What makes a successful writing group?

angeladobele02-smallDr Angela Dobele is an academic at RMIT University in Melbourne. Her teaching and research practices seek to make vital contributions to resolving the social, environmental and wicked problems of our times.

In her scholarly practice, Angela aims to be grounded in real-world problems, critical in theoretical and marketing orientation, and andragogical in her approach to student performance.

Her thesis topic and subsequent research considers word-of-mouth (at the intersection of relationship marketing and communication theories), both online (viral) and traditional referrals. Her other research topics concern academic workloads and research on student performance. Angela can be found on Twitter at @AngelaDobele.

Photo by Mark Asthoff | unsplash.com
Photo by Mark Asthoff | unsplash.com

An Organiser’s Perspective of Writing Groups: Dr Angela Dobele (@AngelaDobele)

It’s really hard in a crowded academic life to make time for your own research writing and spend time with your colleagues.

To create a great foundation for doing both, I introduced a writing program at my institution that aims to help staff and research higher degree students with the twin goals of improving writing skills and ramping up writing productivity.  The program is currently in its fourth consecutive semester and gradually increasing in popularity.

I conduct two writing groups each semester. In the program, we use the metaphor of ‘landing planes’ (a phrase coined by one of my first participants, Professor Lisa Farrell) with each aeroplane representing the achievement of a specific writing goal, such as submission of a journal manuscript or book chapter.

Over the three previous semesters that the program has run, participants have successfully landed 102 planes. Landed planes include 27 papers submitted to top flight journals, 18 grant applications (including four ARC expressions of interest and an ARC Linkage expression of interest), and 10 journal re-submissions.

The program is having an impact because it:

  • Socialises a task that is traditionally lonely (writing);
  • Incorporates gamification in the development of new writing habits (specifically, habitual writing practice);
  • Develops skills that make a favourable impact on research performance (research outputs and quality of outputs).

Increasing writing productivity is not about writing faster; it is about writing more often. It is what Silvia calls making writing ‘routine and mundane’ (Silvia 2007, p. xi).

What is the program format?

The writing program I run integrates regular diarised writing sessions that are time-bound using the Pomodoro Technique, dovetailed with a tailored web application created for my writing groups called TeamTime. The software allows participants to track their own writing sessions as well as see the whole group’s writing sessions.

As a time management tool, the Pomodoro technique is successful at increasing productivity by compartmentalising time or ‘time boxing’ into time periods called Pomodori. The process of time boxing means that participants focus on a single task for the set period, thereby achieving ‘flow’ (Burkeman 2011, p. 139-140). In writing groups, the technique has proven successful as it helps writers to develop the necessary discipline to remain focused and concentrate on an activity, without interruption or distraction, until the timer rings (Mewburn, Osborne & Caldwell in Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond, 2014).

The Pomodori technique can be implemented with equipment no more sophisticated than a timer, some paper and a pencil. The first step is to write the task to be completed and set the timer. The physical act of setting a timer works as confirmation of the determination to begin that task, and the ticking externalises the desire or focus to complete it. Flow and focus then become associated with the physical stimuli (Burkeman 2011, p. 139-140).

If you prefer a more technological approach, there are a range of electronic timers available including smart phone apps at a range of price points. Typically, the software records an individual’s number of completed Pomodori, but rarely records group totals. The one we use counts completed writing sessions (25 minutes of writing) for each participant together with the overall team totals. It then presents a leader board of the results (see Appendix 1).

Recording the time spent writing encourages the necessary discipline for participants to remain focused and concentrate on that task (Mewburn et al. in Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond, 2014). Previous research has found that people who kept track of their daily writing vastly outperform those with no tracking by up to a factor of four, and those that share their writing logs are far more productive than those that kept their logs personal (e.g. Gray 2010). Further, the built-in reward component through having a leaderboard also provides motivation and group commitment. Leaderboards have been found to encourage higher levels of interaction with projects; remarkably, this can be almost 30 times more on average (Landers & Landers 2015 -full PDF). During my writing program, I use badges and leaderboards (Deterding 2012 – full PDF) to improve engagement, motivation and achieve research outputs (landing those planes!). Further, by recording both individual and group totals the group is underpinned by a subtle current of competition and a major thread of group performance and group togetherness. Participants work together to achieve the group’s grand total.

Example of writing group leaderboard, with overall time spent on writing. Image from Angela Dobele.
Example of writing group leaderboard, with overall time spent on writing. Image courtesy of Angela Dobele.

The writing groups meet every Monday for one hour to discuss Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks (Belcher 2009). Each participant is provided with their own copy, funded by my College’s Research Office. In addition, they hear from guest presenters, review their goals for the coming week and reaffirm commitment to both the other participants and to landing their planes.

Planning the planes

A summary document of each participant’s planes is developed at the beginning of the program. It is updated as planes are landed with a picture of a landed plane next to each goal. Planes to be landed must be written in a succinct yet measurable form. For example, both title and target journal are specified. Participants then develop clearly articulated weekly goals that will be needed to ‘land that plane!’.

Participants join a group three-hour session of #shutupandwrite towards the end of each week. I play background instrumental music (mixed genres) and the leaderboard is presented on two large wall monitors. The Monday group socialisation and the end-of-week #shutupandwrite sessions are diarised for participants through a group calendar feature. This approach means that writing and writing support are locked into the semester schedule – just like teaching or attending departmental meetings. There is no excuse for not finding time to write!

Participants commit, through an electronic form, to a minimum achievement of five writing sessions per week (the equivalent of two hours and five minutes) and to meet their own stated weekly goals. If they do not meet these weekly goals, they must pay a fine of AU$10. This is an affordable but effective ‘stick’ for the full-time academic staff in these groups. The fines are used to subsidise an end-of-program lunch (in an Italian restaurant, of course!) as a reward for the team, a very tempting carrot. The fines are also used to fund small prizes including writing competitions, lucky door prizes and recognition for social behaviours. Prizes are typically stationary or food related.

Landed planes are celebrated in the breaks between #shutupandwrite sessions. The badges and the celebrations of achievements make writing ‘more social and less solitary’ and also helps to build ‘social scholarly connections’ (Belcher 2009, p. 7).

Such writing groups socialise the lonely act of writing and develop a clear structure for developing habitual writing practice. They engage participants with their writing and provide the motivation, and commitment, to write regularly. Writing efforts are rewarded and the commitment and motivation to write are developed and sustained.

A participant perspective: Dr Warren Staples (@warrenstaples)

After taking on a full-time academic role and seeing the first three years of my ECR status disappear in the blink of an eye, I recognised that I needed to change my working habits in order to achieve the publication success I desire.

When Angela’s writing workshops were first advertised I put my name forward and indicated I was keen to be involved. As the semesters have rolled on, I’ve continued to participate and found that I look forward to the routine diarising of writing and collegial elements that come from participating in a group.

Participating acts as a constant reminder of what I want to do, and plan to do, with my scholarship – and that’s pretty central to why we all became academics in the first place so it’s quite reaffirming.

I’ve found that Angela’s writing challenge has really worked for me for a number of reasons.

First, it encourages participants to reflect on their writing challenges and practices, both individually and collectively.

Second, it encourages more frequent writing, and the most successful academic writers suggest that writing more often is a big part of success.

Third, it provides great electronic tools to support the improvement and sustaining of better micro-level practices (more writing, more often, in bite-size pieces).

Fourth, the writing group has built a terrific cohort of participants from a wide range of disciplines across our College whose advice and experiences are priceless.

Finally, I am the breed of academic who is perhaps too team-oriented at times, which can be a flaw, and the nature of this group enables me to feel I am part of a team. While I’m also competing with my colleagues in some ways, I always taking delight in their achievements and accomplishments.


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