Early in the summer, I went to a workshop at school about writing more and publishing faster. About twenty people attended. Participants had the opportunity to sign up for a writing group, facilitated by someone in Faculty Development. Five of us did.
The last time I was in a writing group was in graduate school. Several people in the same field got together regularly to exchange and read chapter drafts, and sometimes conference paper drafts. Our topics ran the gamut from Anglo-Saxon religious literature to Gower’s Confessio Amantis. In other words, we had a fairly good idea of what everyone else was on about, having taken most of the same classes not too long before. We read full chapters, 20-40 pages; we engaged with argument, method, theoretical underpinnings, mistranslations, secondary literature, topic sentences, bibliographical format, and style. We worked each other over good, as Warren Zevon might have said. It was pretty scary, actually, and I was not too sad when the group ceased to meet before my dissertation was finished.
The group I’m in now comprises a disparate batch of people, and there are rules of engagement. What happens in writing group is supposed to stay in writing group, so I will change everyone else’s department; but to give you an idea of the range, let’s say we have an art historian, a psychologist, an economist, and a Sanskrit specialist, as well as myself. The pieces we turn in are to run no more than 10 pages, double-spaced. Each should include a cover letter explaining what we’re trying to do: identification of the piece (introduction to a journal article, a section of a conference paper, general description of a project for a grant proposal), the intended audience, the stage of writing (early, with big-picture concerns; late, focusing on polish), and the questions we have for our group readers.
When we meet, we go around the table and everyone says something they liked about the piece of writing. Then there is a clarification round, where participants ask questions about things they didn’t understand. After that, they try to address the specific questions the writer asked the group to think about. Finally, they give the writer the print-outs they marked up.
This is much less scary than the graduate school group, and useful in very different ways. It’s all very meta. Group meetings impose deadlines, so I have to make visible progress on something when it’s my turn to submit. Getting praise up front makes writing seem like more fun, lower-stakes, something pleasant to continue with. Hearing myself explain elements of a project to sympathetic, intelligent listeners who know very little about my field is very helpful indeed. When I say, “No, that doesn’t matter, here’s the important thing,” I think, “Oh, right, that’s the important thing, lead with it. The rest of that is support, maybe even footnote.” Finally, the marked-up drafts are not (so far) in themselves useful. I’m writing for experts; my ideal audience for the current project includes scholars like Julia Boffey and Ralph Hanna, not people to whom I need to explain the conventions of referring to shelfmarks. What is useful is getting a marked-up page and saying to myself, “Okay, so that didn’t make sense to these people, but would it to another medievalist? Yes, fine then, move on, don’t waste time here.” I wonder if this will change my attitude to the comments that come back from editors. Perhaps it will foster detachment, such that I can look at what Reviewer #1 said, and say to myself, “Okay, clarify that, cite this sooner, and that’s completely irrelevant so don’t get upset about it.”
Practice meeting deadlines, lowering the stakes and making writing an activity I get praised for, talking through an argument, developing a thicker skin: all quite helpful. But this also makes me crave conversation with my peers. I’m still staring at my tables of information about a pair of manuscripts, and I have a writing group deadline in a couple of weeks (though it’s a toss-up whether they’ll get this current project or an application for a Famous-Library Workshop); but I feel like I’m soon going to want some people who know one end of a shelfmark from the other to take a look. Indeed, I have intimations that before too long, I’m actually going to look forward to what Reviewer #1 has to say. And that may be another of the unstated meta-goals of the faculty development people.
I’m curious about other people’s experiences with writing groups. Comments?