29 January 2012

Learning from/about writing groups

In the past year, I've been in my RL group at school, Another Damned Notorious Writing Group, the Mayhew group, and the Winter Writing Workshop with the Dame. Here are some things I have observed, with the caveat that YMMV and different things work differently for different personality types:

1. Clear stopping and starting dates are helpful. Even if you don't take a long break, people seem to be more engaged and enthusiastic if they know they're signing on for 6, 10, 12 or 15 weeks, rather than committing to report weekly for an indeterminate amount of time.

2. The personality and engagement of the leader(s) are important. It's almost ridiculous how encouraging it feels to have a group leader comment positively or sympathetically on one's progress.

3. That's the drawback with being a leader: who nurtures the group leader? It's nice when people say thank you, of course, but that's not the same as being encouraged.

4. Having a weekly theme for people to comment on facilitates discussion, which means participants get to know each other a bit better, which makes their comments on other people's progress more meaningful, and so everything seems to go better.

5. Structure and trust are so important that I'm going to repeat the point, even though I've really made it already. In my RL group, where we actually read each other's work, discussion always begins with clarification questions from readers (if there's anything that just didn't make sense), followed by a "positive comment round" and then by discussion of questions that the writer posed to the group. Only after that can readers raise other issues.

6. I think it's useful for participants to commit to a single project for the duration of a . . . what shall we call it? A sprint? A workshop? It keeps the individual focused; it also helps other participants keep track, and therefore feel more invested, and therefore foster that sense of trust and community that is so encouraging.

7. As Contingent Cassandra suggested in the comments to last Monday's post, putting together the roll is the most time-consuming part of running a group. If I do this again, and I'm quite willing to do so, I think I will insist that comments come in a 4-paragraph format: 1. Last week's goal. 2. What was achieved toward that goal. 3. Comments/analysis of what worked or what went wrong. 4. Goal for next week. Then it's easy to cut and paste the next goal. This is also why ADM and Notorious imposed the you'll-be-dropped rule, I suspect. It's easy to look at a single week's comments, but less easy to go back through several previous weeks wondering who's in and who's out. Personally, I'd rather people commented every week even if the comment is "no progress."

8. But it's funny how much professors can be like students and just want to duck and hide when something is coming due that they're not done with.

9. Putting up posts on Fridays and allowing people to comment over the weekend seems to garner greater detail and involvement than posting on Monday. Friday posting encourages reflection backward, possibly more than planning forward, as well as allowing last-minute weekend work so that there is something to report. (I'm not sure why that doesn't take effect so you can report progress on Monday; maybe it's just a matter of what people will admit to doing.) I suspect that it works better for real-life groups to meet on Monday, to plan forward and to know that they've already done something about writing for the week, while for virtual groups, the weekend may be the best time to catch up on blogs and get down to work without distractions from e-mail and persons from Porlock.

Altogether I have been very happy with my writing group experiences. The accountability is helpful, the sense of having company in a predominantly solitary activity is great, and I have enjoyed getting to know some bloggers who were new to me. If there's interest, I'd be up for continuing to run a spring-semester writing group, although I think I'd make it more structured than the Winter Writing Workshop was, and I would also switch to a Friday posting schedule.

One other thing: despite what I said in #6, I'm not in a position to work on one single thing for the next 12 weeks or whatever it will be. I want to work on one thing at a time, and that thing will change depending on the nearest due date. So if I do keep running a group, either it'll be a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do situation, or we'll have to allow multiple projects for everyone, which will make it a bit harder to keep track of how things are going for any one person.

So, gentle readers, what do you think? Comments of your own about what you've learned? Shall we continue? Or is this a case of "thank you, but we think you've done enough"?

9 comments:

zcat_abroad said...

Firstly, let me say thank you very much for hosting the Winter Writing Workshop! I know I didn't use it very well, but it was still an encouragement to keep going.

I think you've made some very good points. For me, posting from the other side of the world, I find the Friday postings better, because it gives me a few days to get my head around the time differences, as well as another day or two to get something done, so I'm not reporting yet another failure.

The weekly themes have been very useful in getting us to think about how and why we're doing what we're doing.

I have been finding these writing groups immensely valuable, even though I haven't been finishing much still. I'm currently working alone, without any regular teaching work, and knowing I'm not the only one struggling to balance life, academy and writing has been very encouraging.

So, once again, thank you so much for the time and effort you've put in, and sign me up for future ones!

JaneB said...

I'm finally able to commit to a spring group and would love to play along, whoever organises it... it's interesting looking in from outside but I'd love to be part of one!

Trapped in Canadia said...

I, too, have found the writing groups immensely helpful, despite my frustrating inability to meet my final goals. I'd also love to participate again, since I seem to be getting my mojo back bit by bit. It'd be nice to have consistent weekly progress to report...for once.

Ink said...

1. Thank you.
2. We should nurture you more along the way, too.
3. #8 = so true!

I'd be up for anything communal and writing-focused.

Matilda said...

Hello, Dame,

Thank you very much for hosting the Winter Writing Workshop. Especially I am grateful to your comment on my weekly report, which helped me to concentrate on what I had to do. Also, I enjoyed reading your own post - it is encouraging in many ways.

I was not able to finish what I wanted to do, but if I had not joined this, I would have done much less.

So, if you start another semester, I very much would like to join in.

Thank you again,

Matilda

rented life said...

I had never done anything like this before the Winter one. I had always wanted to but was too chicken. I learned a lot, just from reading about other people's, even with my project goals being so small. I am totally on board for another one. Know I had to post somewhere and knowing that other people are talking about writing helped me stay focused on my goals instead of telling myself to put my project off.

Friday posting during the semester would be good (during the breaks, it doesn't make a difference, but right now my Mondays are nuts). The themes were great because I've never taken my writing seriously before, it was just for me and "no big deal." Writing is such a lonely thing, so the group was a nice way to connect, even when I had nothing useful to add!

And what Ink said--we need to encourage you more too!! :)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Aww. You guys are so nice. I'll work on getting a new session set up, then; and welcome to JaneB, whose blog I've read for a long time. I think the rest of you made significant progress during the six (plus) weeks I ran the WWW, and that was nice to see. One thing about running a group is you have to set a good example, so that was another thing keeping me going some days/weeks. So . . . watch this space.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Thank you very, very much for being willing to do this again, Dame! (As you may have guessed from the tentativeness of my comments, I'm not eager to take on the organizing role, for all the reasons you name and a few more, but am finding the weekly accountability so helpful I don't want to give it up).

I, too, will be juggling two projects in the spring (or tackling them sequentially, or trying to keep my focus on one while worrying about losing track of the other, or something along those lines), so I'd be very much interested in any reflections, writing prompts, etc. on the subject. I do think it's an unavoidable situation for anyone who produces scholarly writing on a regular basis (and I'm taking it as a good sign that I need to juggle). But I can also see the argument for focusing on a single project in a particular writing group (though perhaps more so in a group where members actually read each other's work).

I'm also all for any formatting approaches that make life easier for you (just as I'm all for my students actually following the file-naming conventions I specify, though they often don't).

Good Enough Woman said...

I just want to echo what you and other folks said. Like zcat, I'm working in a fairly isolated way. I'm in CA. My PhD university is in the UK. I work a community college, and not many people at my college are actively engaged in scholarship, and there isn't much support for that kind a work. Throw a family in the mix, and you can see why these online groups are so important for me as I try to make progress.

I really like connecting with everyone, and the groups keep me focused. Although I didn't get as much finished in the fall group as I'd hoped, I was much more productive with the group than I would have been without it.

And, I'm glad to say, I finally have my solid 15 pages finished, and am well on my way towards flushing those out.

I think all of your observations are very astute, and I would be interested in signing on for another go.

Thanks, Dame!

P.S. My daughter's middle name is Eleanor (maybe I'll start calling her Dame Eleanor).