Writing Accountability Groups – why they can make a huge difference in your program

Writing Accountability Groups – why they can make a huge difference in your program

Vevila Dornelles, PhD Candidate @ University of Reading

It’s your first PhD year, you’re meeting new people, maybe at a new city and new University, taking classes, lectures, workshops, everything sounds amazing. Then the second year comes bringing reading, fieldwork, writing and loneliness. Writing is the one activity that follows you from day one, and separates a PhD student from a doctor – after all, you can only grab that diploma if you write that thesis. Alas, academic writing is very difficult, and although solitude is necessary for the development of complex ideas and abstraction, good learning rarely thrives in loneliness. One simple technique can help you solve this: getting together. In this post, I show you how my friends and I organised a writing accountability group, and how it helps me get those bloody words down on paper, and feel more like a human being as a bonus.

  1. Listen to your heart (or gut): last summer, I was writing my conceptual framework – or was I? I had the most intense writers block ever, and when I started to worry about my progress, I noticed that I could actually write on paper, not on my computer. I ran to the stationery cupboard, grabbed beautiful notebooks and my favourite mechanical pencil and went to the park, where actual words started to show up. Sometimes, it’s better to do it all by hand and write good, useful text, than to stare at the screen and feel horrible. Learn and listen to your needs.
  2. Find your squad: ideally, a good writing group is diverse – people from all walks of life, different fields and topics. This is interesting because someone from another field is probably able to see your writing with fresh eyes and comment on stuff you didn’t see at first. Or they can bring new dynamics to your work and life habits: if you’re not really a morning person (guilty), knowing that your friends will be at the cafe/library/workspace at 9am may effectively drag you out of the bed earlier.
  3. However, bear in mind that, sometimes, this system works better in a 1-to-1 scheme, as some of us tend to feel more comfortable sharing our work and struggles with only one person. Choose what’s better for you.
  4. Set goals and a dedicated time slot for writing: this has also to do with your organisation system. Break your work in bite size tasks, think of the time needed to accomplish it, organise the materials… a good organisation system will help you with that (I give some tips on how to develop your own system here). Ask your supervisor for help if you’re a bit chaotic and tend to feel anxious (guilty); they will be able to guide you to the next step and, more importantly, set deadlines. That being done, agree with your friends on one week day (or more) and time slot just for writing – no office stuff, no e-mails, no home/family matters, just writing.
  5. Checks & balances: before the scheduled time, share your day’s writing goals with your friends, whether it is an abstract, a paragraph, a draft paper or a whole chapter (who knows!). You should be able to take note of what your friend intends to do as well, as you will chase each other by the end of the day to check on your performance.
  6. Write away: doesn’t matter if you and your friends are together in the same room. This can be done remotely, through things like Telegram or Twitch.tv if you need (but agree on that first!). When the time comes, head to the workspace, get together, set your intention and WRITE THAT SH*T. A good technique that always gets me going is Shut Up and Write: working in pomodoros, you focus on writing for 25 minutes and take 5-minute breaks to stretch, get hydrated and check on your friends. After a whole cycle, take a longer break to get comfortable and relax. Some of the most useful things I learned in my course so far were brought up by people in my circle, during those breaks. Sometimes, actually talking about your struggles can really go a long way.
  7. Share: by the end of the day, check on your friends and be checked by them. It is important to be honest about success and failure, tell them whether you achieved your goal, if you strayed, if you need more time. This will help you reassess your task list and get ready for another session, and for when you have to work on your own. Whenever you need help with a draft, ask your friend to review it – and do the same for them when they need it.
  8. Go to the surgery: agree on emergency procedures to help each other when one (or some) of you is really struggling, stuck on a task. That can be a group brainstorm, a presentation practice, sharing literature, really anything that can help someone out of the maze. And learn to ask for help when you need it – a PhD or, for that matters, any academic and creative work is rarely done in isolation.
  9. Make friends: yes, I mentioned friends all the time but, at least in my case, those were made through the group.

I hope these tips are useful, and that you can find joy in this feared, but gratifying, immense part of academic life.

Are you part of a writing group (formal or informal)? Do you have an accountability system in place? Tell us more on Twitter.

See you later, and WRITE ALONG!