Building Your Writing Community
What this handout is about
This handout offers strategies to collaborate with others as you write. Collaboration can include conversations about ideas, sharing drafts for feedback, co-authorship–many things. Building your writing community can help you sharpen your ideas, develop your confidence, and lighten the burden of a challenging task.
A good collaborator is a generous reader and a generous listener. Here are some ways you can identify potential collaborators:
- In discussion-based classes, listen for peers who have interesting things to say about the material and whose contributions change how you think about the material. Can you find opportunities to keep those conversations going after class? Could you ask them to apply their insightful, interesting analysis to your work?
- Tap into your advisor’s network. Does your advisor have multiple students working with them? You already have an established connection by having the same advisor, and you may be able to collaborate further.
- Consider joining established writing groups. The Writing Center conducts writing groups for students and scholars whose first language is not English or whose educational culture is not North American. For more advanced graduate students, dissertation boot camp can be an excellent place to locate wonderful collaborators.
- Consider starting your own writing group. The Writing Center has a wealth of resources for beginning your own writing collective. Begin by thinking about how the group will function.
Learning from others
Our own ideas for writing will grow over time as we think about the ideas we’ve encountered in readings, lectures, conferences, and conversations, and as we add the questions and perspectives of our own experience. You can nurture the development of your own ideas by engaging mindfully with the ideas of others. See strategies for exploring your discipline in our handout on finding your field, and then look for opportunities to discuss what you’re learning.
- Talk about an article with someone who has also read it. Do you share the same understanding? What did you find most interesting? Can you relate it to other things you’ve read or heard? How can you apply what you’ve learned?
- Talk about an article with someone who hasn’t read it. How clearly can you explain the key ideas? Where do you need to review? What kinds of questions do they ask?
- Review a class discussion or lecture you’ve attended with people who are in your department and outside of your department.
- Ask what your friends are learning in courses you’re not taking. Think about how those ideas are related to what you’re learning. Be creative.
Reflecting on your understanding of what you’ve learned from others can also give you insights into your own approaches to thinking. Do you find that you have a good knack for putting big concepts in simple terms? A reliable stable of metaphors that help your conversation partner? A stronger capacity to field questions and give explanations for some areas over others? The better you understand yourself as a thinker, the more you can apply your strengths to developing and sharing your own ideas.
Sharing with others
There are many low-stakes opportunities to share your ideas and get feedback from your writing community. You can begin with a conversation over coffee or while you’re taking a walk. You can describe what you’re thinking about, what you’re curious about, what you’re confused about, what you’re working on, where you are in the process, what you’re happy and not happy with–anything that helps you talk about your writing in progress. Getting questions and responses from your community will help you refine your thinking and your drafts.
Once you have a draft that you feel is complete, you can solicit more substantive responses and share the paper more broadly. Feedback at this stage can help you draw out your strongest arguments and ideas, or help you to grasp how people react to your argument. At this stage, you can consider a much broader array of potential collaborators:
- Ask one or two peers if they are willing to read your work. You should consider peers who both do and do not have context for this paper, or some familiarity with your research. Insiders can give you great feedback on content, and outsiders can give great feedback on clarity. See our handout on getting feedback for guidance on who to ask and what to ask for. Be selective and consider their feedback seriously.
- Bring your paper to a feedback-oriented writing group. To give your readers a focus, answer the questions in our handout on requesting feedback.
Also see our handout on reacting to feedback for strategies to help you manage your emotions and maintain a healthy perspective, particularly if the feedback is negative or if the person providing it doesn’t do it as tactfully as they could.
- Consider asking the person who will be assessing your work if they are willing to read drafts prior to submission. For coursework, ask your professor. For the thesis, ask your advisor. For a grant or fellowship, ask the program officer. If you’re not sure who to ask for a particular project, your advisor may be able to help you figure it out.
- Submit the paper (or the idea, if no paper is required) for a conference. Your field’s professional organizations may publish lists of conference opportunities, with proposal guidelines and submission links. You can ask more senior colleagues about the atmosphere and expectations at various conferences. Typically, regional conferences are smaller, less formal, and less stressful opportunities to get some conference experience. National and international conferences might have opportunities specifically for grad students. Each type of conference will have a variety of presentation types (e.g., poster sessions, panel discussions, workshops, paper presentations). Questions and feedback from the audience can help you develop and refine the idea for eventual publication. And by talking to people who are interested in the same things, you’ll build your community of potential collaborators.
Benefits of collaboration
Speaking casually about your writng can help you achieve:
- Greater comfort with starting ideas from scratch. Think about the number of threads that come up in a typical conversation. Your research ideation can proceed in much the same way. Presenting your thinking-in-progress to others can help you to generate new ideas.
- Reflection on your thinking. Presenting your position to others can help you to identify unstated assumptions that influence your approach. The questions others ask you, or moments when you lose your audience, can help you to spot ideas in need of work.
- Socialization into a scholarly community. Being in a graduate program is an exciting intellectual experience, but the excitement is often accompanied by feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome. Talking to others can allow you to understand that you are not alone in this–and that you’re all experiencing the same thrills and doubts.
- More consistent productivity. Making idea generation and ongoing scholarly conversation a regular practice will help you every time you start writing. Recapturing a good line said to a friend is much easier than coming up with one on the spot.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Casanave, Christine Pearson and Xiaoming Li, eds., Learning the Literacy Practices of Graduate School. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Moss, Beverly J., Nels P. Highberg, and Melissa Nicolas. Writing Groups Inside and Outside the Classroom. New York: Routledge, 2003.
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