After a successful pilot year, the Microbial Systems Initiative is organizing another round of MSI writing groups for the 2022-2023 academic year. If you have never been a part of a writing group before, you might be wondering what it is and why you might join one. Adrienne Antonson, assistant professor of animal sciences, and Chris Gaulke, assistant professor of pathobiology, shared their thoughts on how the MSI writing groups were a boon to their productivity and career development. Learn more about writing groups and how the MSI writing groups have helped these faculty members reach important research goals.
What is a writing group?
As part of our mission to foster community and provide support to microbial sciences researchers, MSI launched writing groups, also called co-working groups, during Fall 2021. Professors Gaulke and Antonson participated in these 90-minute writing groups. They both agreed that simply having the protected time was key to pushing some of their writing projects over the finish line.
That said, there are many different flavors of writing groups. When considering a potential format for MSI writing groups, we looked at the three common formats:
- At the most basic level, a writing or co-working group is a group of people who get together at a pre-determined time to “write-on-site.” This could mean meeting somewhere on campus, a coffee shop, or virtually to work independently on writing projects like grant proposals and manuscripts.
- Another format is an accountability writing group where the weekly meeting time is used for each person to talk about their writing goals from the previous week, why they did or did not meet those goals, and then set goals for the next week.
- A third format is what might be considered a “traditional” writing group, where people meet to read, critique, and give feedback on their peers’ written work.
Writing group formats can be used exclusively or combined, depending on the needs of the group. MSI groups have been structured to combine the peer accountability and “write-on-site” formats in a virtual space. Time is set aside at the beginning of the meeting to chat with fellow MSI colleagues about writing progress and goals, which provides some accountability and peer mentorship. Prof. Antonson found this aspect of the group quite helpful. “The peer accountability, which was always friendly and non-judgmental, provides positive motivation and confirms that you can meet your goals in a timely manner,” she said.
After spending time discussing progress and goals, participants turn off their cameras and microphones to “write-on-site” for an hour. At the end of the 90-minute session, folks turn on their cameras to say goodbye. It is a casual, collegial environment and the virtual format enables group members to participate from anywhere.
Why join a writing group?
A writing group assists you in making incremental progress toward your writing goals by allowing you to schedule a block of (ideally) uninterrupted time on your calendar for the sole purpose of writing. Regular focused time for writing can increase your research productivity and lower your resistance to write. In their “Monday Motivator” emails, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) advocates for blocking off 30 minutes per day to write and has often noted the benefits of peer accountability as a motivator. If you have not activated your NCFDD membership or are not subscribed to the NCFDD Monday Motivator emails, please do sign up. Illinois has an institutional membership to NCFDD and the resources they provide are well worth it.
Another important benefit of a writing group is support and accountability. It can be difficult to rely on self-motivation to make progress on writing tasks. In addition to having the time blocked in your schedule, discussing why you have or have not accomplished what you set out to do that week can provide some accountability and might be just the extra push you need to work on those manuscript revisions or a section of the grant proposal you’ve been putting off.
As an assistant professor with a variety of competing priorities, Prof. Gaulke relates. “It is challenging to find the time develop productive writing habits while balancing the pressures of establishing a lab, managing students and staff, and navigating administrative duties. The MSI co-working group provided a relaxed supportive environment that encouraged writing through goal tracking and peer accountability. The protected writing time helped me to prepare and submit four grants, including my first R01, as well as several manuscripts,” he said.
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Virtues of a Daily Virtual Writing Group,” describes how meeting on Zoom for two hours every morning not only kept the participants on track with their writing projects, but also helped them stave off the isolation of the pandemic with some much needed time for socialization. There is also reassurance in knowing that others are in the same boat as you, facing similar challenges. A writing group can provide a supportive environment to learn from peers, get career advice, and prevent feelings of isolation.
Professors Antonson and Gaulke also found some unexpected benefits to meeting as part of a writing group. “The weekly virtual meetup also gave us a chance to share opportunities for funding, exchange advice on funding mechanisms we have (or have not) had success with, and swap valuable tips and tricks for managing an independent research program; this bonus peer mentorship was invaluable! I also benefited by making connections and establishing collaborations with folks across campus, which would otherwise not have manifested,” Prof. Antonson said.
How do I participate in MSI writing groups?
MSI writing groups will be starting up again this fall. Although regular attendance is encouraged, there is no pressure to commit to the entire semester, attend every meeting, or stay for the full 90 minutes. If you are interested in joining a writing group, please contact Maggie Berg. Groups will be scheduled based on the most convenient times for those interested.