Team Up! The Benefits of Self-Directed Writing Groups

By UM Grad News

Team Up! The Benefits of Self-Directed Writing Groups

By UM Grad News
Writing groups can provide motivation, support, and perhaps most importantly, camaraderie and connection, in these odd times. Sociology PhD student Oshea Johnson talks about how useful writing groups have been for him.

Wondering how to stay motivated and engaged with your academic writing project in this time of COVID? Some students have taken the matter head-on by starting self-directed writing groups with other graduate students. Oshea Johnson, a Ph. D. student in Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, shares some insights about how do-it-yourself writing groups have helped him. 

Oshea Johnson: I recently started running my own group on Wednesday from 12-2 p.m. with a couple of classmates. We focus on a paper that we’re trying to co-author together. This is the first time I'm running my own group.  Starting last Fall semester, I also met with three different writing groups weekly. One group was started on Twitter by Sociology Ph.D. students of color from various universities as a way for minority Ph.D. Sociology students to connect and work together amid the pandemic. It was meant to be a support study group, but I think we really saw it as an opportunity to connect with others and stay accountable by working together.

Graduate School: How often and for how long does the group meet? Does the group meet via Zoom or some other way?

Oshea Johnson: Each group meets weekly for 2 hours on Zoom. Because these times worked for the members of each writing group, the group meets on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday from 12-2 p.m. The Friday group is nice because Friday can be a day to easily slack off and not get much done, but being forced to work for at least two hours on Friday was beneficial and made me feel less guilty by the end of the day. Also, the couple of Flash Writing Friday sessions I have attended hosted by the Graduate School have also been a great way to be very productive on a Friday and not let that final day of the week go by the wayside. 

Graduate School: Is group time structured, e.g., do you have group check-ins, request peer reviews from other members, etc., or is the time entirely devoted to writing?

Oshea Johnson: For one group, we used the Pomodoro technique, which was new to me in August but now I prefer it and even use it during my own writing time. Essentially, at the start of the group, everyone briefly talks about their goal for the first writing session or the total two hours, as a check-in. Then we would work in 40-minute increments. At the end of the 40 minutes we would hop back on Zoom to check in on our progress and then do another 40 minutes. That check-in would also serve as a mini-break and then we would do another 40 minutes. After that 40 minutes is done, we do another check-in. Depending on how people feel or what their schedule permits, we might do another 30 or 40 minutes.

Graduate School: How many members are in your writing groups?

Oshea Johnson:  It varies. On Monday, it is typically only me and another student. Tuesday has been three of us in total. Friday there were four of us. I would say to this point that the more people who are in the group the longer breaks and check in times may be. However, two people can also get lost in a conversation that makes break time longer. That said, I've also been in the Flash Writing Friday that the Graduate School with 10+ people and that was also fine!

Graduate School: Are all members of the group from your program/department, or do you include members from different disciplines?

Oshea Johnson: For Monday and Tuesday's writing groups, the members are Sociology Ph.D. students like me, from other universities and in different time zones. We were complete strangers in August 2020 and now we are growing to be friends, reviewing each other's small essays, and giving advice on job market stuff. The Friday group are classmates in my department. This one also is nice because I know these people already and we can talk about personal projects/issues in more detail.

Graduate School: Any takeaways from the groups you joined?

Oshea Johnson:  The main reason for me to join a writing group was because it forced me to concentrate on making some progress with my writing project, made me stay off my cellphone, and pushed me to try to remain as focused as possible on the task and goals I promised myself I’d accomplish during the session. I enjoy the writing groups because I have a lot of unstructured time since I’m at the latter end of my Ph.D. program. Committing to setting aside at least two hours in a day to focus on a specific writing project is beneficial and makes me feel productive. I also enjoy knowing other people are working on the other side of me, feeling less isolated and like I'm not the only one going through the ups and downs of academia.

Interested in joining a writing group? Check out the Graduate School’s Flash Writing Friday sessions on the first Friday of every month (the next one is April 2, register here). The Richter Library has also reopened the Dissertation Writing Group and is currently accepting new members. Contact for more information.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.