Making Time to Write: The Value of Writing Groups
Psychology and Neuroscience (P&N) trainees were faced with an unexpected challenge this past summer. While the Sociology/Psychology building—the department’s campus home—was under construction, dozens of scholars temporarily lost their offices. In addition, the building was plagued by high noise levels, plumbing leaks, and air conditioning issues. It can be difficult to focus on writing projects over the summer even under the best circumstances, so trying to write in a construction zone was certainly less than ideal!
Luckily, the Women’s Support Network in Psychology and Neuroscience had the initiative, community spirit, and funding—thanks to a Professional Development Grant from The Graduate School— to find an alternative solution. The grant organizers, Dr. Beth Marsh and Christina Bejjani, decided to bring junior scientists together off campus for a day of writing and community-building. On August 17th, we hosted an inaugural writing group meeting at Mad Hatter’s Café with Professor Marsh and P&N trainees in attendance. Everyone shared their writing goal for the day, and we took periodic breaks to discuss our progress on individual projects. Participants worked on projects ranging from preliminary/qualifying papers to diversity statements and job applications to journal article manuscripts. Based on extremely positive feedback from this first event and continued interest, the group hosted six additional biweekly writing days through mid-December. Attendees varied across sessions, but all expressed appreciation and enthusiasm for the writing group.
Emmaline Drew, a graduate student specializing in Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience, pointed out that individual writing practice can be difficult to maintain alongside other commitments: “It’s always difficult to make time for writing, so it was extremely helpful to have a dedicated time and space to work on writing my thesis without interruption. Writing is often thought of as a solitary activity, but I enjoyed working alongside others in a supportive, focused environment – and the free bagels were definitely a plus!”
Meanwhile, another attendee, Hannah Moshontz de la Rocha, extolled the benefits of regular involvement with the departmental writing groups: “I attended several writing groups, which took place in the mornings in a reserved spot in the library and included food! Last semester was by far the most productive semester that I've had in terms of finishing and submitting manuscripts for publication, and the writing sessions played a role in my productivity.”
We encourage other departments at Duke to form writing groups to promote community-building and encourage productivity. While most of our trainees were focused on academic assignments, members of a writing group have the opportunity to expand their repertoire by pursuing new types of projects, including professional development blog posts, Duke SciPol briefs, and scientific journalism.
One of the primary benefits of a writing group is the support of a community. For instance, recent research by Yang, Chawla, and Uzzi suggests that women’s leadership success stems from women networking together. Hannah Moshontz de la Rocha, who studies intentional behavior change, further shared her professional assessment of the value of writing groups:
“Writing with others can be helpful in a number of ways, which I saw firsthand last semester. On a basic level, simply having time specifically reserved in my calendar for writing helped me to write more. Sometimes, it is that simple. But as all academics know, writing often requires more than the desire to write; it can sometimes be hard to conjure the right motivational state for writing. As a social psychologist who studies intentional behavior change, research in my field suggests that writing in groups can be helpful for increasing motivation, but also for creating conditions under which writing can occur even on low-motivation days. Interacting with people (not to mention the promise of free bagels and coffee) can itself be motivating; by linking writing to these valued things, we may make writing itself feel more valuable. People are sensitive to social norms, and generally like to do what others are doing. Writing in a room with others who are (or appear to be!) very focused on writing can help to establish a social norm, making writing more likeable, and thus, easier.
In addition, other people can make success feel more tangible; by offering praise and support for staying focused, other people can help us want to stay focused. Sometimes low motivation comes from a feeling that we don't want to do something, and other times from a feeling that we can't do something. Having others around can be useful not only to want-varieties of motivation, but also to can't-varieties. Other people can offer actual support or advice, or simply help affirm that, although writing is difficult, it is not impossible. Beyond helping us stay motivated, writing in groups can prevent a lack of motivation from derailing us in the way it might when we are alone. For example, writing in groups can make distraction costly. Unlike when we try to write while alone, when we try to write in groups there are potential social costs to distraction; it can be embarrassing to text, browse social media, or otherwise drift off task when other people can witness it! Writing in groups can also limit the number of distractions that are available – when sitting silently with others, it isn't possible to say yes to a colleague who comes by asking if you'd like to get a coffee and chat.”
To foster trainees’ professional development skills, departments can encourage the formation of writing groups that support a broad range of writing goals across diverse career options. Trainees would benefit from having time set aside to connect with members of their department and complete projects explicitly meant to promote their career interests, thereby improving their writing skills and building a foundation for success across career paths.
Ph.D. student, Psychology and Neuroscience
Christina Bejjani is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience. She studies how people learn to adapt their attention across various contexts.
Hannah Moshontz de la Rocha
Ph.D. student, Psychology & Neuroscience
Hannah Moshontz is a Ph.D. student in psychology and neuroscience who studies how and why people give up when they are working on important tasks and goals.
Ph.D. student, Psychology and Neuroscience
Emmaline Drew is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience. Her research explores how people learn, remember, and search for information.