Setting up academic writing communities

Academic writing with all its trials and tribulations, can sometimes be easier and more enjoyable in the company of other people. So providing students with opportunities either to write together or to talk about writing together seems to me to be an important way of overcoming some of the difficulties experienced in the writing process. There are various ways of going about establishing joint spaces for writing but I am interested in exploring options for doing a bit more than this and trying to create some kind of academic writing community.

I sometimes run writing retreats for Masters students and I’ve written about this before. Retreats are also widely used by the Higher Education Academy to support and mentor academic staff who are writing their fellowship applications. Some useful ideas for organising writing retreats for students can be found on the QMUL Thinking Writing website. Writing retreats have some similarities with Shut up and Write groups. The Thesis Whisperer offers suggestions on setting up these.

There is also lots of good advice available on the Inside Higher Ed website. Various options are described here including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups (where you have to answer to people regularly about your writing), online writing groups, writing coaches etc. An important point made here is that we all need to work out what our actual needs are in relation to writing first.

Write Inquiry offers a toolbox of ideas to help writing and useful links and is intended for staff and students in HE who want to set up collaborative writing communities.

You could try an academic writing meet up – or set one up

The Writing Cafe at Plymouth University sounds great. It offers students the chance to come and talk to learning developers and writing mentors about their writing. It also puts on writing events.

So there are quite a few examples out there. I’m looking into organising something around writing communities with students and will update this blog with my progress during the next academic year.

Running a writing retreat for students

Recently, I ran a 2 hour writing retreat for Masters students as part of the SOAS Writing Week. The idea for it came from a similar event organised for part-time PhD students by my colleague, Yenn Lee. The retreat was aimed at providing a space for focused writing (similar to the Pomodoro technique) which is a time management method for writing. At the beginning of the session, I asked students to set a writing goal for the session. The retreat was structured around 25 minute sessions of writing interspersed each time with 10 minute breaks and a final plenary. The presence of peers is meant to provide support for the writing process. I had brought along a few creative writing exercises for any students who might experience difficulty getting started. I was expecting students to bring laptops to the session but they did not and everyone wrote using notebooks and pens. I also joined in so that I could share with them how the writing was for me. We used the 10 minute breaks for them to feed back about the experience of writing in silence like this and to chat about writing generally before beginning with another 25 minute session of writing.

The retreat was very well-received. Students seemed to really appreciate being in a position where they could spend time writing without any interruptions. Several reported that the experience of writing without props (internet, research papers etc.) in front of them had been particularly helpful and that it was an opportunity for them to develop their own thoughts about their reading material (without launching into descriptions about the material). The presence of other peers and being able to talk about it in the breaks was also really valued. For myself, I was quite surprised by how long 25 minutes to write seemed to be and how much writing I could do in this time. It struck me that I normally either interrupt myself or get interrupted when writing after just a few minutes. Anyway, I’ll definitely be running more of these sessions. Plenty of good advice on how to organise a writing retreat can be found here.