In the long summer vacation after the first year of his PhD, Luca Zenobi couldn’t write.
As a DPhil student, not being able to write poses a problem. Grappling for ways to kick-start himself into writing mode, Luca did what we all do when we need answers. “I Googled “how to write”,” he remembers.
When he did, Luca came across “all the usual advice,” but something stood out. “Lots of people suggested getting a group together, with writing the only thing you’re allowed to do.”
Writing groups have been springing up in Oxford - Dr Alice Kelly runs a successful one in TORCH, for example - but there wasn’t one in the History Faculty.
And Luca found that many students, like him, were struggling to get words down on paper. So, once the summer ended and October dawned, Luca set up the Oxford History Graduate Network’s writing group.
Almost two years on, Shut Up and Write (SUAW) is now a staple of postgraduate History life. After running the group for a year, Luca handed over the reins to fellow DPhil student Rachel Delman. The two have worked hard to make it as effective, and as enjoyable, as possible.
So how does it work? Twice a week, from 9am to 1pm, students meet in the Faculty. After fuelling themselves with pastries and coffee, they sit down to write for an hour at a time, punctuated by fifteen-minute breaks.
At the beginning of the session, students declare a writing goal for the day. Being accountable helps people stay on track. “I think the psychology of it really helps,” Rachel says.
Whether it’s the psychology or the pastries, something is working. The group has a keen group of regular attendees. Why do Luca and Rachel think it’s been so successful?
“A PhD can be very isolating,” Luca says. “The writing group gives people the opportunity to talk with other people doing the same thing—how’s it going? What are you working on? And then you end up discussing and sharing tips.”
But it’s not just the social element that makes SUAW so well-attended. It’s also an effective way to work. “I had times when the only proper writing I could get done was at the writing group,” Luca says.
The writing group has certainly been a blessing for students craving conversation and routine. But it’s also completely changed Luca and Rachel’s own experiences of Oxford.
As convenors, they attend twice a week, every week, providing breakfast, helping everyone set writing goals, and paying close attention to the clock.
“I’ve gained a lot of confidence from running the group, which will help in an academic career,” Rachel says.
Luca agrees, and adds, “It’s nice to know that you’re helping people out. I’ve realised that we all struggle, and that it’s fine, it’s part of the process, and talking about it is a good thing.”
Now in the later stages of their doctorates, Rachel and Luca are stepping back from the group at the end of this academic year. But they’re proud of what it’s achieved. “It’s built a community in the Faculty that wasn’t really there before,” Rachel says.
Do they have any advice for their successors? Rachel thinks about it. “Just keep buying pastries!”
Next week, Bethany will try the writing group herself and review it for Artistic Licence. But if it doesn't work, there may not be a blog next week...