Social aspects of writing

Intro: this is the second of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. The first post focused on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing. This post focuses on social aspects of writing.


Writing is inherently social – at a minimum, your article is read by reviewers and, of course, we write hoping that colleagues will read and understand (and maybe even like!) our article once it comes out. But the process of actually doing the writing can sometimes feel very isolated. Certainly my general approach is to hole up in my office and try to crank out some text. I get feedback from coauthors, but that’s done at a distance and with little interaction outside Word.

So, I was interested to see that Helen Sword has social habits as one of the four components of a strong writing practice. She devotes a chapter specifically to writing among others, talking about writing groups, write-on-site boot camps and retreats, and online writing forums. Each chapter of Sword’s book ends with a “Things to Try” section; for the chapter on writing among others, it includes “start a writing group” and “retreat in the company of others” as two of the four suggestions.

Right after reading that section of Sword’s book, I read a Monday Motivator email from NCFDD (written by Kerry Ann Rockquemore) that also emphasized the social aspects of writing. That email also focused on social aspects of writing, including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, write-on-site groups, and boot camps.

Reading those back-to-back made me realize that I severely lacked social components in my writing. I have gotten very used to setting my own goals and not sharing them with anyone else, and to holing up in my office to write. But I also don’t feel like writing is generally a problem for me, so wasn’t sure if I really needed to address the lack of social habits. If there isn’t a problem, why try to fix it?

But then, on a solo morning run, I thought about how much further and faster and more enjoyably I can run on the days where I go with a friend. And I thought about how, when I first got into distance running, I would tell some friends and family members about my race plans, which made me more committed to sticking with my training runs. And I’m much less likely to skip a run if I am meeting a running buddy, which explains why I ended up running in a downpour recently. Could these same social habits help with writing?

Anne Lamott and Rocket both seem to agree that the answer is “yes”. Lamott talks about how:

an occupational hazard of writing is that you’ll have bad days. You feel not only totally alone but also that everyone else is at a party. But if you talk to other people who write, you remember that this feeling is part of the process, that it’s inevitable.

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird


On a bad day you also don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation. You need to feel once again that other people have confidence in you. The members of your writing group can offer just that.

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

This definitely fits with Sword’s take on things – there will be bad days, but social habits can help.

And, while Rocket doesn’t have a formal writing accountability group as far as I know, he tells all his friends about his new writing project:

Rocket left school that day with a very waggy tail. "I'm going to write a story!" he declared to Fred and Emma...."I will use many words" he explained to Mr. Barker

from Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

and he checks in with his new owl friend regularly, reading her drafts.

(Maybe Rocket Forms a Writing Accountability Group is coming up in the series?)

I decided to check with a few friends to see if they wanted to set up a writing accountability group and write-on-site sessions. Some of these were friends who were already informally a social support group for writing, providing encouragement and commiserating via texts while I was holed up in my office writing or afterwards on a run. All of the people I asked signed on enthusiastically, and the group has already grown as others have heard about it.*

We check in at the beginning of the week, using the format suggested in Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s email – 1) these were my writing goals for last week; 2) I did/did not meet them; 3) if I didn’t meet them, here’s why; 4) here are my writing goals for this week – plus an additional item I felt was important to add – 5) other things that will take up time this week.

We also have a room reserved for Tuesday mornings where we all bring our laptops and sit and write. Knowing that other people will be there makes me much less likely to take my “writing” block on my calendar and bump it for something else. It’s become an appointment with others, and I don’t want to bail on them.

I’ve been surprised to find the writing accountability group check-ins helpful, too. Following other advice from Monday Motivator emails, I’ve been taking some time on Sundays to come up with my plan for the week, writing it out on a large-ish pink post-it note that I then put into my notebook. I don’t feel like I have a hard time with planning, and feel like I’m generally pretty productive, so wasn’t sure this would be worth the time. But I’ve found that, at times when I’ve just finished one task and need to move on to another or when I have a motivation lull during the day, it helps to consult my list. I suspect this is especially true because it’s summer (and the start of my sabbatical!), when I have many fewer things clogging up my calendar each day. And, of course, another benefit of having my weekly plan in list form is that checking off items as they get accomplished feels pretty good!

I didn’t feel like I was struggling with writing before, but paying attention to social aspects of writing has helped me prioritize my writing and get more writing done. I actually have somewhat mixed feelings about this, since there can be downsides to pushing oneself further and harder, which I’ll explore in a subsequent post. But, as Rocket shows us, it can feel really good to get writing done!:

Text says: Rocket ran to the owl's pine tree. "It's done!" he called. "Come listen!" Drawing shows Rocket strutting with pages in his mouth.

from Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story


* In Sword’s book, she has a figure showing this amazing logo from a skrivarsekten (writers’ sect):

Figure 8: Skrivarsekten snail-found-pen logo "Cochlea vincit omnes" (The snail conquers all)

from Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space

It’s only a matter of time before I make a Daphnia logo for our group!

13 thoughts on “Social aspects of writing

    • Thank you! I wondered if the Rocket framing would be too silly, so it’s good to know others are enjoying them!

      • I am amazed and amused at how relevant Rocket’s advice is to writing in academia. Possible purchase to sit in the office to keep things in perspective

      • 🙂 Rocket is basically an academic! I was amused when I realized how much overlap there was between what he does and more standard writing advice. I’d love a whole Rocket the Academic series!

      • I could imagine a “Rocket the Academic” series going in many different directions. You could maintain what I take to be the uplifting, hopeful tone of the first Rocket book. You could go for more of a “academia is often frustrating and terrible but Rocket loves it anyway” tone, like the family’s attitude toward their pet wombat in Diary of a Wombat. Or some kind of fourth wall-breaking thing, like Open Very Carefully. Ooh, or maybe something darkly subversive, like This Is Not My Hat!

        I like that last idea best. I’m already writing “This Is Not My Paper” in my head. “This is not my paper. I just plagiarized it…” 🙂

  1. I am reading the book “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” by Joan Bolker. This book is helping me through the process of writing as the first thing I have to do. I also recommend the book “Becoming an academic writer” by Patricia Goodson” (this is not only for graduate students).

  2. This is great, and I love the analogy to a running buddy. Even as someone who already really enjoys/prioritizes writing, I found a regular writing group super helpful during my PhD. Our group met in a (rotating) local coffee shop two mornings a week. It was a great way to stay accountable, and also a great source of social support during the sometimes-isolating final stages of a PhD (and eventually became a group of peers to draw on for practice defences, mock job interviews, etc).

  3. Meghan, can you give a bit more detail on how your writing group works? Where do you meet and for how long? What considerations do you think go into venue choice? Do you think it helps to meet in the same place every week, or would variety of locations be ok, or even better? What’s the social dynamic during the group meetings–do you all just sit quietly and type? And you said you were surprised how helpful the weekly check-ins are for you–do other group members find them helpful as well?

    • Our group meets Tuesday mornings. We have a room reserved from 9-noon. Sometimes people need to come late or leave early, but I think we’re all aiming to be there that whole time. And, one week, I was on a roll and didn’t have something scheduled at noon, so I just stayed there.

      I think venue choice will be much more complicated during the academic year. For the summer, there was a great room in one of our departments — a nice conference room with lots of outlets around the table. My initial inclination was to reserve a conference room in my new building, until I realized the furniture for those hadn’t arrived yet. (Writing on the floor seemed less appealing.) Once classes start up again, I’m guessing it will be harder for us to find such a nice writing space. I’m not sure what we’ll do!

      I personally like meeting in the same place every week but, then again, I’m very much a creature of habit. Others might prefer varying things a bit. Someone on twitter noted they wrote their dissertation by meeting other grad students at a similar stage at coffee shops twice a week, rotating among different coffee shops. I could imagine trying that in the fall, if it gets too hard to reserve a regular conference room.

      We mostly sit quietly and type, but sometimes there’s a natural interruption (e.g., someone arriving late or leaving early, someone getting up to head to the restroom). At those points, there’s often a little conversation — sometimes commiseration, sometimes problem solving (e.g., I asked for title feedback yesterday), and once even talking about a potential collaboration between two members who hadn’t met before.

      I think the others are finding the writing group useful, too, but I’m not sure how much of that is the write-on-site component vs. the weekly check-ins. I’ll ask!

  4. Pingback: Downsides of writing harder: musings on the need to pace myself | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Pingback: How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that? | Dynamic Ecology

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