Three Things to Consider When Starting an Online Writing Group

[image from Flickr Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/5394413349/ ]

[image from Flickr Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/5394413349/ ]

Two years ago, I was having a lot of problems writing my dissertation, so I joined a writing group with several other graduate students in my program.  With the help of Sharon Zuber, the Director of the Writing Resources Center, we established a set of questions that we would ask of all the writing we would read, decided on a format each of our meetings would take, and set a schedule for how often we would meet.  For the first six or so months this worked well, but then several of us moved out of town.  Since commuting for a writing group was not an option, we decided to try using the Web to stay in touch and comment on each other’s writing.  After my experiences with a writing group over the Web, here are some questions that I wish we had thought through at the time to make the transition from in-person to online smoother.

How Will You Update Each Other on Writing-Related Activities?

One of the things Sharon had us do at each in-person writing group meeting was to go around our table and tell each other what we had been up to since our last meeting and what our goals were for the upcoming month.  I found this extremely helpful, but we did not successfully transition this to the Web.  We tried using a private blog (via Tumblr), but it can be difficult to check in frequently enough to make a blog worthwhile.  For my own purposes, I found it helpful to blog about my writing even if I was the only one posting.  It helped me work through some of my writing issues by using our blog as our journal.

When it comes to sharing what you have been up to with your writing group, I suspect that using Skype, a Google+ Hangout, or a similar Web-based video conferencing application is the way to go.  We never made the transition to trying this, but it seemed that our group was more comfortable talking to each other in person than writing to each other about our projects.

How Will You Discuss the Writing?

I find the number of options to share your writing with people overwhelming.  At W&M, many people gravitate toward wikis to do this, but we opted not to use one.  For me, wikis are best when you are using them to store the actual draft you are writing, and since all of us opted for word processing applications, we chose something else.  At first, we tried Google Docs.  We uploaded our drafts to the service and shared them.  One of the benefits of Google Docs, which you can also do in Microsoft Word, is to reply to comments.  Having everyone’s comments on the same draft a document was helpful.  Unfortunately, at the time, Google Docs mangled Word’s formatting when we uploaded our documents, so we decided to look for a different solution.

One of our group suggested that we use DropBox for sharing our files.  This worked very well and spared us from having to email our documents around.  It would have been better if we’d agreed on a way to comment on each other’s work ahead of time.  We ended up just downloading the document, commenting on it, and the uploading it again under a different file name.  This left the writer having to consolidate everyone’s comments and stunted the conversations about the writing that we used to have when meeting in person.

What Will Happen When the Technology Fails?

Whatever you decide to use for your writing group, that technology will mess up at some point.  It was helpful for us to have someone be slightly more “in charge” of the technology to help streamline things.  That person has to do a little more work, at times, but having someone willing to help the less tech-savvy members of your group out, I suspect, leads to a better group dynamic as it cuts down on the overal frustration level.

Have you taken your writing group to the Web?  Do you have questions about using technology for your writing group?  If so, we would love to hear from you in the comments section below.

If you’re interested in reading more about commenting on and sharing writing, you may want to take a look at these posts: From Word to Dropbox and Back AgainSharing Dissertation Writing with DropBox, and Collaborating on a Conference Panel with Google Drive.

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at http://cordulack.net/

Comments

  1. Evan, it seems that you’re writing this blog specifically for me. I’m working with Sharon Zuber to start a writing group for A&S graduate students this fall, and I’m looking for the best way to share documents. I too have dabbled with Dropbox, but I wondered if Google Drive (the new and supposedly improved Google Docs) is any better with consolidating Word comments. Also, I’m curious about Dropbox’s file sharing capabilities; is it able to somehow consolidate comments from multiple reviewers (say, if each made comments by sticky notes in Acrobat)?)

    • Hi Cortney, Kim here. We decided to investigate some of your questions more thoroughly in a blog post for this week, so apologies for getting back to you a little later about this than we’d intended! Evan and I tested out Word/Dropbox as well as Google Drive and it does seem like Google Drive works a lot more smoothly than the Dropbox method. I suspect that Dropbox and sticky notes in Acrobat would work about similarly to Word, but you just have to be really careful not to be editing a document in dropbox at the same time as someone else, otherwise it will make another copy of the document, and you’ll have multiple documents in there anyway. Thanks for reading the blog! Kim