytime I undertake long-term writing projects in the future! She wrote: ‘I would add that as a postdoc with a relatively heavy teaching load the group has been vital in allowing (forcing) me to spend time writing. I know this blog is aimed more at PhD students, but if readers want to think forward to the post-phd period and working on publications whilst also adjuncting, a writing group could be a good way of maintaining steam during what can be a really overwhelming and isolating time.’

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A mostly social media free zone

I am a little over-tired and over-emotional this week, with conference planning taking over most days (and some nights), but I felt a proper warm glow when I read the comments coming in from the other members of the writing group. As I wrote in my last post, it is easy to feel isolated as a PhD student, and finding a supportive group where you actually get stuff done is totally invaluable. Writing group has rescued my thesis from neglect, and infinitely reduced my PhD guilt. If you are interested in setting up a group of your own and have any questions, feel free to get in touch.

With thanks to Aparna Andhare, Catherine Bateson, Freya Gowrley, Sam Grisnell , Laura Harrison & Nell Widger for sharing their thoughts!

*And thanks to Alice Kelly and Hanna Smyth for tweeting about this original group! You can find out more about their writing group here. 

If you’d like to share your own PhD experiences, we’d love to hear from you. Check out out the submission guidelines or email me. You can also follow SGSAH on Twitter and Facebook, for regular updates on all the latest happenings and opportunities. 

*Update: since this post was published the Times Higher Education published this brilliant article by Dr Alice Kelly about how and why she started the original Torch Oxford writing group.

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