Monday 11 March 2013

Writing Group

when inspiration strikes
About a month ago, Twitter led me to an article called “The Rules of Writing Group” by Claire P. Curtis. I quickly read the article on my tablet and immediately shared the article with a group of colleagues at U.Laval. I didn’t even wait to get to a computer and compose a proper email.  I've wanted a venue to discuss writing since I started this Ph.D, and finally decided a group explicitly aimed at writing was necessary. 

Four students were interested, and so our writing group was formed. We meet weekly and rotate through the members of the group.  We’ve adjusted our rules and organization a bit over the first few weeks to fit our needs. For example, we found that 48 hours was not enough time to properly review the work each week since some of our members like to read the writing a few days in advance of making comments. We therefore increased the time to 6 days.  We also started with Google Drive but found that it is not ideal for files that are very large, have many figures, or substantial formatting. As a consequence, we’ve added a Dropbox option for working with complex and large files.

One unique feature of our group is that it’s inter-provincial and international, since I’m in Ontario, one member is in Montana, and the rest are in Quebec. Since the Quebecois often work from home rather than at the university, we usually meet via Google Plus hangouts rather than in person. Admittedly, there are some drawbacks to meeting online, such as spotty internet and awkwardness that comes from a slight lag between speaking and hearing. However, given that the alternative is having no writing group, I’m willing to put up with the slight inconveniences.

So far, we've had three meetings. The one major unanticipated outcome is that there hasn't been a shortage of material for submission. In fact, two of the pieces of work we've sent around have been nearly complete works rather than the manuscript sections I originally anticipated. In retrospect, this shouldn't have been surprising, since we're all in the midst of writing up our work and therefore have some components already finished.  I expect that at some point the work will level out and we'll find ourselves being crunched to submit something new during our week. I guess we'll see!   

I also wasn't expecting the amount of time we have dedicated to discussing the writing process in general.  Instead of simply commenting on the paper and discussing that work itself, we've spent about 1/3 of each meeting talking about how to work with outlines, how to revise work, and other strategies and techniques. One of our members has done a lot of research on writing technique and he always has some interesting input. I read a lot of blogs (linked from Twitter, usually), so I usually have something to say as well.  I've found that our group members complement each other because we have different strengths. Some people are better at commenting on overall structure and concept while others excel at grammar and punctuation. I'm very satisfied with how it has gone so far and I'm excited for what the future holds too.

Do you have a writing group? Does your group follow a different structure than ours? 

Here’s our rules:

Writing Group Rules, Organization, and Expectations
Meeting time and date: Thursday at 3pm ET (1pm MT)
Deadline to upload material on your week: The previous Friday evening (midnight in your time zone) is a soft deadline. Sunday at midnight is a hard deadline. 

Organization and Expectations
It may take a few weeks to find our groove, but let’s strive towards something like what is outlined in the article (see below):
  • We meet each week on Google Plus or in office ABP2115 of Abitibi-Price.
  • We set a schedule now (mid-February) and stick with it until April.
  • We treat this weekly meeting with the same level of commitment as we’d treat a course.
When it’s your week:
  • Ensure that your work has a title and summary/abstract 
  • Upload your work to Google Drive or Dropbox (your preference) and email the members of the group with the following information:
    • Title of your work
    • Type of work (e.g., manuscript, report, etc.)
    • Requested help (e.g., grammar, organization, concept, “punchiness”, etc)
    • A link to Google Drive or Dropbox
    • Requested format of comments: track changes in Word, or comments directly on Google Drive
  • Examples of acceptable writing include:
    • Draft outline of a manuscript, including the last paragraph of the introduction (i.e. the purpose/objectives/hypotheses paragraph) plus details on methods and results, including a few potential figures
    • Finished section of a manuscript. Start with Methods, then Results, then Intro and Discussion.
    • Finished whole manuscript that we've already seen. It should be pretty clean by this point
    • Article for popular science magazine
    • Grant/scholarship applications
    • Cover letter and/or CV for jobs/post-doc positions.
    • Project report for funders, etc.
  • Come to the meeting on Thursday. Briefly introduce your written piece, and then be ready to answer questions and hear feedback. Leave your ego at the door, and be receptive to criticism.
When it’s not your week:
  • Read the writing of the week, and provide detailed comments on Google Drive or via Dropbox.  Try to keep the person’s request in mind (Do they want help with grammar? Organization and structure? Relation to ecological theory?).
  • Come to the meeting on Thursdays with notes or a laptop, and be prepared to talk. Be kind, and provide constructive criticism.
Questions to help guide the meeting if conversation stalls:
  • What would make this idea work?
  • How might this paper be structured more effectively?
  • How can this idea be highlighted because it seems to be the real focus of the argument?
  • What is the objective of the paper and is it clear throughout the methods, results, and discussion?
“There is no point in having a writing group if perfection (or even being publication-ready) is your standard. For a writing group to work, early drafts must be shared, and they may well be confused, disorganized, and unclear.” - Clair P. Curtis

See this article “The Rules of Writing Group” for more details.

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