Writing Groups as Feminist Practice

Writing Groups as Feminist Practice

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Janine Morris, Hannah J. Rule, and Christina M. LaVecchia

Janine Morris is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts and the Faculty Coordinator for the Writing and Communication Center at Nova Southeastern University.

Hannah J. Rule is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina.

Christina M. LaVecchia is Director of Writing Across the Curriculum and Assistant Professor of English at Neumann University.

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We locate ourselves in this essay as three women (along with two others1) who have been writing and sharing writing together for almost a decade, women who initially came together as graduate students at different stages in our degrees, and who have steered one another through many changes in our writing, jobs, and lives. This essay is a story about our writing group, one that is about more than just scholarly writing. It is a story that continues by virtue of the women we continue to write alongside and of a history of women before us, writing and “making it” together (Baliff et al.).

Initially we imagined that peer review of articles, chapters, proposals, and the like would be our group’s main purpose. But while review certainly remains a part, our writing group is much more a capacious co-mentoring network that nurtures our very lives and the feelings that underlie—more truly, constitute—our writing and professional processes still today. Indeed, as our group reveals, writing (and its support) is never really about just writing but always everything else—a perspective, we argue, that can enrich support for graduate and early-career writers. Much of the graduate-level writing support we see increasing across disciplines emphasizes rhetorical features and scholarly genres—approaches that, while useful, can nonetheless atomize and contain writing, cleaving it from its dizzying affective, embodied, and material dynamics.

Inspired by the reach we’ve discovered in our own group, we ask our feminist colleagues to reconsider writing groups as more than extracurricular sources of feedback focused on genres and products. Writing groups are also essential mechanisms of access, inclusion, and professional sustenance. As a feminist pedagogical practice, writing groups illustrate the nature of writing itself and its role in our daily lives; the blurred lines between writing support and mentorship; our need for community and security both professionally and personally; and the value of mentorship beyond traditional vertical hierarchies. Such support may allow those who are seen (or see themselves) as disciplinary outsiders to combat feelings of impostership, confront experiences of exclusion, and participate in a wider range of professional activities, as our group has done for us. Indeed, publishing, reviewing, editing, serving on national committees, and even mentoring colleagues and graduate students is still the province of only a fraction of our field’s members and mastery is often an assumed prerequisite (Almjeld et al.; Blewett et al.; Enos; see also Chakravartty et al.; Jones; Law and Corrigan; Verzosa Hurley et al.). Writing groups can facilitate professional entryways into—or even grant “permission”to endeavor in—the profession, as well as highlight the value of multiple perspectives and partial knowledges, thereby increasing the range of voices represented in and leading our field(s) activities.

Our “Open Writing Group”

Our origins stretch back to 2011, when our friend (and fellow group-member) shared Claire P. Curtis’ Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “The Rules of Writing Group” with the idea that we should start a group of our own. Curtis advises forming writing groups composed of exactly three members, each one assigned a different week to submit writing for feedback, and requires group members to attend all meetings (her group has “met with infants in tow, sick children upstairs, and through crises both personal and professional”). We tried at first to abide by these rigid rules but quickly discovered this strictness and smallness didn’t suit us, nor did the focus on review alone. While other friends in our graduate program at the University of Cincinnati occasionally dropped in, what eventually stuck was a regular five-person community of reader-writers. Our core group initially met in a coffee shop once a week (rotating among four Cincinnati neighborhoods) to sit and write together. We designated one or two of those meetings each month as “sharing” days when anyone could bring writing and receive feedback. Likely owing to the strong collegiality and collaborative spirit of our grad program, we named the group OWG, or the Open Writing Group.

This consistent yet fluid, less rule-bound structure has defined and made possible OWG’s success. Rather than a “you must” imperative, OWG is guided by an affirmative “I should” motivation, built around the recognition that there’s value to presence—to showing up, to being together, to reading and responding. Writing groups (like Curtis’s) often focus exclusively on reading and critique in their time together. We, however, have found value in doing writing and reviewing it together. Even as we labelled OWG meetings “reviewing” or “writing” days, that distinction productively blurred. During writing days, for instance, we could look up from a sentence and ask our group members for help with a word we struggled to think of, a citation we couldn’t recall, a conceptual problem that just arose. We could, in other words, get in-the-moment response, making the isolating experience of writing more social and supportive.

Our group built upon friendships already established and forged new ones. Friendship, we believe, is one of the reasons our group persists. As Pamela VanHaitsma and Steph Ceraso note in their discussion of horizontal mentorship, “[c]hoosing the right peer mentor is crucial” to maintaining a successful and productive relationship (215). Having someone who is supportive, invested, and empathetic matters. For us, even as graduations and jobs across the country have brought changes to the group dynamic, OWG still reflects this same core commitment. We meet about once a month over Google Hangouts to share our writing, send out last-minute email requests for feedback, support each other with accountability check-ins over Facebook Messenger on writing days, talk about our personal lives, and share advice with one another on political situations, tenure, salary negotiations, starting a business, leaving the academy, peer review, writing program administration, and more. As we’ll continue to illustrate, OWG acts still now as a capacious site of support of all kinds in our careers and our growth as academics, as writing groups have done for others outside of exclusionary institutions and systems.

Potentials from a History of Women’s Writing Groups

While writing groups can be found today in academic settings (Armstrong et al.; Shaver et al., Sonnad et al.), women’s formal and informal writing groups have existed for hundreds of years, as sites of educational, interpersonal, and professional support. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women’s access to college education and professional training and networks were limited (e.g., Adams; Woolf). In response, women created their own clubs for professional development; one such women’s club, Sorosis, was formed by journalist Jane Cunningham Croly in 1868, after she was barred from attending a Dickens reading at the Press Club in New York City (Gere, Writing Groups 42). Sorosis became a space for women professionals to network, gain feedback, and expand their careers in writing—all functions echoed in our present-day writing group.

Writing groups have also been critical collectives for subverting exclusionary, often racist, structures and norms. African American women in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Buffalo, and Rochester, for example, formed literary societies in the 1800s to meet and provide one another feedback on their writing (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). These groups “embraced writing’s capacity to effect social and economic change, to enact their motto, ‘lifting as we climb’” (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). These societies gave women opportunities to network and publish their own writing, but, perhaps even more critically, opened access to literacy for others. African American women in the South created secret schools, “comprised of one person who could read and write and a group of individuals who wanted to learn,” with the mandate that graduates would continue teaching others (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). Here we emphasize the overt activist potentials of writing groups historically, their capacities through social connection to make space where there wasn’t any before (and do so acknowledging that we have not personally experienced all these facets of barrier breaking, as three cis-identifying-women, two of us White and one of us mixed race and White-presenting). Comprised entirely of women, our own writing group routinely shares gripes about and brainstorms strategies to dismantle (sometimes sneakily, sometimes loudly) the routine sexism and gender assumptions baked into everyday life in the academy. Indeed, writing groups have potentials to open access for more diverse voices in our scholarly conversations—minoritized or othered voices, the voices of single mothers, those with high teaching and service loads, adjuncts and other contingent faculty, or those who lack equal access to research resources (see Cole and Hassel; Sharer).

In addition to creating critical socio-material space, writing groups also provide writers with productive critique from a community of peers. For example, the co-ed Harlem Writers Guild, founded in 1950, gave writers like Maya Angelou, Rosa Guy, and Audre Lorde “support and encouragement while at the same time acting as critic—sometimes harshly—pushing its members to work harder and do better” (Moss et al. 1). As Beverly Moss and coauthors note, the Harlem Writers Guild used critique not just to improve writing but to help “members grow and succeed as writers” (2; emphasis added). We see this dynamic echoed in our experience in OWG. We have gotten to a point of comfort and trust where we can almost “say anything”; we don’t have to dance through politeness before questioning,  offering direction, or giving advice. Indeed, on the infrequent occasions when our drafts or writing plans are thoroughly undermined in the group, we still feel relief, even excitement, about moving forward. Perhaps our long friendships and familiarity with each others’ successes and setbacks helps. But this openness to feedback also is due to our regularly writing alongside one another as well as our willingness to review and discuss projects in any stage of development—all of us have failed to deliver a draft we promised and so have instead submitted notes, an abstract, or even just a talk-through of ideas. This openness to “come as you are” (rather than meet a strict deadline) amplifies the sociality of invention, acknowledges the disorderliness of process, and, above all, supports the writer not the development of products.

Writing Groups Today

As the brief overview above demonstrates, women’s writing groups have emerged out of necessity and survival, making progress possible not just for individuals but collectives. Reconsidering writing groups is particularly imperative in the context of today’s improved-yet-still-limited conversations on graduate student writing and professionalization. These issues are all-hands-on-deck exigent in light of the glut of PhDs competing in the ever-narrowing academic market in writing studies and related fields (e.g., “Final Report”; Kramnick). Some have responded to this critical need with a focus on transferable skills and preparation for alternative-academic (alt-ac) or humanities careers. We see writing support as an under-considered locus of intervention that might unify efforts to aid graduate students no matter where they locate careers. A focus on writing—which, again, from the perspective of the writing group, is about much more than writing “skills” alone—could help graduate students more richly imagine their lives, work, and potential.

Every doctoral student writes, a lot. And yet, writing instruction in graduate programs, both in practice and in the literature, is still “largely barren territory” (Micciche with Carr 485). When attention has been paid, writing scholars tend to advance approaches informed by WID and rhetorical genre studies that focus on decreasing the “invisibility” of genre and discourse conventions like voice, presentation, and epistemology (Brooks-Gillies et al.); demystifying the “hidden curriculum”—or unstated assumptions behind disciplines and their conventions (Sundstrom); or providing insight on “the subgenres of the dissertation” (Autry and Carter; see also Clark). Although such approaches help writers navigate the complexities of academic discourse, they also hyper-focus on writing products. But, as writing groups teach us, writers need support, trust, confidence, safety, camaraderie, permission, belonging, and more-than-just-technical aptitudes or skills.

Interdisciplinary and other workshop models (Gradin et al.; Micciche with Carr; Phillips; Rose and McClafferty) do emphasize these social dimensions alongside demystifying unfamiliar discourse communities. But the realities of working in(to) scholarly communities feels rather different than it’s often described. Scholarly communities can be quite small and their criteria for belonging nebulous. Discourse communities are fickle and disunified; they have enormous power differentials and dynamics; they are layered with implicit biases and exclusionary practices; they are constituted at once by shared and divergent knowledges. Scholarly genres are wiggly and unstable; they overlap and deviate; they are always more than just a collection of textual conventions. Writing is always much more than just getting the forms right or executing discourse. Writing in graduate coursework and into varied careers is chiefly and even painfully social: disorienting, uncertain, unfair, and so on. These social and affective layers are the reasons why we wonder if graduate writing instruction would benefit from more overt overlap with mentorship. Graduate writing and mentorship have seen increased attention, but separately. Writing processes (and mentorship and professionalization) can’t be tidily cleaved from sociality, guidance, affirmation, contexts, institutions, care, professionalization, advice, self-reflection, or, in sum, the very lives we make through and beyond the academy. If graduate student writing groups aim for their participants to better “understand the process of writing and the rhetorical function of language in their disciplines as those components are articulated through conversation” (Gradin et al.), then they should also recognize how much bigger those processes are than written products or rhetorical savviness alone.

To this end, writing groups can encourage genre study and workshopping, intertwined with what we might recognize as horizontal mentoring. For example, VanHaitsma and Ceraso emphasize that their horizontal mentorship relationship started with their intent to be “job market buddies,” focused on the genres of applications, interviews, and campus visits (211). But their focus expanded to all manner of considerations, including book development (a work requirement they both shared) right alongside whole-person questions including “discussing and re-framing the concept of work-life balance” (222) or “acknowledging and celebrating successes (even small ones)” (225). By imagining writing and mentoring unified in the work of writing groups, we resist atomizing academic life; we make the question not of genre acquisition or improving one’s interviewing skills, but of how we “‘make it’ together—in conversation and collaboration with supportive peers” (VanHaitsma and Ceraso 215).

The dynamics of horizontal mentorship in writing groups also recognizes that mentorship need not, even should not, rely on mastery. Peers have something valuable to offer us; we grow in return from advising them. In OWG, we have grown in confidence from giving, and trusting in each other’s feedback, even when it contradicted more “established” advice. The choices this peer mentoring has led us to have sometimes been small, like taking writing group suggestions for focusing a seminar paper over those of the faculty member teaching the course. But sometimes they are larger, such as opting to conduct a search with both in- and out-of-field positions, or leaving a tenure-track position at a doctoral-granting institution to start a business.

Our meditation on writing groups only begins to explore their potentials as feminist pedagogical practice. We have illustrated their ability to build broad professional support; propel a sense of belonging, even access; provide critique, which not only strengthens products but grows processes and motivates writers; enrich genre-based graduate instruction with a profoundly social orientation; and enact horizontal mentoring. With these histories, our experiences, and the landscape of higher ed today, we are left lingering on these questions:

  • How might the ethos and histories of writing groups inform everyday professional practice?
  • How can writing groups support graduate student writing as professionalization and mentorship?
  • How might making institutional space for the sustaining dynamics of writing groups in some measure dismantle the “sexist, racist, classist, and/or homophobic systems and microaggressions within academic life” (VanHaitsma and Ceraso 216)?
  • What other models of feminist collaboration, community, writing groups, mentoring are available to advance our thinking about graduate literacy support?


  1. The two other founding members of the writing group we describe, OWG, are Allison D. Carr, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Coe College, and Kathryn Trauth Taylor, founder and CEO of Untold Content.

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