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Virtual Writing Communities: How Can We Work Together, while We Stay Apart?

April 15, 2020

By Austin A. Deray

In light of all that is going on, I thought it is not only timely, but also prudent, to revisit the discussion around graduate communities I have had in the past (see Study Groups: The Thing to Do in Graduate School and My Cohort, My Tribe) and talk instead about the importance of finding or forming your own virtual writing community. Over the past two years, through my fields (my program’s version of comprehensive exams) and my dissertation proposal, I have had an amazing group of friends with me, writing and working on our individual assignments and projects together. I don’t know about y’all, but I miss them and the space we had and created more than a lot of the other aspects of my life that has been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place policy.

Being a graduate student, my first thought (how sad) was to look up best ways to create virtual writing groups so that I could help my group transition to an online platform. In my pursuit, I found an amazing article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled: “What Are You Working on Today.” This article has been a breath of fresh air, because it showed I am not alone in wondering if online writing communities work for graduate students. Guess what: I found that they do!

The authors, Libby Anthony, Amy Reed, and GMU’s own Heidi Lawrence, were friends from grad school who created an ongoing, virtual support group to help them as they navigated their early careers as assistant professors: “Remote co-working has allowed us to maintain and develop our relationships. We now ‘see’ each other on a regular basis.” They offered five organizational tips and three benefits to virtual working groups.

Organizational tips:

  1. Schedule the time. Choose a time that works for everyone and stick to it. Select a pre-decided date and time on for regular meetings, preferably a weekly basis.
  2. “Meet” via technology, and keep video and sound on. This is key to their argument because it works towards an accountability component for the group.
  3. Keep catch-ups quick and limited. You will either be on a friendlier status or best friends with your writing group. Don’t let your time together just be a catch-up session. Possibly take advantage of the Pomodoro Method to help you focus on being productive and take advantage of these apps:
    1. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/be-focused-focus-timer/id973134470?mt=12
    2. http://www.tomatotimers.com
  4. Set goals and parameters for each session. Each person should draft a list of goals and share them with a group. Your group can utilize an online whiteboard (like https://awwapp.com/​) to share your goals and help hold each other accountable. Also there is nothing better than checking off the completion of a task and getting that satisfaction when your friends and writing mates congratulate you.
  5. Regroup, share, encourage. Remember to have an end-of-session debrief. Check in about goals set, accomplishments made, what we haven’t finished and why we didn’t. Anything and everything should be discussed. This will further the sense of community and combat the feeling of isolation.

Three benefits to virtual writing groups:

  1. Flexible accountability. The importance of accountability is vital, but with this virtual accountability allows us to be accountable on our own terms and allows us the agency to give and receive accountability.
  2. Immediate feedback. If your writing group is also one that looks at drafts or language, this is a chance for you to get and give feedback right away and through mediums that you all have agreed on.
  3. Networking. More and more people can join a virtual writing group, as there is not set space or place, giving you the opportunity the meet with new people and connect with people you may not have had the opportunity to meet or interact with in the course of normal life.

To help with the transition to a virtual writing community and provide support as you finish the semester, Graduate Student Life is providing two online opportunities.

Grad Night In: Virtual Social Study Hall: Thursday, April 23, 2020, 4:00-8:00pm

  • Join Graduate Student Life and fellow graduate and professional students for our first-ever virtual Grad Night In! For more information and to register, visit the event page here.

Graduate Student Life 14-Day Writing Challenge: Sunday, April 26 – Saturday, May 9

  • Would you like to make headway on your end-of-semester papers and assignments? Are you trying to make progress on your thesis or dissertation? If so, plan now to participate in Graduate Student Life’s first-ever 14-Day Writing Challenge! For more information and to register, visit the event page here.

I love hearing feedback, both success stories and stories of what doesn’t work. Here’s my email (aderay@gmu.edu); report back and GO WRITE!



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