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October 19, 2009, 06:20 PM ET

Online Writing Groups (dissertators and new faculty)

In her 2006 book, Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation:  Entering the Conversation, Irene Clark begins her chapter on writing a literature review with a well-known fairy tale:

In the children’s story “Rumplestiltskin,” a greedy king locks a miller’s daughter in a room filled to the ceiling with straw.  The king tells her that she has one night to spin all the straw into gold and that if she fails in this task, she will be killed.  In utter despair and in complete confusion about how or where to begin, the Miller’s daughter cries and wails until the gnome Rumplestiltskin comes to her rescue and performs the task for her.

  

We could look at the writing of a dissertation or any longer document in much the same way.  We begin with confusion and we whine and cry, but sadly, Rumplestiltskin doesn’t come to our rescue.  Lucky for us, we won’t die if we don’t finish, but still, the consequences of not finishing can seem that dire.  We want the savior.  We want there to be someone to come in and do the work so we don’t have to.

Writing can be a daunting task and it’s solitary, lonely work.  A writing group, however, can be what makes the experience less daunting and less lonely.  If you are not on a campus that offers such support, an online writing group might be beneficial to you.

Writing groups can,

  • help keep you accountable to your writing goals
  • read drafts of your work and provide feedback (critics)
  • provide emotional support (cheerleaders)
  • foster relationships (within or between disciplines)
  • help stave off inertia
  • keep procrastination under control*

Online writing groups are very simply to create, and these groups can offer you some anonymity, if you desire.  You can make them into what you need them to be.  (*) There is nothing an online writing group can do about online tinkering, but ProfHacker has had some good ideas. Stay tuned!

In November 2006, as I was beginning my dissertation, I started Dissertation Boot Camp, an online writing group for people who were in my stage of work but who also needed a group that was not affiliated with any particular institution.  I put a call out on my blog (no Twitter in those days), and within a week, we had boot camp members.  Ultimately about 10 people participated in DBC, and since the beginning of the group, we have all graduated with the Ph.D.  DBC was more of a “today-I’ll-write-two-pages-and-work-on-my-bibliography” type of writing space.  It was what we needed.

Today, as almost all of us have full-time tenure-track positions, we have formed another group—this one closed to internet searches—a new faculty writing boot camp that has a similar DBC focus.  We share drafts of work.  We post our writing goals (successes and failures).  We have already begun to form some collaborative activities.  While we each might have a face-to-face writing group on our respective campuses, the online group offers a separate and distinct quality that is hard to define.

For us, the online writing group has worked.  It’s not a savior and it’s not a Rumplestiltskin, but for us, it works.  What kind of writing groups have your formed that are a little outside the norm?  Please leave comments below.

[Image by Billie Hara; CC licensed]

Comments

1. Meg - October 19, 2009 at 08:28 pm

When I was working to finish my masters thesis, I relied heavily on Phinished - http://www.phinished.org/ The atmosphere was very encouraging and supporting, I found the archives to be so helpful (and reassuring!) and it was so terrific to have a writing group that was fairly anonymous and outside my institution. I know I'll be visiting it again more frequently once I start in on my dissertation in earnest later next year.

2. Greg - October 21, 2009 at 10:16 pm

I'm curious how your online group is structured. After organizing a successful face-to-face group, I've found initiating (and sustaining) an online group particularly challenging. Would you be willing to share how you schedule, share, and comment on drafts and writing goals? How do you ensure/encourage participation when that all important half-hour of commiserating is absent? Any advice for those of us beginning a group like this?

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