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Writing Groups: Harnessing the Power of Groups to Improve Your Writing

Last August at the Academy of Management annual conference, I was invited to talk about writing at a PDW (professional development workshop) entitled: “Empowering Words: Achieving High Quality Writing in Management and Organizational Studies” which was organized by Otilia Obodaru and Erik Dane, both at Rice University. After the presentations, the organizers asked that participants break out into small groups and each panelist was invited to join a group and answer any questions that participants had about writing. All of the other invited panelists were current or former editors of top journals, and so were in an ideal position to answer questions about the publishing process, which, given the turn our field has taken of late, is what people are usually most interested in. I’m sure the people at the table I was assigned were a bit disappointed to not “get” Kevin Corley or Tim Pollock at their table. All they got was the blog lady. This of course put me in a bit of a bind. What could I possibly talk about?

I decided to ask whether anyone had experience with writing groups. To my surprise, no one had. So we talked about that. Our conversation was an animated one, so I like to think (maintain the illusion?) that it compensated participants for not being able to ask Belle Ragins what it takes to get published in AMR (Academy of Management Review, where he is currently editor).

So what is a writing group? A writing group is a group of authors with similar interests who get together on a regular basis to discuss their writing projects. Meetings can be done on a weekly, monthly or ad hoc basis; they can be more or less formal; they can take place face to face (in an office, cafeteria or coffee shop) or virtually over Skype, but the key is to have a group of people with whom to share your writing: a group of people who will carefully read what you write and who will give you honest feedback on how good/bad they think it is.

A good thing about writing groups is that they force people rid themselves of the illusion that writing is a solitary endeavor. In fact, it is the rare writer indeed who writes totally alone, without ever getting any kind of input or feedback from anyone before submitting a polished and perfect manuscript to a potential editor. In fact, I don’t think such a person even exists. At the very least, most authors admit to sharing their early drafts to spouses, best friends and/or literary agents. This is true of novelists as it is of academics. Sharing one’s writing with others early on is even more important for academics as the purpose of our writing is to convince others. How can we know that what we’re writing is convincing unless we test it out on a few willing and well-intentioned guinea pigs beforehand? Such is the purpose of writing groups.

There are number of ways in which you can set up a writing group. I’ll share here a few of the formats that I’ve come across to date:

Informal, small. This is truly the easiest format to set up. Just find two or three people in your department with similar interests, agree to meet every Friday for lunch to talk about writing and voilà! Instant writing group. You share a piece of writing with your writing group buddies a few days before, everyone reads everyone else’s stuff beforehand, and you discuss what you liked and didn’t like about the piece over lunch. They key here is to keep the required reading manageable. Don’t send someone a whole article to read. Send an introduction. Send the discussion section of a paper. Or the methods section. People are busy, and if being part of a writing group is too taxing, they’ll drop out.

Semi-formal, bigger. This is a step-up from the above version and it requires someone to do a bit of coordinating. If your school has resources, this could be a job given to a PhD student. The format here is what I would call “open”. The idea here is to announce widely that, for example, every second Friday, between 10h-12h, in room X, a bunch of people will be getting together to discuss ongoing writing projects. Anyone can come. Over time, a core group of regular attendees forms, with some people dropping out and new people joining in around them. People regularly send in bits of writing they wish to discuss to the coordinator, who then works out a loose agenda and sends out the material to read for any given meeting a few days beforehand. The bits of writing sent in come with specific questions. I need help with this intro, is it clear? I’d like to structure my findings differently, does anyone have any ideas? And so on. The advantage of this format is that it reaches out to a wider group of people, with varying levels of writing experience. It remains nevertheless flexible, as participants do not have to come to every meeting for the group to survive (what often happens with smaller groups is that after a few weeks where meetings are cancelled because of people not able to make it for various reasons, the group ends up ceasing to meet altogether).

Formal, pretty big. This format is very effective, but it is also the most demanding in terms of organization. A few of these groups now exist in different university settings. I first learned of this format while doing my post-doc at Oxford when Nelson Phillips, who is at Imperial College, invited me to join a group he started with Kamal Munir from Cambridge called OTREG (Organization Theory Research Group). Still relatively informal when I joined, it has since grown quite a bit and is now even featured on the Judge Business School website (see here: http://www.jbs.cam.ac.uk/faculty-research/centres/markets-organisations-society/otreg-organisation-theory-research-group/OTREG). When I arrived at HEC in 2010, I started a similar group called MOWW (Montreal Organizations Writing Workshop) in Montreal, with people joining from all four Montreal universities. Since then other groups have formed, including the Ontario Qualitative Methods Working Group started by Sarah Kaplan at the University of Toronto which includes all the Ontario universities, and another similar group started by the strategy-as-practice community in the UK called SAP-r.

Although specific formats can vary, the above groups tend to focus on advanced pieces of writing, notably papers that have been submitted to journals and that have received either an R&R (revise and resubmit) or a reject. Members share both their papers and the reviews they received, and the whole group works together to help the author(s) address editor and reviewer concerns about the paper or fix a rejected paper so that it can be rewritten and submitted again to a different journal. Because of the intense format, the group will usually discuss two, or at most three, papers at any given meeting. When done well, these group discussions are usually quite illuminating both for those whose paper is being discussed as those just participating in the process. Simply being exposed to review letters addressed to others is in itself eye-opening. We always tend to be defensive and emotional about review letters that concern our own work. Reading the review letters of others helps put things into perspective. It helps us realize that 1) we’re not alone in receiving harsh, bad, narrow-minded reviews and 2) a lot of review letters are actually very insightful and constructive. You can see that both the reviewers and the editors are really excited about the paper, and sincerely want to help the authors improve it.

Running these groups usually requires someone taking responsibility for coordinating meetings. When a group is just starting out, this person’s biggest job is convincing people to cough up their work. Until a climate of trust has been established, people will usually be hesitant about sharing work that has gone through a round of reviews and has come out at the other end somewhat bruised, if not altogether knocked out. Having invited guests also helps attract participants, so both OTREG and MOWW often hold meetings when known scholars are visiting. People are always happy to hear the publishing war-stories of their more senior peers and these people, because they’ve published extensively, know many of the ins-and-outs of the publishing process and can be quite pointed in their advice to authors in these workshops. To underscore the social side of these meetings, we also tend to schedule meetings at the end of the day, so that once we’re done, the whole group can head out for drinks and/or dinner together. This way, sessions are not all work. They’re also a great way to get to know one’s colleagues better!

So there you have it: different strokes for different folks, but all with the overriding objective of helping people improve their writing. Regardless of format, let me leave you with a few suggestions for ensuring that any group you start “works”. First and foremost, do your absolute best to create a climate of trust. A writing group is not a venue to showcase one’s work. That should be left to invited presentations. Writing groups work when people are humble about their work and participants are sincere in their desire to help people improve. This means that 1) everyone reads all submissions carefully and thoroughly; 2) authors are not defensive in the wake of criticism and/or advice and 3) comments are always constructive and never dogmatic. Participants need to get into the skin of an author and try to see things as he or she sees it. Good feedback is not about saying “this is how I would do it” and then suggesting that an author adopt one’s own preferred perspective on a topic. Good feedback is about providing practical, precise advice that helps an author take their work to a new level. When participants make their participation in a writing group a priority and they take their participation seriously, then writing groups are an absolutely wonderful way to learn the craft of writing in a fun and engaging way. I suggest you try it.

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