“Something Magical in Meeting with a Group of Like-Minded People”: Graduate Writing Groups in the Writing Center

By Chris Earle, Elisabeth Miller, and Bradley Hughes

Chris Earle is currently a co-Coordinator in the Writing Center at UW-Madison where he is completing a dissertation on the writing and activism of imprisoned individuals. In the fall, Chris will be joining the faculty in English, Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Nevada, Reno. Elisabeth Miller has been a Writing Center instructor at UW-Madison for the past five years and is currently co-coordinator of the Madison Writing Assistance community literacy program. She is currently completing her dissertation on literacy and disability, and in fall 2016 she will be joining the faculty in English, Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Nevada, Reno. Brad Hughes is the director of the Writing Center and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at UW-Madison.

Every week this spring semester, roughly 90 graduate students keep coming back to Helen C. White Hall on the UW-Madison campus. They slog through ice and snow on winter mornings; they eschew sunny spring afternoons and evenings all to participate in the Writing Center’s Graduate Writing Groups. Modelled after UW-Madison Writing Center’s Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps and Writing Retreats, these groups began in Summer 2014. As Sarah Groeneveld previously detailed, the Graduate Writing Groups are designed to provide space, time, and support for graduate student writers throughout the semester.

Each group, enrolling anywhere between 20 and 30 graduate students, meets for three hours every week. These students come from a wide range of disciplines: Electrical Engineering, Psychology, Neuroscience, French and Italian, Educational Policy Studies, Art History, Environmental Studies, Spanish and Portuguese, East Asian Studies, Geography, Sociology, Political Science, English, Forestry, History, Library and Information Studies, Curriculum and Instruction, German, and many, many more. An experienced member of the Writing Center’s staff serves as a facilitator (this semester, the authors of this post).

We open each week with a focused goal-setting activity and small- or large-group discussion about the writing process, about challenges they’re facing in their projects, or about whatever else writing related is on people’s minds. At the close of each session, the facilitator brings the group back together for the last few minutes to share progress and to set goals for the week. But the majority of the time–about two-and-a-half of the three hours–is dedicated to writing time during which writers can make substantial progress on their dissertations, article drafts, grant proposals, fellowship applications, and more. In this way, the groups follow what Sohui Lee and Chris Golde in their recent article in The Writing Lab Newsletter term the “Just Write” model.

But there’s more to these groups than just writing time, as suggested by the quotation in our title, which comes from one of our graduate writers, Emily Forscher. As Emily observes below, there is something magical about writing with or alongside others that, in addition to the supported time, keeps graduate writers coming back week after week, and, often, semester after semester.

The Lake Mendota shoreline is pictured in an aerial view of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus during autumn on Oct. 12, 2013. Clockwise from lower left, major campus facilities include construction of the East Campus Mall, Memorial Union Terrace, Wisconsin Union Theater, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Science Hall, Bascom Hill, Education Building, and Helen C. White Hall. The photograph was made from a helicopter looking south. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

The grad writing groups meet in the Writing Center, on the 6th floor of Helen C. White Hall, in the lower right of this photo, with some great views of Lake Mendota. (Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications, UW-Madison, 2013.)

Having had the privilege of facilitating these groups this semester, we want to feature the writers who make this magic happen and to get a glimpse of how these weekly writing sessions matter to them. We asked a small sampling of these writers from a range of disciplines the following questions:

  • In group this semester (and/or in past semesters), what kind(s) of writing are you working on (a chapter, a journal article, a grant proposal)?
  • What were you hoping to get out of the group when you signed up?
  • How, specifically, has participating in the group affected your writing and/or helped you make progress toward your degree?
  • What, if anything, have you learned about yourself as a writer (or about writing) through participating in the Grad Writing Group?

***

Here’s what they had to say:

Autumn Sabo, Forestry

Autumn Sabo

Autumn Sabo

I am working on a PhD in Forestry. I hope to finish my degree this summer or fall. I had planned to be done with my degree by now but, to my dismay, my defense date has become a moving target.

As of January, I have a complete draft of my dissertation and am now working on revisions. I am putting the finishing touches on my first manuscript and will be submitting that for publication this month. My other two chapters are still quite nascent. The majority of my “writing” time on these chapters is actually additional statistical analysis.

I started working full-time as an instructor for the Forest & Wildlife Ecology Department last August. Once most of my normal work hours became filled with teaching responsibilities, I needed to find additional blocks of time in order to make progress on my dissertation. I join several friends at the library on the weekend but none of them are willing to commit to an evening writing group. Once I get home after a full day of work, I struggle to dismiss socializing, relaxing, and even house cleaning in favor of writing but I know that I must invest more time on revisions if I hope to finish my degree soon. The evening writing group provides me with the additional structure necessary to overcome my post-work motivation slump.

The evening writing group has helped me carve out a few additional hours each week for writing. While the actual work time gained is fairly inconsequential, I always leave with a sense of accomplishment because it was quite rare for me to write in the evenings before joining the group. Since participating in the group, and recognizing how effective I can be in the evenings, I have managed to maintain the momentum by also writing at home several nights per week. I must also mention that I previously participated in a week-long writing camp hosted by the Writing Center. There, I was introduced to several dissertators who I continue to meet for writing and friendly support.  Some weeks the only dissertation progress I make is at formal and informal writing groups when I am sequestered with others focused on the same goal.

As had been true for me many years ago as an undergraduate, I was somewhat surprised to find that evenings are still my peak work time. Now that I recognize this fact, and because our meeting time is fairly short, I generally use this work block to focus on particularly distasteful tasks.  Next I just need to figure out how to change normal business hours to allow for my night-time productivity on a more frequent basis.

Fred Boehm, Statistics

Fred Boehm

Fred Boehm

I’ve completed courses for the statistics Ph.D., and I’m now writing a dissertation research proposal. I hope to graduate within the next two years. In the group this semester, I’ve worked on my research proposal, a research poster, and a conference manuscript.

I joined the group because I hoped to have regularly scheduled blocks of time for writing. I also hoped to benefit from the camaraderie of the writing group. I sometimes find it difficult to be motivated to write, so I hoped that the group structure would help to propel me forward.

My writing has benefited immensely from the group. Our group facilitator, Elisabeth, shared with us a short article that encourages us to write every day, even if it’s only for 15 or 30 minutes. While I don’t write every day, I still strive to do so, and I currently write more than I did before the group. Elisabeth also distributed a story that compared writing to athletic training–the more regularly you train, the stronger you become.

I’ve learned that I’m not alone in thinking that writing is hard work. I’ve also gained confidence that I can improve my writing with dedicated practice.

Anthony Hernandez, Educational Policy Studies

Anthony Hernandez

Anthony Hernandez

I’m a doctoral student in the Educational Policies Studies program in the School of Education at UW-Madison, currently finishing my third semester in the program. I am also a graduate student worker in the Wisconsin HOPE Lab where I am Project Manager of the AVID/TOPS program evaluation for the Madison Metropolitan School District and Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. I am also working on the Milwaukee Area Technical College Promise Program evaluation, and beginning another project studying housing and food insecurity issues with the Houston Food Bank evaluating a food scholarship program this summer.

I have been attending graduate writing groups for three semesters now. I have worked on all sorts of writing projects at the Writing Center. I have drafted research proposals, project memos, final papers, and even drafted IRB applications.

When I signed up for the group, I was looking for an environment where I could learn more about how others approach writing and a space where I could feel supported.

From participating in the group, I’ve picked up lots of helpful tips on how to organize my writing and improve my writing productivity. I have come to rely on having the weekly group time for getting some good writing done. And I’ve learned that it is possible to improve over time but it requires that I work at it regularly. I have learned that getting better at writing is a journey.

Emily Forscher, Psychology

Emily Forscher

Emily Forscher

I’m an advanced PhD student in Clinical Psychology, aiming to make as much progress on my dissertation as possible before I begin my clinical internship this summer. This semester, I’ve worked on my dissertation proposal, sections of the dissertation itself, essays for clinical internship applications, and revisions for a journal article. The first two didn’t have urgent deadlines, and the last two did.

When I signed up for the Wednesday morning grad writing group, I was aiming for protected, accountable writing time that got me out of bed and actually working in the morning. When I try to set aside a chunk of time for writing in the morning on my own, I have a lot of trouble getting started, and usually don’t accomplish much. I’ve participated in and led group therapy as part of my clinical training, and there’s something magical about meeting in a group of like-minded people. Group members end up learning and achieving much more than they would individually. I was hoping to experience some of that group magic here, and I definitely have!

The weekly group has drastically increased my writing productivity. When I have urgent writing deadlines, knowing this protected group time is available allows me to let go of worries about accomplishing writing tasks. When I don’t have urgent deadlines, the group forces me to make progress on those dreaded long-term projects. Seeing how much I accomplish each week has led me to protect writing time, and to work harder to build it in elsewhere in my schedule.

Switching advisors a few years ago left me feeling incompetent as a scientific writer, and I avoided all writing for more than a year. My Writing Center tutors helped get me restarted with writing, guiding me to discover how and when I write best. Thanks to their helpful feedback, I grew in confidence as a writer, developing systems to keep myself moving and accountable. In addition to the weekly group, I try to write on my own for at least 1/2 hour every workday. When my individual writing is on track, it’s easy for me to set goals and move forward during the weekly group, and I’m always pleased by how much I accomplish each Wednesday morning. When (like now) my individual writing is not on track, the weekly group can help me restart. From speaking with the other writers, I’ve also learned how to set more realistic goals, and to feel more satisfied with the progress I make!

Emma Shakeshaft, Sociology

Emma Shakeshaft

Emma Shakeshaft

I am a dissertator in the sociology department at UW-Madison as well as a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School. I joined the graduate writing workshop as a new dissertator in the fall semester of 2015, and I am currently participating in the spring 2016 graduate writing workshop as well.

I am currently working on my dissertation proposal and the first chapter of my dissertation that I plan to turn into a journal article. Last semester I was working on my dissertation proposal and fellowship applications.

As a dissertator, my time is not nearly as structured as it was when I was taking and teaching classes. I knew the graduate writing workshop would keep me from letting other responsibilities infringe on my writing time. Having a formally scheduled three-hour slot of time just to work on my dissertation has been incredibly beneficial and has definitely contributed to my dissertation progress this year.

Additionally, dissertation writing can be very isolating so I knew it would be helpful to check-in with a group of graduate students who are going through similar writing processes and challenges. Scheduling a three hour writing block at the beginning of the week has been pivotal to my degree progress. Not only am I able to complete a significant amount of writing in that time, but I am also able to plan out the rest of my week in detail.

The time I spent writing and developing my dissertation ideas during the fall semester graduate writing group, made my fellowship applications stronger, and ultimately enabled me to secure a research fellowship for next year. The workshop allowed me to continue progress on my dissertation and helped me to secure funding, therefore keeping me on target to graduate next year.

Through the group, I learned a lot about my own writing style and writing challenges by participating in the graduate writing group. For example, getting words on the page is not necessarily challenging for me, instead my struggle is editing and procrastination. During my time in the graduate writing group I learned skills to overcome “writers block” and learned to maintain and keep track of a regular writing schedule from other writing group participants. Our group check-in and check-outs were especially helpful for encouragement and guidance when I did not have a great writing day.

Identifying and understanding my writing challenges also helped me to take advantage of other writing center resources at UW-Madison. Shortly after starting the workshop, I began scheduling weekly individual writing center meetings. With the help of a writing center instructor, I am able to edit the material I write in the graduate writing workshop each week.

Laura Stephenson, Communication Sciences

Laura Stephenson

Laura Stephenson

I am a dissertator as of May 2014 in Communication Arts – Communication Sciences.

I use all of my writing group time to focus on my dissertation. In the Fall 2015 group, I completed my dissertation proposal. Now, in Spring 2016, I am working on specific chapters of my dissertation.

I signed up for the Writing Center’s group to provide a scheduled place and time to work only on my dissertation. It is one part of a larger plan to fight the procrastination and isolation that commonly comes with the dissertating process. I was not looking for help in any particular areas of writing, just a physical place and time where I knew others would expect to see me.

This writing group provides a regularly-scheduled, large chunk of time that allows me to make significant progress on my dissertation. It gives me space (often with a nice view) to think about the writing process and to hear tips and challenges from others in a similar position. The regularity of the group keeps me working on the dissertation and helped me to create a finished proposal. Currently, it also jumpstarts my progress for the week, as I can set new goals for the remainder of the week after leaving the writing group. Finally, the writing group provides an opportunity to see and hear from others at a similar stage to remind me that I am not alone and to hear (very briefly) about other areas of study.

More so than teaching me things about myself, the writing group has reminded me of important matters, like writing is a process. It is a process that takes time and attention in order to get the desired output. I am also reminded in the group that I am able to easily block out outside distractions once I am in the right space to write. The writing group introduced me to a variety of writing tools (e.g. Scrivener) that are available, although I have not used any of them yet.

John Boonstra, History

John Boonstra

John Boonstra

I am in the History Department, where I have had dissertator status since May 2013. I conducted my dissertation research until January 2015, and I have been actively writing since May 2015.

During the writing group time this semester, I have mostly been working on a dissertation chapter (my second), but I have also used the time to work on conference papers and proposals with pending deadlines. I was hoping to make substantial progress on — and ideally complete a draft of–the chapter that I am currently working on. I also wanted to use the group as motivation to arrive on campus early and ensure (or at least put myself in a position for) a productive writing day.

While writing can be a frustrating process in any location, the group has in general forced me to remain calm and focused, and continue working–if not solely writing–for the full period of time, rather than walk away from a particularly difficult moment. In helping me structure my time, the group has helped me move through the semester, with at least some sense of progress and routine.

In addition to confronting the ever-present difficulty and gradual nature of the writing process–and the question of what work indeed constitutes “writing” at a given phase–I have learned, even or especially in a group context, just how individualized the work of writing is. Partially through the group’s multi-disciplinary composition, with a range of dissertation-writing standards and structures, but also through exposure to different individuals’ strategies and approaches, I have come to appreciate–or at least acknowledge–the particularity of my own (painful but usually fruitful) experience.

This is not to say that sharing or hearing advice is entirely unproductive, but that applying another’s process or proclivities can only be done experimentally, with grains of salt and perhaps a greater sense of self-knowledge. Writing is, ultimately, a solitary and individual undertaking; historical writing–and I’d venture most writing–is, or at least should be, a process of thinking, which for me can be a frustrating but hopefully (eventually, somehow) fulfilling endeavor, which I need to go through on my own, without distraction, and which cannot be measured in word counts or by many metrics beyond my own evaluation.

***

Some of the participants in one of the spring 2015 grad writing groups share goals at the start of their weekly three-hour writing session.

Some of the participants in one of the spring 2015 grad writing groups share goals at the start of their weekly three-hour writing session.

The value of these groups is apparent in the words of the graduate writers themselves. And, although we’re very proud to offer this kind of programming in our Writing Center, they mark just one of many possible models. We are always experimenting with new elements, fine-tuning existing practices and aiming to reach and support more graduate and undergraduate writers. If you’re interested in other models we use for writing groups, see a description of our dissertation writing camps in a recent post on this blog by Rick Ness. And for a description of our senior-thesis writing workshops, see a recent post by Rebecca Steffy.

We’d like to hear from you. Do you or are you considering offering writing groups at your institution? What are the goals and what forms do they take? How are they working? What challenges have they faced? Are there other ways we might support graduate-student writers?

We invite you to share your insights, ideas, and experience below!

6 thoughts on ““Something Magical in Meeting with a Group of Like-Minded People”: Graduate Writing Groups in the Writing Center

  1. Pingback: WLN News Round-Up: April 25-May 8 | Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders (CWCAB)
  2. This is my first semester as a member of a graduate student writing group and it will not be my last. My productive has skyrocketed so I want to keep up that momentum!

  3. I love hearing from graduate student participants about how this particular kind of writing group has been helpful for them and what they’ve learned. Given what I’ve learned through working with the senior thesis writing groups this year and research on capstone experiences, I’m especially interested in the reflection process that is modeled by the questions posed to participants. Taking the time to ask and respond to questions like these (e.g. What were you hoping to get out of this experience? How do you want to make use of this experience?) gives us a valuable opportunity to narrate the meaning of our experiences.

    -Rebecca Couch Steffy
    TA Coordinator, UW-Madison Writing Center

  4. One thing I really like about these groups is that they give people a space to think about their writing processes. I talk to a lot of students for whom the writing process is opaque and a real struggle. They may need to hear that it’s okay to write a messy draft or that they don’t have to edit while they compose. In the past, I think that I thought the main purpose of a Writing Center was to help people make their writing better. Certainly, it is. But I find that so many students I work with need to have help figuring out a good writing process so that they can be successful, less anxious writers in the future. In that sense, I really like the metaphor of these groups as a type of group therapy where people talk about how they write and discover more healthy writing habits.

  5. I have participated in writing groups at UW for 4 semesters now. The scheduled, regular writing time has helped me tremendously with completing my dissertation. Moreover, the sense of community and regular goal-setting have really helped me stay motivated and productive in and outside of the group. I have learned skills in these writing groups that will stay with for the remainder of my professional career.

  6. I started going to the Graduate Writing Groups as a new dissertator in Fall 2015. I have rejoined the groups for the spring term because I simply got so much done during the groups that I couldn’t not participate! I very much agree with the title of this post. When I talk about the groups to my advisor or fellow graduate students, I describe them as “magical writing time where you get more done than any where else.” This endorsement has been echoed by a few of the students I recruited to join from my department. We are all making significant progress on our dissertations and also external fellowship applications, as well as articles for publication.

    More than the progress on my writing that I accomplish while at the groups, the time to discuss writing with other graduate students boosts my morale about the journey of graduate school and its unique challenges. Commiserating and celebrating with fellow graduate students also helps me advance my project when I’m not at my writing group because I know I’m not alone.

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