February 12

The importance of a writing group

Toward the end of my first semester in graduate school, I was alone in the cold, windowless office that I shared with four other students. (There were only three spaces to work in this office, so either math was not the strong suit of the graduate student office supervisor, or s/he expected graduate students not to work.)

It was late that December night. My husband was across campus at the law school library with other highly caffeinated 1Ls (first year law students). He was comparing notes with fellow students about the upcoming final exams.

I was alone, and I had the sudden, terrifying realization that although I had written many papers as an undergraduate, I had no idea how to write a graduate-level term paper. I was certain that everyone was smarter than me and that I'd never piece together a coherent term paper.

Now that I have gone on to write more (fairly coherent) papers, as well as edit many more papers of clients in graduate school and beyond, I wish I could go back in time and tell my graduate student self this one thing:

Start a writing group.

The law students had the right idea. They studied separately and then together, comparing notes. They also read previous students' sample answers to essay questions from previous final exams. They knew how they stacked up against others.

I had no idea how I stacked up against others. I felt like driftwood in the cold waters of high tide.

iStockphoto Looking back, I would tell myself to find at least one friend, hopefully two or three friends, to meet regularly, to read each others' drafts beforehand, and to thoughtfully and constructively critique each other.

Yes, I talked (or complained or vented) to other graduate students all the time about papers. I don't believe I ever asked someone to actually read my papers, though. I let my pride get in the way of improving my writing.

Now that I'm on the other side, though, I can see the tremendous benefits of a writing group.

If I could craft a writing group for my graduate student self, it would look like this:

Meeting once a month when we're in the thinking/researching/outlining phase. Meeting more frequently as writing gets under way, maybe as much as once a week when the deadline is in sight.

Meeting in a quiet area that is not a coffee shop, like a reserved room in the campus library. Coffee shops make us think that we're being social.

Meeting with two or three other people, at least one in my field, but being open to working with graduate students outside of my field. We can learn so much from inter-disciplinary work. Plus, if you're only meeting with people in your department, you're much more likely to gossip about your department, which is counter-productive.

Sending each other drafts four or five days beforehand and marking up each others' drafts. We would go roundtable style, concentrating on one person's work at a time and offer positive critiques and ask thoughtful questions about the person's arguments.

The main benefit of a writing group?

You get to read other peoples' works in progress.

We get so used to seeing other peoples' finished pieces, but we forget that all finished pieces began as drafts, rough, scratched out, written over, crumpled up, and cried over.

As an editor, I can tell you that all papers, essays, and books look much, much better after five rounds of editing, but it's more powerful for you to see the process yourself.

So, to my younger graduate student self and to any of you (all of us) who struggle with writing, put aside pride and shame, and make for yourself a writing group.

If you're in the semester system, it's mid-February, which is the perfect time to start a group for those seemingly-far-away-but-actually-just-around-the-corner term papers. (Yeah, that's grammatically correct.)

What about you? Have you started a writing group? Found it beneficial? Found it more frustrating than it was worth? What makes a good writing group?

[Photo credit iStockPhoto]


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