After years of going through the research stage of my PhD program, watching my cohorts graduate one by one, (feels like) I am alone. It has become difficult for me to stay motivated and focus on making progress in my thesis. In searching for a solution to my current predicament, I may have found the answer in Helen Sword’s latest book — Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. In her book, Sword compiled the writing background and practices of over a hundred successful academics worldwide. The one topic that resonates with me is what Sword frames as writing among others, which refers to creating a community of writers to support and nurture the work of individual writers. For what else can be furthest away from loneliness than being in a community of those with similar goals and purpose?
Because I don’t think that I’m the only one struggling with isolation, I’m sharing my main takeaways from Sword’s book. Sword discusses three main forms of writing communities: writing groups, writing retreats, and writing networks. Each form of writing community offers different benefits. Nonetheless, the common goal is to move away from writing in solitude to writing in a social space. Below is a short summary of Sword’s discussion on the topic of writing communities. I’m also including my assessment on the writing communities that are available to me.
Writing groups can take on different forms. The sources of variation include:
- Size – How many members in a group? Large and less personal? Or, small and intimate?
- Frequency – How often are you meeting? Monthly, bi-monthly, or more?
- Duration – How long is each meeting?
- Longevity – Will the group dissolve after a certain set deadline? Or, continue indefinitely?
- Venue – Virtual, physical or a mix of both? For physical or mixed groups, do you have a favorite spot to meet?
- Composition – Who are your group members? Is everybody in the same program or is it open to all?
- Organization – Is the group institutionally supported? Student-run group? Individual organizers?
- Process – How is the group going to work and what is its focus? Coming together to write side-by-side? Accountability and goal setting? Knowledge sharing? Cheering team?
- Purpose – What type of writing support is going to be provided, if any? Institutional? Structural? Facilitator?
Below are potential writing groups, though the one that meets regularly -Thesis Persistence 101 – is not running (anymore?)
Dissertation Bootcamp offered by SGS in February and June each year. The bootcamp welcomes research students across disciplines. It has the most inspirational writing venue – The Harry Potter Room in Douglas Library. Participants work on their writing from 9 am to 4 pm for about 4 to 5 days. The writing sessions are interspersed with short, facilitated discussions on relevant topics (e.g., writing blocks, avoiding distractions, and communicating with supervisors). Read more on the experience of Adam Ali, a past participant, in the Dissertation Bootcamp here. Gradifying also has a collection of posts related to the bootcamp here, here, and here.
Thesis Persistence 101 offered intermittently by SGS. The group welcomes research students across disciplines. Participants meet on a weekly basis and work side-by-side for a 3-hour block time period. Unfortunately, thesis persistence is not offered this term and I’m not sure if it will be offered in January 2018.
Shut Up & Write Tuesdays (SUWT) is a virtual (loose) group that meets on the first and second Tuesdays every month. The @SUWTNA, the group for those in US and Canada, meets from 11 am to 12 noon local (Kingston) time. Anybody can join in for an hour of work!
Writing retreats provide the opportunity to leave our daily grind behind, and submerge ourselves in writing (or other research tasks). Other than work sessions, breaks are also scheduled. These breaks include physical or touristy activities, coffee breaks, or discussion sessions. The work-and-play approach provides an avenue for productivity and respite.
SGS offers two writing retreats during the summer – The Lake Shift and Dissertation on the Lake The objective of these retreats is to develop a momentum for research, and to be able to sustain the momentum by including enjoyable activities. Read Gradifying’s post on the Dissertation on the Lake program here. Also see the YouTube video from past participants of both writing retreats.
If you’d like to enjoy more writing retreats, you can create your own mini-retreats as suggested by Tanya Golash-Boza. Prof. Boza’s popular website talks about balancing academic and personal life. I think scheduling in mini-retreats is a great and feasible idea.
Writing networks may vary from one person to another. All of us can build our own writing network by using the connections we made throughout the years. You need to think of how these connections can be nurtured such that they’ll form a support network for your writing. For example, I know my advisor gives great feedback and helps me develop ideas further. I may also ask my cohorts for their thoughts, support, and to co-author papers. Lastly, I’m lucky to know several professors in my field from other schools who are willing to comment on my work.
How do you write among others?
P.S: You may find a copy of Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write at Stauffer Library (Call number: P301.5.A27 S94 2017).