Rachel Delman, a history PhD student who leads a writing group for students

Artistic Licence: Do writing groups work? I tried one to find out

Bethany White

In last week's Artistic Licence blog, Bethany White wrote about a writing group run by history students. This week, she finds out whether or not the group works.

I’d heard many good things about the Shut Up And Write writing group, but I’d never tried it out for myself.

But with a worryingly high number of words left to write for my PhD, and the encouragement of the group’s leader, Rachel Delman, I finally decided to give it a go.

Feeling lethargic on a Monday morning in June, I headed to the History Faculty.

The group I found there was small but friendly. We gathered in the common room for breakfast and chatted about our writing goals. At 9.30, we settled into one of the classrooms.

Furtively brushing pastry crumbs from my lap, I opened my laptop and dutifully gathered my notes, casting sneaky glances around the room.

I felt like a novice. Would I really be able to write for this long without getting distracted? What about Twitter?!

It’s no secret that writing a PhD is a long slog. In fact, any kind of writing involves navigating a psychological obstacle course.

First there are all the distractions: e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, news, memes, YouTube, 4,000-word think-pieces that must be read now. Suddenly, everything else in the world seems far more important.

But it’s not just the lure of distraction. You’ve also got to contend with writer’s block. Writer’s block is endlessly frustrating. At its worst, you can’t think of any words at all.

At its best, you can just about pluck some out and put them in order, but at a pace that feels like running in slow-motion.

It was these two demons that I was hoping to excise by joining the writing group. Hopefully, I thought, the guilt-trip of being in a room full of productive people would keep me on the straight and narrow.

Before we began, Rachel went around the room and asked us to announce a writing goal for the day.

Someone wanted to finish their master’s thesis; another wanted to tidy up their references; another needed to perfect an abstract. I settled for a thousand words of a new chapter.

As soon as we started, library silence filled the room: complete stillness save the tapping of keyboards and the odd shuffle of papers. Brows furrowed and pens were chewed as everyone clicked into concentration.

It was remarkably easy to focus. The room felt heavy with the weight of work, and in a room like that, motivation is catching. By the end of the first hour, I’d written five hundred words, and hadn’t checked Twitter once.

During the break, I chatted to Rachel about why she thinks writing in a group helps.

“I think it works because it’s such short chunks of time, and you assume everyone else is working,” she says.

“When I’m on my own, if I get an e-mail, I check it. But when I’m in the group, I think, I’ve only got fifty minutes left—I’ll check it later!”

I agree. Most of the time, comparison is demoralising and unhelpful. But in such a supportive environment, little dashes of it can help. If he can finish his footnotes, I can write this paragraph. We’re all in this together.

In the second session, I flew through five hundred more words. It felt refreshing to work uninterrupted, and to wrangle with references rather than guilty retweets.

The third hour was harder, and more sluggish. But by the end of the session I had 1,263 words, in a row, making some degree of sense, that I hadn’t had that morning. I’d also gained three strawberries, an almond pastry, two cups of coffee, and some writing companions.

I’m sure the writing group isn’t a magic fix. We all have good days and bad days—days when you feel like you’re writing the next big thing, and days when all you can heave out of yourself is one lonely sentence.

But working together, regularly, for a strict number of hours, is unusual for a humanities postgraduate, and it definitely helps. It helps to know that you’re among others and that everyone else struggles, but it also helps just to have a chat over coffee.

Writing is hard. But with initiatives like Shut Up and Write, hopefully the journey will feel a little easier. Plus, there are free strawberries. That always helps.