Virtually writing together: creating community while supporting individual endeavour

Lessons in setting up and running a virtual writing group that facilitates individual and collaborative work through a supportive community of practice

Karen Kenny's avatar
15 Mar 2023
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Since March 2020, we have all been working in ways that previously would have been unimaginable. Our homes have become a workplace, and our workplace our home.

A place for technology-mediated communication, the home office is also the home, so it serves a social purpose alongside its professional functions. This social element was also forced temporarily into virtual reality by the pandemic.

Arnault Morisson’s typology of places in the knowledge economy suggests that this is now a “fourth place”, a space where home, work and social encounters are all conducted. There is much to be written about encounters in these spaces, but for now let’s concentrate on the potential for supported writing.

For academics, the imperative to write and be published never went away. But new working routines needed to be flexed to provide the time and space in which to write. Rowena Murray and Mary Newton’s model for structured writing spaces gives a framework that can be developed to support virtual transdisciplinary writing. Murray’s framework is built around the physical environment, cognitive processes and social interactions. She identifies 12 components that support writing practice and can be summarised as: group support, cross-disciplinary stimulation, individual self-worth, enjoyment, discussion, networking, self-efficacy, reflection, feedback and support, focus and sustained time, transferability of goals and writing as a priority.

The framework is not set in stone, however; it is presented as a means of stimulating conversations around writing. Such spaces allow colleagues to come together, to write together or address individual projects, without leaving their physical workspace, wherever that may be. The key elements, for me, are free writing to stimulate creativity, structured timing to support focus, and solitary confinement, within a social space, promoting self-efficacy.

Lessons from establishing a virtual writing group

In 2021, a group of colleagues at the University of Exeter, drawn from a variety of academic disciplines and professional services departments, established an online writing space. This has become a thriving community of practice, with mutual engagement, a joint enterprise and a shared repertoire. Here are lessons in how this community was established and developed.

Consistency and regularity 

The online writing group is held every Friday morning to provide the time and space for writing. It is a 90-minute meeting held on Teams, attendance is optional, dependent upon individual calendars, and participants are encouraged to drop in as and when they can during the time.

A clear structure 

The sessions are structured around an initial conversation and planning phase, and two 25-minute timed writing sets – which could be for individual endeavour or group writing, but which are silent and focused.

Mutual support 

Between the writing blocks, we again discuss, share and support. Any member of the group can ask for feedback from any or all colleagues. Hierarchies are flattened, so those with less experience can practise finding their voice in a safe space, and all who want a new eye on their writing can benefit from a wide range of opinions.

A joint enterprise 

Repeated attendance reinforces mutual engagement. By attending, we confirm our engagement. There is no wish for homogeneity; we celebrate the diversity of our community. We are a joint enterprise; we work together for the benefit of all. Everyone is prepared to support other members by giving encouragement, enthusiasm, feedback and critical discussion.

A welcoming space 

A shared repertoire is developing, infused by stories of success. We have found a way of working that suits the group’s writing habits. We can, and do, welcome newcomers to the community, and their presence adds to the culture of the community.  

Start with a clear focus 

The writing community’s initial focus was on a particular publication, which was looking for contributions to a compendium addressing the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, we all had things to say on that topic. This first iteration was extremely successful, having four articles accepted for publication.

Allow it to develop

We have now diversified into other areas, maintaining the potential to work together on common projects at the same time as supporting writing of any kind. Publication is not an essential element, and perfection is not the goal. We are productive, and the fourth space helps this to happen. We are at home, we are at work, but we are also developing a community that transcends home and work.

The online space provides an ideal environment to develop a productive community of practice. This form of transdisciplinary writing in the virtual space is a way to create community while supporting individual endeavour. It brings people together, regardless of geography and promotes productivity as well as personal bonds.

Karen Kenny is a senior academic developer focused on supporting academic personal tutoring at the University of Exeter.

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