The Rules of Writing Group

Brian Taylor

March 24, 2011

It is midweek and I am staring at the draft of a journal article. I just came home from a faculty senate meeting, and we have two job candidates visiting our department this week. I recently returned from a conference, and the semester is at that point where panic is setting in all around. So I have plenty of legitimate and necessary tasks facing me. But instead of handling them, or relaxing in front of the news with a beer and a late meal, I am returning to a draft I have not looked at in seven weeks.

And why? Because it is my turn in writing group. Because I will not violate the rule that we worked out years ago: No matter what, if it is your week in writing group, then you circulate something. Anything.

Our writing group emerged five years ago from despair, confessed on the sidewalk by three discouraged academics. Despair over never being able to get a project to successful completion. Despair over how to organize time for teaching, new course development, committee assignments, young families, and having some sort of recognizable life. Despair over whether there was anything worth saying and despair over whether we were actually capable of saying it.

From that initial dejection, four books and multiple articles have been written and published. An additional child has been born. All three of us have been granted tenure. And we all now remember why we like to write and why we entered a career that asked us not simply to explain interesting ideas to others, but to be a part of that interesting conversation.

How did we go from despair to success?

Simply being in a writing group is not enough. The act of forming a group will not produce one that actually works, providing the right kind of motivation, support, and intellectual quality. Overcoming despair meant finding the right structure for our writing group. We have found it and thought we would share it with others.

The basic mechanism is simple: The group meets once a week. On the weeks that it is your turn to present, you (and only you) circulate your writing to the other members of your group, 48 hours before your scheduled meeting. The other members then read the draft and make written comments. When the members meet, those comments are shared and the piece is discussed in toto.

Inherent to our system are some inviolable rules. First, you must schedule a time every week for writing group, block off that time on your calendar, and do not cancel it for last-minute meetings. This time has to be as important as a class. Decide on the time at the beginning of the semester and then do not change it. The three of us have met with infants in tow, sick children upstairs, and through crises both personal and professional. Only once have we gone on writing-group hiatus, and that was when one member of our group was scheduled to have brain surgery. After her surgery we did not meet for about eight weeks.

Second, if it is your week to distribute writing, then you must circulate something. There is no backing out. No skipping and no trading places. You are trying to make writing, and the sharing of your writing, a regular routine.

We also recognize that we don't just write for publication. So you can share a draft of a tenure narrative or a proposal for a new major, but you must submit something if it's your turn. We have circulated hastily written paragraphs outlining initial ideas or previously read chapters with changes only in the introduction or conclusion. But we have also distributed full book chapters, conference papers, and articles.

Third, the responsibilities of writing group do not rest simply with the person circulating the writing. Other members of the group are equally responsible for reading and commenting carefully. Writing group is useless if the readers do not give the circulated work the attention it deserves.

Fourth, your group should be composed of you and two other people. Three seems to be the magic number. Three gives enough people to have useful assessments, without too much disparate advice. Three keeps you focused, and three means the members of the group—like the legs on a stool—will keep it up and going. You would think that all of that could be accomplished with more than three people. But with more than three, the members start to think that the hard work of writing group will be done by others. Three people demands that everyone be on task.

But how to pick the right participants?

We happen to be friends—better friends now than we were four years ago. But it is not essential to form a writing group with your friends.

The key issue is trust. We knew one another well enough to share work that was not ready for publication. And we knew one another well enough to know that we were all committed to making the writing group work. If you do not have people willing to share work in its early stages—which means willing to share a draft that is less than perfect and may even be largely imperfect—then you do not have the right people.

There is no point in having a writing group if perfection (or even being publication-ready) is your standard. For a writing group to work, early drafts must be shared, and they may well be confused, disorganized, and unclear. So be it. If that's what you have, then that is what you have to share. (A recent advice column by Rachel Toor described that process as sharing work that represented "the soiled workings of my untidy mind.") It's hard on the ego to do that, and so being friends, or at least friendly, makes it easier to share works in progress.

You need people who have the right attitude. A successful writing group is not a stage for proving how smart you are. We are not posing for one another or competing. We are not seeking to undermine one another.

Each of us has brought projects in their infancy to the group and projects at the final stages. During any given week, the writer might be allowed a few moments of self-flagellation. But then we get down to work: What would make this idea work? How might this paper be structured more effectively? How can this idea be highlighted because it seems to be the real focus of the argument?

You must find participants confident enough to talk about their own work honestly and to talk about someone else's work without self-aggrandizement. Do not choose a person who is always out to explain why her work is terrible, and do not choose a person who is always giving reasons why no one understands the sophistication of his argument.

Do bring snacks.

While writing group does not give me more hours in the day, or make my kids' lunches, or grade my students' exams, it has given me a weekly time set aside to discuss ideas, and a cohort to whom I am accountable.

Claire P. Curtis is an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.