Feeling stuck with your writing without the luxury to wait for inspiration is very common. Following up from last week’s blog post, Aya Nassar proposes writing together in groups…
A lot of advice on writing tells us to write every day, or to block time in the calendar for writing. The rationale is that writing is a practice like exercise, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Even though I wrote about the value of disconnecting from a productive mentality in approaching research, I think that this advice is also really valuable.
We usually put a lot of emotional barriers between us and our writing, we procrastinate, and sometimes, we need to – simply – be with it. Writing together in groups, I have found, can help with bridging the emotional distance we typically put with our research.
Having to write productively and according to deadlines, I found that writing with others really helped in bridging this emotional distance. I have two examples, the first is doing writing retreats, and the second is joining a module on producing feminist research in the University of Warwick.
Scheduling writing retreats doesn’t always have to be expensive get aways to faraway places with no internet (that will be lovely, of course). The one I started joining was shorter in time span, and all that was needed was a quiet place away from where we – the participants – usually work. If you work in an office, you might consider . If you work in an office, you might consider an alternative university study space. For example, at the University of Warwick, I often use one of the rooms in the Postgraduate Hub study space. I have two friends who are roughly in the same stage of research as me, and we typically schedule our sessions to have 10-15 minute introductions, a warm up, and setting small targets (like targeted word-count or subsections), then an hour and 15 minutes of silent writing . Then we take a break where we assess and re-evaluate the targets, and then there’s another hour and 15 minutes of writing before we do a final briefing on our goals.
What I have found most useful in this format is:
- By scheduling a writing session, I effectively blocked that time for nothing else but writing, which means showing up with your writing, and with some commitment to not being distracted.
- By working somewhere else it becomes easier to not fall into warming up routines. These can be the paths I use to procrastinate and avoid writing, like chatting with office mates, checking social media, or getting my eyes caught by that very important book I checked out of the library two weeks ago.
- With this short format, I really didn’t have to show up knowing exactly what I wanted to achieve and having all my notes ready. In the introduction time for example, sometimes we would ask advice, ‘I have two (or more) tasks on my mind, what do you think I should start with?’, company helps taking decisions about starting somewhere in times when one is an endless loop of complicated starting leads.
- We usually buy some nice snacks and fruit for our retreats, it gives them some rituals, and a sense of rewards.
- The writing doesn’t have to brilliant – depending on where you are stuck – it just needs to happen. Then it can be redrafted or fixed in other sessions.
The second example is the producing feminist research module, convened by Dr Maria do Mar Pereira in the Department of Sociology at Warwick. In this group, PhDs and early career fellows from different disciplines across the social sciences and humanities are brought together to reflect on practices of being in academia and with an interest in the emotions that surround academic practices.
A key activity around which the module is structured is us reading drafts of each other’s work. Because we come from different disciplines and are at different stages in our PhDs, the practice of reading itself helps us become better writers, not only by learning how to offer feedback, but by consciously focusing on learning from writing styles we wouldn’t typically adopt and through learning about writing practices and habits of other disciplines.
Additionally, in this group, I learned to ask for help. When we put our drafts out there for reading we ask what we are struggling with, and we try to identify what we would like help on. This not only invites a collective thinking about solving writing blocks, or communicating research, but also helps us as individual writers think about what is it that is not working in our writing, rather than dismiss it altogether as not-good.
In both examples, writing in company challenges the idea that a PhD is a work done in isolation, with only the researcher and her/his supervisor. It also challenges the idea that our writing must come out complete, perfect and ready for readership. Having companionship as we set small targets, and share incomplete sections makes tentative writing less scary and helps in adopting or linking to the general advice that tells you to “write…write…write…”
Do you often join or organise writing groups or prefer to write alone? Do you know of other formats of writing-together that have worked for you?Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
This blog post is part two of a three part series. Find part one here. Keep an eye out for part three in the summer!
Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research looks into cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar
Image is author’s own.