ask a scatterbrain: writing goals

A colleague of mine has set up a writing accountability group for the summer. They’ll check in once a week to see how the past week went and to map out the coming week. The group is not explicitly about reading one another’s work, but about ensuring that such work is accomplished. I thought some of her questions and concerns would be a worthwhile discussion to have with a wider audience and something that others who might plan such groups could benefit from.

  • Should these groups be about encouragement, measuring progress, evaluating goal achievement, all of the above, or something else?
  • If the group is about encouragement, how can one balance encouragement with enabling? What happens if someone always has an excuse for why they’re not writing? Should they continue to be part of the group?
  • If the group is about progress, what are some of the ways that we can measure progress on intellectual work when it’s not always clear-cut (e.g., an argument is developing, even if I haven’t written the introduction, the paper might not be getting longer, but it’s getting more polished) ?
  • If the group is about setting and evaluating goals, what type of goals are most effective? Is it better to say, “I’ll finish the data and methods section of Paper A this week,” or to say, “I will actively work on Paper A five days this week,” or something in-between?
  • Are there ways for fellow group members to motivate progress and goal achievement? Gold stars worked in grade school, but what works in grad school or on the tenure-track?
  • If someone is working on a number of projects, should they work on each of these a little each week, or focus on them one at a time? Is it possible for people to move projects forward in tandem, in ways that are mutually beneficial, or does multitasking come with too much of a cost?

Finally, are there other things that readers would suggest about such groups? Do you have good success stories, things to be wary of? Any feedback is welcome.

5 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: writing goals”

  1. I am part of two different types of writing groups. One is a more traditional “swap writing” style and the other is purely accountability based. They are KEY to my productivity. When one person starts to slack in the group, it can cause a cascade of laziness amongst the rest of us.

    We have found Google Docs spreadsheets to be helpful for tracking progress amongst members. Each person has significant flexibility in how progress is measured, based on his/her style. For me, I tend to measure progress in terms of sections of papers or steps of data analysis/collection. Another member measures in terms of hours per project. But whichever style the members pick, we mark on the Google Doc daily goals and then grey them out when they are accomplished. We have yearly goals, semester goals, weekly goals, and daily tasks. Once a month we check in about the long-term goals to make sure we are not just being “busy” everyday, but actually making progress towards those goals. It seems to work.

    If someone starts to slack…it gets tricky. Maybe someone else will have some suggestions.


  2. Kathe Lowney, the outgoing editor of Teaching Sociology and a scatterplot reader, passed these thoughts (about various types of groups, including the “write on site” groups that kenkolb mentions above) along via email:

    1. Write on site groups: Had one just yesterday. I announced the time and about 8 faculty and staff came. Each was independently writing/researching/editing but in one of 2 rooms. Lot of good energy/vitality in them and everyone left after 2 hours with lots more done. No interaction, no accountability, etc.

    2. More typical writing groups. 6-8 people, all volunteered selves. Meet every week for 90 minutes. Here’s the plan:
    Week 1: all present, but write on site. Can spread out throughout the Center, but there and working
    Week 2: all present, but 2 people’s writing are being critiqued
    – those 2 email writing by Sunday evening (group on Wed at noon), so we have chance to read it
    – authors tell rest of us what kind of feedback they need. Here are some examples:
    – brand new writing — is it making sense? does structure of argument work?
    – revised writing — here’s editor’s comments: do you think I am meeting them well?
    – writing to think — so lost, this is mostly freeform to help me figure out an outline
    – nearly done — please look for grammar and style issues mostly
    – all come with comments on document (by hand) or send them via email (Word tracking)
    – at meeting we spend 1/2 time on each author’s work. So comments are the details, our talking tends to be about how we felt (e.g., “this was good but I had to reread it 8 times — is that what you want your reader to feel? If not, where could you be more direct?”) and each reader shares the really big points from her/his comments
    – final few minutes are for each author, to be sure how s/he is feeling

    3. Rules: for us — not there for 2 week 2’s and you are out of group; we are less ‘attendance taking’ about the write on site weeks

    4. We have not focused as much as amount of work/progress. We ask that it be new work, at least 2 pages (though not necessarily in one chunk), UNLESS it is work that someone put away as worthless and wants to bring up for the group. The first time that happens does not have to be new.

    5. Our first meeting is ‘getting acquainted’ and I have a lot of questions. I suggest you check out this website: for lots of tips.

    6. Being editor of Teaching Sociology, my group asked me to help them learn how to decipher an editor’s revise and resubmit letter. So this past term, members each brought in a letter/made copies, and we went through them, line by line, and decoded them. How editors talk that means “ignore reviewer 2 on that point” or “pay attention to my comment and reviewer 1’s comment about….” etc. That session was so useful for us all. We also in that session talked about how to write a letter to editor/reviewers when submitting a revision, especially if one was ignoring something that was said.


  3. I have participated in two types of groups as well: traditional writing groups and accountability groups. I think that the dynamic of those involved is really important. I enjoyed the accountability meetings and it really helped me move a paper along to submission over the course of a semester. But other group members felt that was not helping them be productive, so we switched to a paper-swapping model. I was less productive, but they seemed to be more so.

    I never felt like I could criticize people if they weren’t meeting their goals, but I did find that it was possible to say: “Do you think that you are trying to take on too much?” or “If you had to pick one or two things that were the most important, what would they be?” If someone had been at the same place for a long time on a project, we would have a conversation about what was keeping them from accomplishing more (almost always it was service obligations) and strategized about ways to minimize those commitments.

    I firmly believe (for me, but based on what people who know a lot about writing have written), *writing* is the most important thing to do. It is through writing that we develop an argument or interpret our results. In Writing for Social Scientists, Howard Becker says the same thing. Editing and proofreading, however, are key steps that count as writing. I also find that outcome-based goals are far better for me, but that is because I can spend five hours putzing around on a single paragraph that will be edited out of recognition in its current form. That five hours would have been better spent writing a first draft of other parts of the paper. But I tend to both procrastinate and be a perfectionist.

    Finally, I have found that prioritizing particular projects is far more efficient for me than trying to work on multiple projects at the same time. In part, this is because the time that I spend not actively working on a project, where it is percolating in my head (while I’m mowing the lawn, commuting or walking the dog) are more efficient and effective when I am working on a single project. I don’t need to dig down in the deep crevices of my memory to recall the appropriate citation or to remember where I was in shaping an argument. But, I have colleagues far more productive than me who are excellent at multitasking. It likely depends on the person.

    Sorry to write so much. This is something that I have thought a lot about and tried to fix for myself several times — so it struck a nerve.


  4. I’ve been in two writing groups and both of them have been most valuable for the moral support — thinking about how to make time to write, getting feedback on priorities, etc. My current writing group has recently tried weekly online check-ins, though, where we say 1) how many of our goals for the week we accomplished, 2) something that went well, 3) something we could have done better or differently, and 4) list the goals for the coming week. It’s hard to keep the momentum going with the check-ins, but just writing that I’m going to do x hours a day or y words per day in the coming week has been motivating.

    I like the Google spreadsheet idea, too.


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