The known and unforeseen benefits of critical writing groups

I’m doing my PhD through NUI but I’m based in Brooklyn, NY. A number of circumstances dictated my decision to do this and although I initially had reservations about it things have been running smoothly so far. Thankfully I’m pretty self-motivated and disciplined which means that I treat my PhD like a full-time job (with flex-time of course). I also have a fear of falling (side-ways, backwards, flat, whatever and wherever) which means that I take great care in being as organized and structured in my work as I can be. 

In addition to preparing a weekly list of tasks and goals and a daily work schedule which invariably involves writing something, anything, I audit lectures, attend workshops, take online courses and navigate the local conference circuit. Relatively speaking I would say that I’m a good (long distance) grad student. Still, there is one thing I don’t have that I would if I were living in Galway and that’s a familiar group of peers in which to exchange ideas and critically discuss work. Writing of course is a big part of this.

Something had to be done. A critical writing group did occur to me. They’re all the rage these days and they can be very effective. I went looking and didn’t have much luck. In NYC there are any number of creative, journalistic and screen writing groups but none for social science researchers looking to sharpen their skills. Even further afield, online, I found just as many groups for science and technology researchers. What now? I would create one, of the virtual kind. Since I hadn’t any real clue how to do this, I asked other, more experienced scholars for some advice. I was told over and over to set guidelines at the outset. Guidelines, I like guidelines, they’re just another way to think about structure.

Some of the finer details I had in mind had to do with the following: submission and feedback deadlines, word count maximums, submission types (essays, reports, blogs, articles, abstracts-all of that), what’s expected or not with regard to feedback (just content critique or style and grammar critique too), how will feedback be supplied (in the document using ‘comments’, written up in a separate document, in an email), desired document format (google docs, Word), method of communication and information sharing (google groups, Facebook, good ol’ fashioned email). So many things to iron out but well worth doing.

With all of this in mind I deployed a few emails and posted a few announcement on listservs. There was quite a bit of interest but in the end just two other sociologists joined me. After introducing ourselves we settled on a handful of guidelines (based on the above) that suit our writing styles and work schedules. The three of us have varying research interests and we’re all at different stages of our careers. This wasn’t intended but it turned out to be a happy accident. I think it makes it easier to be objective about each others work. Something else, given our diverse backgrounds and varied experience we decided to be available to one another for academic and career advice. We’ve discussed such things as the logistics of submitting a proposal for a conference and how best to reach out to esteemed peers. We’ve run the group for several months now and it’s going very well indeed. Even though we’re separated by space and time (zones), have never met, and don’t know each well there is a definite commitment to maintaining the group and a growing sense of peer camaraderie. Long may it last.

Our group welcomes new members. If you’re a PhD student (at any stage) working in the social sciences and this is something that you’re interested in OR if you want to start your own group and you’re curious how ours works give me a shout at:

Parts of this blog was taken from a blog I wrote for Lit Review HQ the website that provided the super webinar that gave me the idea to start a critical writing group.

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