An Ode to Virtual Writing Groups

Sometime in early 2020, when it sunk in for everyone that the pandemic was not just going to be a weeks-long affair, many PhD students and ECRs were suddenly scrambling to replicate some semblance of the office environment. I’m one of those people. I love the office environment. Pre-pandemic, I loved going into the office every day. I loved the accountability of being surrounded by other people working and the occasional spontaneity of a hallway chats with friends.

When all this disappeared, virtual writing groups quickly stepped up as a replacement. I’ve been a part of many writing groups since the pandemic started. Some were very short-lived, others sporadic, and others became weekly mainstays of my schedule, but they were all valuable to my writing process. Each one allowed me to peer into the writing lives of other researchers and, in turn, to better understand how other researchers organise their time.

Though many of us are back in the office now, this post is timely for two main reasons. First, many are still conducting a lot of our activities online and still craving online socialisation. Also, today is the first day of #AcWriMo2021. Academic Writing Month is a month-long project that encourages researchers to set lofty writing goals with the support of a community of researchers doing the same. You can read more about this project from some of its proponents or on Twitter. With so many people committing to large writing goals this month, I think writing groups may once again find a resurgence, to help people with accountability towards these goals.

How do they work?

In my experience, most virtual writing groups meet at a set time, with a relatively consistent group of researchers. The participants usually agree to a Pomodoro-style work pattern. The work-to-socialising balance can be quite different depending on the group’s preference. In general, it usually ranges from a traditional Pomodoro, with 25 minutes of work and five-minute breaks, to an hourly pattern, with 45-50 minutes of work and 10- to 15-minute breaks. I’m sure some go longer than that, but I tend to find concentration wanes after an hour or so.

From the technical side of things, the platform you use is complete personal preference. Most of mine have been on Zoom (best for inter-institution collaboration) or Teams (best for people who are at the same institution as you). I attend one on Discord, which was a platform I’d never used before, and that worked really well because it was audio-only, which was a pleasant change if you’re tired of looking at your own reflection on video calls.  

Finally, the last thing to decide if you’re starting a writing group is the accountability element. Some writing groups set word count goals, while others even share writing among themselves, for feedback.

How to set one up?

The first and arguably most challenging step is to find people who are interested. In my experience, the best way to do this is just to ask. I think you will find that a lot of PhD students are keen to carve out time for their writing every week, especially when there are always other, more pressing things to do. You might even find that someone close to you is already part of a writing group, and you can just join up with them. This is what happened to me, and I joined a writing group with PhD students scattered around the globe on the invitation of a friend from my Master’s. If you’re starting one from scratch, don’t feel like you need a huge group to start. All the writing groups I’ve participated in were only 3 to 4 people and they all worked well.

I think ultimately, the most important thing is just to find people who have an eagerness to participate in your writing group, despite the odds. For example, when I joined my current writing group, we were all in the same time zone. Now, we’re scattered across three different time zone and participation hasn’t waned at all. In fact, we just added a second time slot in the week because it has been so useful. Writing group has become a mainstay of all of our schedules.

I’m back in the office now, and I must admit I am overjoyed by this fact. Honestly, my productivity has jumped, because I’ve never really thrived in the work-from-home setting. However, I still attend my virtual writing group one or two times per week. It has transformed from a sheer accountability tool – a way to force myself to write every week, despite work-from-home lethargy – to a really essential part of my week that brings me joy.

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