When I was writing my dissertation, I joined the Coffee Club: five Ph.D. students who gathered on Wednesday afternoons in the library to write together. We met at a dissertation boot camp and decided to keep up the momentum of that experience, which involved writing in silence and taking 10-minute breaks every hour. The Coffee Club members hailed from STEM, social science and humanities backgrounds, so we reasoned we could focus more on our writing without the distraction of talking about our dissertation topics to peers in our fields.
Our method worked: we were motivated by the dedicated time to write and the accountability of acquaintances facing similar challenges. Along the way, we learned more about each other’s research projects and lives outside graduate school during the breaks, and we branched out from the library to coffee shops near the University of Pittsburgh. We celebrated members’ defenses with cupcakes and thanked the Coffee Club on the dedication pages of our dissertations. As a graduate student in the rather solitary field of English, I was thankful for the Coffee Club’s companionship and structure, which helped me finish my dissertation and shaped my interest in working with advanced writers across disciplines.
Flash forward to 2021. I am an administrator at North Carolina State University developing writing support programs for graduate students at a time when the accountability, motivation and (virtual) community of writing groups are more important than ever. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have drawn on my experiences as a graduate writer in the Coffee Club to design virtual writing retreats, Zoom Pomodoro sessions for dissertation writers and a Slack workspace for trainees to host writing groups.
These programs have allowed graduate and postdoc writers across disciplines to make progress on writing projects through a shared focus on effective writing habits and supportive virtual communities. My efforts took place alongside the increasing popularity of similar online writing experiences, including initiatives by major organizations like the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity’s 14-Day Writing Challenges, university sponsored programs such as the University of North Carolina Charlotte’s Weekend Writes, and informal writing meet-ups on Zoom initiated by graduate and postdoc trainees.
Scholars of writing have known the value of participating in writing groups for productivity, accountability and motivation since the 1980s, when Anne Ruggles Gere published her study “Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications.” More recently, in the “Carpe Careers” column, Jovana Milosavljevic Ardeljan discussed the benefits of virtual writing support from a professional development standpoint with an emphasis on the transferable skills that graduate or postdoc writers gain from interacting with peers across disciplines around shared writing experiences and challenges. Participating in activities like writing groups and dissertation retreats has a value beyond simply finishing a chapter or an article manuscript. To paraphrase another recent “Carpe Careers” essay, such writing support activities constitute a form of peer networking that allows us to connect with colleagues outside our disciplines and even helps us to articulate the impact of our research to diverse stakeholders.
The benefits of dedicating time for writing support as a graduate student or postdoc are well-known, but it is sometimes hard in practice to commit to these activities. Online writing groups can be particularly difficult, as distractions loom at home and elsewhere, and often a lack of expectations for the group decreases motivation to attend. So how can you get the most out of online writing groups and achieve your writing goals?
In this article, I draw on my experiences as a student writing group member and an organizer of online writing support to describe how you can maximize the benefits of a virtual writing group. Whether you meet for Pomodoro sessions on Zoom or to get feedback on dissertation chapters, here are some ways to be productive, accountable and motivated while interacting with fellow graduate or postdoc writers online.
- Be intentional about starting or joining a writing group. Are you looking for feedback on a specific project, like an article, dissertation or job application materials? Or are you looking for dedicated time to write? Use your goals to join or form the virtual writing group that works for you, and be clear about its purposes or aims. Keep in mind that those aims will shape features of the group, such as which writers might benefit most — for example, colleagues inside or outside your discipline — and when and how often you meet.
- Take an active role in planning. Grad students and postdocs are busy, so the most productive writing group members share the work of organizing meetings and communicating with members. Digital tools like Slack and the Google calendar can help you manage the logistical burden and stay on the same page about when and how you are meeting.
- Create rituals to structure virtual meeting time. As we know from participating in Zoom meetings, a shared sense of purpose and communication norms is crucial when meeting online. Likewise, in a virtual writing group, rituals like answering low-stakes icebreaker questions can help members build rapport. For instance, during a 90-minute or two-hour session, you could spend the first 10 minutes checking in with members and setting SMART goals for your time together. Likewise, your group might conclude a meeting by reflecting on its progress and setting new goals. As a group, you should also establish ground rules for camera use during video calls, as well as the length of working blocks and breaks, to foster structure and community.
- Be mindful of challenges to online communication and take initiative to mitigate them. The members of the Coffee Club met face-to-face, making it easy for us to communicate our needs and challenges, but participating in a virtual online writing group demands the extra mile of asynchronous communication with members. For example, send extra email or text reminders when the group is going to meet and share necessary info to access the meeting, such as Zoom links. Text or email group members in advance, if you can, to let them know when you cannot attend a meeting or will be late. Frequent but respectful communication is a part of building community and holding each other accountable.
- Leverage digital tools to create workarounds and sustain a virtual writing community. Cuckoo.Team, for example, lets users access a shared timer even when they cannot be on a video call. This tool is a great way to organize Pomodoro writing sessions for a group that is camera-shy or has limited access to videoconferencing. You can also use asynchronous communication tools like Slack to stay connected between meetings, such as by sending motivational messages and celebrating writing victories via group text. These asynchronous tools can increase motivation by creating a tangible record of your group’s interactions and collective progress on writing.
While these tips might seem obvious, they are effective ways to stay engaged, focused and accountable to an online community whose ultimate goal is making progress on writing. Moreover, when you become intentional about interacting online, you are practicing skills beyond mastering the genre norms of writing in your field or finishing the next chapter draft. Practices like communicating asynchronously with team members, determining the shared goals of a remote working group or designing a structure for online meetings are especially important transferable skills in today’s remote and hybrid workplaces. In fact, the graduate student organizers of the online writing groups on North Carolina State’s Slack space noted that they learned as much about leading groups online as they did about productive writing habits, while still dedicating time to achieve their own writing goals.
The next time you gather online to write, whether with one writing buddy or a large group, ask yourself, “What transferable skills or habits of mind am I learning from being part of this online writing group?” Take a few minutes after the session to jot down your reflections on the group structure or writing process. You might be surprised by the answers. Happy writing!