By consistently showing up for half a day a week since July last year, the Thriving Researcher writing group has racked up nearly 100 hours of writing in community.
Since joining the group, members have finished chapters, submitted articles, written and delivered conference papers, applied for (and secured) post-docs and visiting academic positions, analysed and coded hundreds of hours of interview data. Other less-stellar stuff has happened too, of course, and I’ll come to that later.
As the group’s facilitator, I’d like to share what I’ve learnt so far, and to learn from the experiences of others. To that end, this post describes how I’ve approached my role, and what I’ve noticed as the group’s developed.
When I thought about forming the group, early in the pandemic, I felt keenly that this wasn’t the time for rigid word-count objectives and hard-edged narratives which insisted a ‘productive’ way of working was within reach for all – given sufficient self-discipline. Remember the late-March wave of smug tweets on academic Twitter about what a great time lockdown was going to be to crack through all those overdue or bank-burnered writing projects (bangs head on desk)?
Instead, it felt like a time for acknowledging and being with the unprecedented and (for most of us) wildly complicated realities of the lockdowns and Covid rules. Of trying to create a space within those realities that we could – as far as possible – protect for our writer-selves.
I recognised from personal experiences as a long-time ‘writer-in-community’ myself that there’s a special solidarity in a shared medium-to-long term commitment to a bounded group, and the activity of writing together. This led me to decide to have a smaller group, to which I made a longer-term commitment.
I’ve always been aware too, that group members come to sessions from, shaped and informed by their full and complex lives, and that finding ways to recognise and honour that – without it taking over the session – can result in a deeper and richer writing and group experience.
At the beginning of July, then, my intention was to offer a weekly writing group to the end of 2020, which provided consistent, gentle accountability and peer-support for up to 12 PhD and early career researchers, in which they felt welcome to show up as their ‘whole selves’ rather than having to foreground only their ‘researcher’ aspect.
Based on my previous in-person facilitation experiences, I believed it’s possible to create an online space of warm solidarity and quiet courage for group members to nudge their writing forwards. I now have the evidence of six months practice to confirm that belief ☺️
On reflection, I can see four key elements to my facilitation approach.
Understanding, validating and making space for attendees’ motivation(s)
Researchers come to a writing group for many reasons and the ‘writing’ of the headline is often a product of coming along but not really the emotional motivation. Common examples I’ve come across include:
A recognition that it will be more difficult/impossible to write without the accountability a group provides
Seeking social contact (especially in these pandemic / lockdown down times when our face-to-face social contact is so disrupted)
Wanting to be part of an academic community which works together
Needing a respite (with boundaries), in which competing claims for attention are minimised
Demonstrating a commitment to their writing practice and the idea of ‘being a writer’
A nebulous sense that ‘doing it alone’ all the time isn’t really working
I’ve seen that motivation for writing is fluid (including my own); there may be different elements, these can wax and wane and the constellation can shift over time, whether that’s between sessions or within a single sitting.
Creating and holding space for the group
Fundamental to creating and holding a space has been being clear about what the group can expect of me and what they can expect of the sessions.
I set my initial time commitment as six months, because to get to know the members and for them to know one another in the way I intended, couldn’t happen in the context of a shorter writing ‘sprint’. I wanted it to become a predictable and dependable part of their working week for a given period.
I thought about the vibe I wanted the group to have – warm, nourishing, flexible, resilient – and how I would foster that in the online environment.
I recognised that the facilitator’s role is quite distinct from being a group member (n.b. this is especially true if you’re facilitating a group of your peers: it’s important to hold in mind that, in this context, you’re establishing and holding the space for them, and you do this as the facilitator – who contains the peer, and can certainly contribute to conversations as such – rather than as simply the peer).
For clarity, I set out the following structure for the sessions:
- 9:00 – 9:30 Welcome and group review (described in ‘Grounding the Attendees in the Session’, below)
- 9:30 – 11:00 Writing session 1
- 11:00 – 11:30 Break
- 11:30 – 12:30 Writing session 2
- 12:30-12:40 Group review
I ask that all group members turn off their cameras and microphones doing the writing period itself to avoid distracting other group members. This avoids any self-consciousness about being observed ‘being a writer’.
Grounding attendees in the session
If the session were an in-person one, I’d start it by greeting people by name as they arrive, and actively host the ice-breaker chat, so I do the same online.
The time-keeping for our regular group members seems better than for drop-in sessions I’ve facilitated elsewhere in the past (both online and in-person), and I receive apologies from members not able to make a particular session, so I don’t start the body of the introductory section until the significant majority of the people II’m expecting are in the ‘room’. This is the part where members get an insight into one another’s lives and work, and to engage with one another, and that’s what builds the sense of ‘group hood’.
At the start of each session, I make time for house-keeping, as I would in face-to-face course. This was most important in the early days of the group, while everyone was settling into its rhythm. Now the group and its habits are established, it’s enough just to have a refresher every now and again, or if a new group member joins.
In the initial half hour, I invite group members to share highs and lows of the week in a way that’s comfortable for them. If I know from the chat last week that something significant was to happen during the week (submitting work, having a supervision meeting, starting a new phase of the project) I ask after that specifically, as it encourages sharing about the deeper and longer cycle progress of the research project (these slower, deeper currents feel important, to understanding the nature of the task we’re about, and are easily missed if the focus drifts too much to the very short-term).
You might wonder whether it would be more useful to compress this half hour, and to allocate additional time for writing, but I’ve found it serves several essential purposes. It allows time for people to:
- settle into their physical work space (members are often shifting things around on their desks while they listen to peers),
- settle into the conceptual space of ‘the group’ (picking up threads of conversation from the previous week pulls us into a conceptual space where we’re aware of our longitudinal group connection to one another)
- switch tasks. This chat (which includes two- and multi-way chat between members) allows us to start to tune our self-awareness to our writerly-aspect.
Celebrating group members reaching goals or achieving their intention(s)
The prevailing culture around doctoral and early career research privileges and focuses on headline achievements, such as ‘inishing the thesis’, ‘having the article accepted’, ‘submitting the book manuscript’ and so on.
I’m sure this ‘long-termism’ as a way of navigating their projects works for some people, but for many more, it runs the risk of the doctorate, journal article, conference presentation, coding, data analysis, (or whatever) becoming an unremitting and demotivating slog.
Headline achievements are reached step-by-(often very tiny)-step. I encourage members to form habits of gentle reflection and noting of ‘small’ or ‘step’ successes, including those which may appear peripheral, or even unconnected to, their research project because, from my ‘see-the-whole-person’ stance, it’s all PhD- or research project-related.
Got your baby into a sleep routine?
Put together a new flat-pack desk?
Added a morning walk to your day every day for the last week?
Managed to read that dense, boring and extremely important book chapter?
Made an active choice that you needed to take two days completely away from last week to take care of a health condition?
Showed up today and are fully present even though you’re really not feeling it?
Used a dictation app to capture scrappy, floating thoughts while you wrangle home-schooling your children?
Fantastic! All of these are as much successes that will contribute to ultimate headline achievements as much as ‘wrote 800 words’.
When members haven’t met their goal/intention or the week or in the session, I encourage them to be gentle with themselves, and to try to reframe the experience in a broader context:
sometimes there’s thinking and writing that needs to be done to clear the decks for the work they want to do
sometimes things need to percolate or marinate before they’re ready to be written
some writing has to be approached indirectly, almost by stealth
and some days and weeks, it’s just not happening.
The aim of this reflection is to illustrate that one of the few predictable features of research writing is that there will be ups and downs. Sharing these, and hearing others do the same, really can help to ease the sense of being alone on a rollercoaster.
Looking forward into 2021
I’m not claiming a regular writing group is a panacea. At the top, I mentioned that other stuff has happened too. We’ve had individually and collectively terrible weeks and mornings. We’ve been through at least two lockdowns (the number and duration varies depending on location). We’ve homeschooled children. We’ve had private individual lows.
But very many of these things are completely separate from the writing group, they would have happened whether someone was a member or not. The difference for us has been that we have this shared space and ritual of spending regular time together that we can come to despite what else is going on; a warm, supportive space and time, in which we can take courage from the group to nudge forwards our writing, projects and selves.
Looking forward into 2021, we’ll continue to write throughout the year. Some days, we may only manage ‘showing up and being present’ for the session. Other mornings will fly by, and we’ll stumble back out into the wider world wondering where all the words came from. Some members will submit and defend their theses, others will do empirical work, new members may join us. Whatever else is going on for them, this writing space will stand, offering gentle structure, community and solidarity to researchers working through what’s otherwise often a lonely and isolated endeavour.
Do you facilitate a writing group? Please get in touch – I’d love to hear your reflections on the craft of facilitating, and your experiences.
I'm ready for more practical tools and tips!
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