Why are researchers joining writing groups?
Writing is an inevitable part of a researcher’s life - right from the time they take up a doctoral candidature to when they’re in a faculty position, researchers at every stage of their career are expected to write and publish manuscripts documenting the research they have conducted. The expectation is of course justified - how else would people learn about a study that has been conducted and its results? For centuries, writing and publishing in a peer reviewed journal has been the most efficient way to disseminate research. Writing is what makes research usable and valuable to society.
- 26% of academics spent zero hours a week writing
- 27% had never published in a peer-reviewed journal
- 43% had not published an article in a journal in the past two-years
Researchers’ struggle with academic writing is a well-recognized problem in academia and research shows that lack of time and stress or anxiety are the root cause of the problem (Belcher, 2009; Boice, 1999; Lindholm et al. 2005).
Over the past few years, writing groups have seen a surge in academia – universities often have their own writing groups (like this one, this one, and this one) which they encourage students and faculty to join. Writing workshops and writing retreats (like this and this) are becoming increasingly popular among academics. Many universities have successfully employed dedicated faculty writing groups to increase faculty productivity in terms of grant writing and manuscript writing for publication. Why are researchers joining writing groups? How do writing groups support the academic writing process for researchers?
- Scheduling and protecting time for academic writing: A researcher’s work involves a lot of multi-tasking – between conducting experiments, collecting and analyzing data, teaching responsibilities, attending conferences, it is no wonder that they struggle to find dedicated time for writing. In addition, distractions are rife in today’s world and it’s hard to stop the urge to check and respond to messages and emails. But things are different when you’re writing with a group - you have blocked a pre-scheduled and dedicated time for writing. Moreover, when you’re writing with others, you’re likely to stop yourself from indulging in distractions. During the writing hour, you’ll probably have your phone off and hopefully, nobody will barge in to talk to you, and hopefully, you’ll resist the urge to check emails.
- Increasing productivity: Research has shown that academics who actively participate in Faculty Writing Groups are more productive than those who do not - faculty writing group participants have seen an increased rate of publications (McGrail, Rickard & Jones, 2006) and grant applications (Houfek et al., 2010). Writing groups are beneficial for early career researchers as well – meeting in groups at a scheduled time and keeping members accountable for their progress has helped young academics overcome the starting problem and make progress in academic writing (Franks, 2018).
- Providing social support: During the pandemic, with labs were closed and research work stalled, many researchers decided to use the time to focus on writing and publication. However, with the lines between the personal and professional life blurring, many found it hard to focus on their writing tasks when working from home. Moreover, work would get lonely during the pandemic and many academics signed up for writing groups as a way to interact with other researchers. According to a qualitative study, even before the pandemic, women academics who had to balance work along with parenting and family commitments had already found writing groups a great form of social (Penney et al., 2015). During the pandemic, childcare and family responsibilities were shared by both men and women academics, and being part of virtual writing groups or joining a virtual writing retreat emerged as great opportunities to engage socially with other researchers and avoid the loneliness of working from home. With things easing up after the pandemic, virtual writing groups are still seen as a great way to connect with researchers outside of their university and field.
- Learning new academic writing and productivity skills: Working with a group of supportive peers means you ask questions, seek advice, share tips and hacks, and learn from others. Writing groups bring a sense of community (Herman, Abate & Walker, 2013) and there is often a regular exchange of information in these groups. Thus, researchers are likely to learn new tips from others about academic writing and productivity and can experiment with these to find out what works best for them. Writing groups have different and innovative approaches to sharing knowledge and fostering a collaborative environment. For instance, some groups have a shared resource bank while others have a common accountability sheet, some may have a peer feedback process in place, while some others might incorporate academic writing workshops or courses into their process.
- Reducing apprehension around writing: Researchers often experience negative emotions around academic writing. Although academic writing is such a crucial skill to having a successful research career, it is seldom taught at universities. As a result, most early career researchers, and sometimes even senior academics, struggle with academic writing and experience negative emotions such as anxiety and self-doubt when it comes to writing. Manuscript rejections and negative peer reviewer comments often increase the sense of frustration, hopelessness, and apprehension around academic writing. The struggle gets worse for researchers for whom English is a foreign language. Knowing that you are not alone and writing with a group of others who share similar doubts and fears can help reduce the negative emotions around academic writing. Research has shown that regular participation in writing groups makes researchers feel more confident and competent as writers (Packer, 2013).
A reseacher’s journey can get lonely – even though you meet other researchers at the lab and share an office with them, each of you works in your own bubble. There’s hardly any time to have a good conversation with your peers, your supervisor is often too busy to give you the time and critical feedback that you expect, and in the absence of a structured work schedule, your academic writing goals suffer. Having a writing buddy, joining a writing group or retreat can be great ways to incorporate academic writing into your schedule and making consistent progress on your writing. If you haven’t yet joined a writing group, it’s definitely worth a try. Have you ever been part of a writing group? What was your experience like? We would love to know! Share in the comments section below.
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