343. Writers’ Groups

Faculty writing groups can help motivate writing, provide peer feedback, and lead to higher quality writing products. In this episode, James Lang, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and Mike Land join us to discuss their highly productive long-term writing group.

Jim is a Professor of Practice at the Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Notre Dame, the author of 6 superb books on teaching and learning and is the author of a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was the founding editor of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, and is now a co-editor of a new series at Oklahoma University Press. Jim also was the founder and long-time Director of the teaching center at Assumption College.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh is a psychologist and the author of four books related to teaching and learning. She is the senior associate director for teaching and learning and associate professor of practice at Simmons University and is also a regular contributor to The Chronicle and many other publications. Jim and Sarah are regular keynote speakers and have both provided keynote addresses at SUNY-Oswego.

Mike Land’s early writing and editing experiences included 15 years of newspaper journalism, a masters and doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and 23 years of teaching journalistic and creative nonfiction at Assumption, working for many years in the office next door to Jim Lang’s and a short walk from Sarah Cavanagh’s. He’s an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Community Service-Learning Program at Assumption University.

Show Notes

  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Jensen, J. (2020). Write no matter what: Advice for academics. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scrivener
  • A General Education – Jim Lang’s substack account
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over monsters: Supporting youth mental health with compassionate challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Reading groups at Oswego (in the last three we were joined by Jessamyn Neuhaus and colleagues from SUNY Plattsburgh):
    • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning.
    • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
    • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed.
    • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over monsters: Supporting youth mental health with compassionate challenge.


John: Faculty writing groups can help motivate writing, provide peer feedback, and lead to higher quality writing products. In this episode, we explore a highly productive long-term writing group.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are James Lang, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and Mike Land. Jim is a Professor of Practice at the Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Notre Dame, the author of 6 superb books on teaching and learning and is the author of a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was the founding editor of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, and is now a co-editor of a new series at Oklahoma University Press. Jim also was the founder and long-time Director of the teaching center at Assumption College. Sarah Rose Cavanagh is a psychologist and the author of four books related to teaching and learning. She is the senior associate director for teaching and learning and associate professor of practice at Simmons University and is also a regular contributor to The Chronicle and many other publications. Jim and Sarah are regular keynote speakers and have both provided keynote addresses at SUNY-Oswego. Mike Land’s early writing and editing experiences included 15 years of newspaper journalism, a masters and doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and 23 years of teaching journalistic and creative nonfiction at Assumption, working for many years in the office next door to Jim Lang’s and a short walk from Sarah Cavanagh’s. He’s an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Community Service-Learning Program at Assumption University. Welcome back, Jim and Sarah and welcome, Mike.

Sarah: Thank you.

Jim: Thank you.

Mike: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Sarah, are you drinking tea today?

Sarah: Never. You know me. I’m drinking seltzer. It’s too late in the day for coffee. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Jim?

Jim: I had several cups of tea already today, it’s orange pekoe? And then my last one was English Breakfast actually at about one o’clock.

Rebecca: Nice. How about you Mike?

Mike: I am sampling some Bengal spice which the box tells me is brimming cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves and it’s an adventurous bland.

Rebecca: Does it taste adventurous?

Mike: It does. Everything about this is an adventure to me. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have a blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: And I have not my favorite tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And what do you mean by that?

Rebecca: It’s not a good tea. It’s the first time I’ve ever had it. It’s supposed to be gingerbread. And I think it’s kind of disgusting. [LAUGHTER]

John: Now you know why we never get any sponsorships from tea companies.

Rebecca: I didn’t say where it came from. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s true, but I’m sure there’s probably not too many gingerbread teas out there.

Rebecca: There shouldn’t be. [LAUGHTER]

John: In past podcast discussions with Jim and Sarah, we had heard about the writing group that you’ve all participated in. Can you tell us how this group got started?

Sarah: I guess I can take that one. I think it was about 2014…2015. Mike, do you know the year? He’s giving me a big nod. 2014. And Jim had recently invited me to write the Spark of Learning and his first series at WVUP and Mike was working on a book…had just come off sabbatical doing a cross country trip. And Jim was working on the first edition of Small Teaching. Since all three of us were working on book projects, Jim said, “Hey, why don’t we form this writers’ group.” And we started meeting. And it was really such a beautiful process to write my first book with my editor [LAUGHTER] reading every chapter as it came out, was a very developmental process. And as well as forming some really great friendships.

Rebecca: Sounds like a great start to a long endeavor. Can you talk a little bit about how regularly this group meets and if you still continue to meet?

Jim: We do continue to meet, but not regularly, as you might expect, [LAUGHTER] especially just because we were initially together at Assumption and were all working in the same area, and I just mean sort of geographical, and now Sarah’s in Boston, I’m going back and forth between Worcester and South Bend. So it’s a little bit harder to get us together in the same place at the same time. So we kind of meet on a more ad hoc basis at this point. if one of us has a project that we want feedback on will sort of send an email around saying “I need help, [LAUGHTER] and so let’s get together and can we have a writers group coming up?” So we’re still probably doing that maybe six to eight times a year, I would say. Maybe we were trying to do it every month but now it’s kind of morphed into that kind of more occasional kind of schedule.

Sarah: So we usually squeeze in a Christmas one.

John: That’s true.”

Sarah: So usually a mid December writers’ group. Some of them are in Zoom just because of how we’re spread around but the Christmas one is always in person. It’s really nice.

Jim: Yes, we have holiday themed groups. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: …with teas.

Sarah: Well, for some of us.

Mike: …or beers, but yeah, we’ve tried to have a couple of year that are also just social and in person. We’ve got more used to Zoom,as everyone has, and since we’re in three different…well, Jim and I live two doors from each other, but it’s harder to get us all together physically in the same space, but we’ve try to do that two or three times a year.

John:. When you were meeting regularly at Assumption University, what happened during the meetings when you got together? How long were the meetings? And what did you do in the meetings?

Jim: That would also depend upon where everyone was, in terms of their writing projects. A typical meeting would last maybe 90 minutes. Mike’s especially a social guy, [LAUGHTER] he would sort of want us to start with some social time, we sort of built that in. And so we’d have a little social time initially, you might be around a meal, for example, for the first 15 to 30 minutes, just catching up on our lives. And then we kind of just go through the project, essentially. So we essentially will just pick one off the pile, and say, “Okay, so here’s my essay this time,” like, for example, I might be doing a Chronicle essay or a chapter of a book. You have to read it in advance. So that’s an important thing to note, that we don’t read out loud, which sometimes writers’ groups will do that. You read in advance, we send the stuff out at least 48 hours in advance. You’re expected to read that material, come into the group having already written comments, either online or actually some of us still use the paper versions and bring those in as well. So then, essentially, the person whose material that we’re critiquing is supposed to just sit and ask questions, and the people that have read will kind of go through, essentially page by page, there might be like an initial comment, “overall, this is what I think of the piece,” but then we kind of go through page by page. That doesn’t mean every page is commented on, because it depends on where the issues are. But say, each person’s piece could take 15 or 20 minutes or so to walk through it. And then we move to the next one. And so we move around the circle that way. That’s the basic process, but what am I leaving out?

Sarah: No, I think that’s most of it… Kind of the flow.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of having formed the writing group and what other people might think about in forming a group?

Sarah: It is so invaluable, I think, in so many different ways to have first readers who can read something. It’s so vulnerable writing and putting your thoughts out into the world, and to have a safe place where people can give you feedback on very early drafts, I think is so valuable. And it’s also a really good test of are you expressing your ideas well, and are your references sound. I’m always telling Jim, people who don’t know sports aren’t going to understand this reference, and he does the same for my sci-fi references, and so that kind of tells you what a broader audience might think of your ideas. And it’s just a place to bounce your ideas around as well, like sometimes we do a lot of line-by-line feedback, and Mike is awesome at that from his journalism background. But we also sometimes just ask advice and just say, Is this even working? Should I draft this project and go to something else? Kind of really broad ideas as well. How about you, Mike, what do you see as the benefits?

Mike: The things you said. I think it’s a lonely pursuit, and if you don’t have an audience of people who are intelligent readers to let you know whether you’re totally going in the wrong direction or not, you’ve been staring at what you’ve been working on for so long, you convince yourself that yeah, this makes perfect sense, or this was a good move, or they’ll laugh at this, whatever it is. And so at some point, you got to try it out on audience members you trust and who also understand the writing process, because they themselves are writing and have written a lot. So they differentiate some things, maybe what not to do or to do. There’s a temptation in fiction writing, when I was in the fiction writing program, we were warned about trying not to turn the short story of the person being critiqued just into the story you had felt like writing instead. [LAUGHTER] Well, I figured out what the person is trying to do, and help them do that, and stay locked in on that, to some extent. So yeah, there was a lot there. And it is an extra deadline and something to get you moving.

Jim: That’s an important thing to know, too, that it was oftentimes a way of saying, “Okay, I have this book coming out, so I want to make sure I go chapter by chapter, and so I would make the writing group deadlines, my internal deadlines for getting those chapters done.” That’s a really, really helpful structural enabler, when you’re trying to especially do like a long project. The other thing I mean has come up in actually both these comments from Mike and Sarah, about the audience. And that’s true in terms of your audience. Think about your ideal audience who you’re trying to really write for. It’s also really true for your editors and potential publishers. And we often talk about that, like, “Okay, who would really be the right place to submit this to?” And we might be able to share examples of the publishers that we’ve worked with or strategies for reaching out to an editor, maybe we have a connection, and we know somebody. So we can have also that as well. So especially if you have books in your writers group who have published other things, you can start building networks around a writer’s group and I think that’s really important, too. Again, I think what Mike and Sarah are saying about audience is a real big benefit of you’re sort of thinking about the readers that you’re trying to reach, and you can often refine those. The example that Sarah gave about references, like if I’m writing to a community of people who love science fiction, I don’t have to worry about those references. But if I am going to expand beyond that audience then I have to either explain them or make more universal ones, and I think that process of like hearing at least two other readers, helps you expand a little bit in the number of people that you can reach with your writing.

John: And I would think having that relatively timely feedback would be much better than writing a big chunk of a book, sending it off, having it go out to reviewers and then getting reviews back when it’s perhaps a little bit late to make some of those major changes, that getting that more immediate feedback, I would think, would be helpful in keeping the writing project going in the direction you intended.

Jim: Absolutely. For example, I had like a little mini readers group with my Chronicle editor. Now I’d submit my work to her, and she would really sort of hack it to bits, [LAUGHTER] in a nice way, she’s a great person. But over time, I’ve sort of recognized, this is what she wants, this is what she looks for, this is what she changes. And I kind of learned to sort of mold myself into that kind of form that she wants. And the same thing is true for your writers’ group, you can sort of start to anticipate the things that they’re going to point out to you, which are often little habits that we have, which are not always great ones. [LAUGHTER] I always remember that Sarah would always point out that I used the word “so” all the time as like, “and so this,” and I never would have noticed that unless she started to circle all my “so’s” and then “look how often you do this,” that was like a really helpful thing for me to know. So now I’m aware of it, I still use them, but I’m just more aware of it now. So it’s very helpful to see other people’s perspectives and then you can start to anticipate that.Sarah sometimes uses phrase, “I had Jim in my head when I was reading this sentence,” or “I had Mike in my head…

Sarah: Yep. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: …telling this anecdote” or something like that. So that’s a really helpful thing to have as well.

Mike: Yeah. And it’s interesting, you’ll learn those things about each other, and then we can decide when to accept or not accept that, right? [LAUGHTER] In my case, and I think it’s true of Sarah, we can anticipate that if we throw in one too many anecdotes, we know Jim’s going to be there waiting to pounce on our extraneous anecdote that we love. And I’m somewhere in the middle, from the South, so somewhat more elliptical in my storytelling and less linear. So I’m favor of the extra anecdote. But there are times when you can tell, when you looked at it, and you have that voice and you go, “Okay, this really is extraneous, get it out of the way, don’t even bother other people with it.” And that’s that kind of thing and that’s kind of why we assign undergraduate students to do peer editing of each other is to learn to be editors, and to hear those voices too. So it’s really useful that way.

Jim: Mike, you know about other readiness groups and this question, John asked us about, like, guidance for other groups, can you give some examples, Mike, if you know of other writers’ groups that have sort of different ways of working?

Mike: There have been some groups that seem to exist just for people to pat each other on the back. And they don’t really do much criticism at all. A friend of mine who’s dyslexic said that he was in a group where you could never correct anything ever, grammatically or stylistically, which would drive me crazy, because I would want people to note every time I slipped up on something. So those are a couple of examples, and I’ve been trying to come up with some more, but it seems like there are a lot of variations in the rules in how they do it.

Jim: Sarah, you have also one that’s more like keeping you accountable, right?

Sarah: So I have another writers’ group with some friends at Tufts University, and we call it “writing and hijinks.” And so we gather together in a coffee shop or somewhere and we just write quietly, although one of them, like Mike, is very social and has trouble with the quiet part. [LAUGHTER] And so we just write, it’s just dedicated writing time for a couple hours, and then we go out and have fun. Although we’ve been sliding more and more towards just the fun and not doing the writing [LAUGHTER] over the last few years. This is motivating me to say to them, maybe we should bring back the writing part.

Rebecca: We have a writing group at Oswego that functions like yours, Sarah, that you’re talking about, where it’s just kind of some dedicated time, accountable time, this is the time we’ve set aside to write…

Sarah: Right.

Rebecca: …which can be really helpful if you have a designated time and space to do that, if you aren’t good at scheduling it on your calendar otherwise. Julie

Jim: Joli Jensen has a book about writing from the University of Chicago Press, and she actually makes the argument that writing groups for academics should not be content critique groups, which is what we have, actually. And she makes the argument that it’s not helpful, for example, English professors to be working with a psychologist because they won’t get your references and all that kind of stuff, and it won’t be very helpful to you. But actually I would argue that what we’re doing here, because most of us are running for, like broader audiences, the content critique part is really important. If Mike and Sarah don’t understand what I’m saying, well, then I’m not gonna be able to reach a broader audience instead of just writing specific to my little expertise audience. So that’s another way to think about distinguishing content, whether you focus on the content or just the writing, the sort of grammar and the stylistic part of it. So that’s another way to think about what are you actually trying to do in your writers’ group? Are you trying to expand beyond your discipline and getting different kinds of feedback? Or are you just trying to focus on, as Mike said, maybe patting each other on the back or accountability or style and grammar? So there’s a lot of different ways you can go.

John: I think that would depend a lot on who your intended audience is. So that if you’re all psychologists, or all economists, or all mathematicians, if you’re going to be submitting things to journals, it might not be a bad audience. But for a general audience, having someone who is not necessarily an expert in the field, seeing it from a different perspective would lead to a lot of really productive comments in terms of what some of the hidden assumptions are, the implicit assumptions in the writing.

Jim: Absolutely, you can actually even think about it as a teaching thing too, I mean teaching to like a gen ed class, their first-year students, that’s almost like a content critique group in the sense you can’t take too much granted about background knowledge in discipline, like a really focused content critique group, all from a discipline, you’re essentially teaching a graduate seminar. And so you’re looking for different things from those experiences, and you’re being required to explain different levels of things to those two audiences.

Rebecca: So I’m curious what participating in this particular writing group with the three of you has done for you as writers? How has it shaped your writing? And why are the three of you a good group for each other?

Sarah: I think that one of the things that has really shaped my writing process, this is beyond all of the wonderful things that we have said already about audience and things like that, is being in a writers’ group with two English professors is really valuable. I tested out of intro writing in college, so I actually never took a writing course of any sort, and then decided I wanted to be a writer. And my writing is very organic and intuitive. And working with these two really helped me like the things that they would correct. Like I didn’t know periods went inside the quotes, until Mike corrected me. [LAUGHTER] But the first year, we were writing together, and you would think I would just absorb that from reading, but I just never noticed that. And so really tiny things like that, but then also just thinking about the structure of your writing and the organization of your writing, because I had never really done that for this kind of general audience writing. And so having this writers’ group with writing professors is really amazing, as Jim would sometimes send me to the whiteboard, when we would meet [LAUGHTER] at Assumption, because it’d be like, you’d have a lot of really interesting ideas here in the writers’ group, but they’re just in a big pile,[LAUGHTER] and he’d have me map out, do a literal map of my work. And that was very, very helpful.

Mike: That’s one of the fascinating things about being in a group is working with two people that have such different composing processes. And Jim, you’re fairly linear…

Sarah: fairly…

Mike: kind of have it in order [LAUGHTER] and smoothly.

Sarah: …the computer. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: So what was the computer program that you’re using that divided the screen into quadrants?

Sarah: Yes, Scrivener, you can put your bits of writing on literal digital index cards, and just move them all around.

Mike: Yeah, which is something I’ve seen poets do. I’ve seen poets tear their poems apart, line by line and move the lines around in the coffee shops. So it’s just two equally effective ways of doing that. And I guess I’m somewhat in the middle, but with the road trip narratives, obviously, there was someone’s this town and that town, but it’s fascinating to watch how people’s brains work differently.

Jim: Yeah, I think for me, Sarah and Mike are different kinds of writers. But as a result, I’m kind of benefiting from both the sort of storytelling advice that comes from Mike and from Sarah, again, more of the research, making sure that I’m supporting my points well, and thinking about other perspectives on the topics I’m addressing. And it’s helpful to get both those things, because I’m getting different things from others, like editors, for example. I like the idea of starting a piece of writing with a story or something like that, my editor at The Chronicle always wants me to lead with the thesis, essentially. And so I’m trying to put some of Mike’s ideas advices into that kind of storytelling opening, but also trying to satisfy my editor. So anyways, it kind of helps you develop new strategies and see how strategies might land with different people and Sarah’s especially good at ways that I should include more readers, more thinkers from different backgrounds, and essentially making my writing more inclusive. And I think that’s really valuable as well, and making sure that I engage with the research that I might not be aware of, in the teaching and learning fields. So that’s really important, too. So I can look at my own writing and see how it’s benefited from both their perspectives.

Rebecca: I think one thing that I’ve benefited from when I’ve participated in writing group opportunities is actually seeing early stages of other people’s writing, and just what that looks like and feels like and sometimes provides strategies to future me [LAUGHTER] when I’m stuck, [LAUGHTER] like, “oh, wait, this other person would have attempted it like this.” And when I felt stuck on something, sometimes I use the strategies that I’ve observed other people using, which can be really beneficial, that things that I wasn’t taught or hadn’t been exposed to otherwise.

Sarah: That’s great.

John: You mentioned future me. And one of the issues that we know from behavioral economics and psychology is that when given a choice between pursuing your long range objectives and immediate gratification, immediate gratification sometimes wins out, [LAUGHTER] because it’s always easier to start these things tomorrow or next week. And one of the things you mentioned earlier, Jim, was that having the regular meetings of the writing group provided a bit of a commitment device that you want to get to the meetings with some new material you want to share that material before it. Do you think that has helped increase the pace in which your work has taken place?

Jim: For me absolutely, yeah, having that structure there. I think structure is always a really helpful thing in teaching and writing. If you sign a book contract, the deadline might be two years away. So you know that two years, an editor might check in after a year, but like, you need to have more structure in that to kind of get yourself moving along. And I’m a pretty structured person, but I can also fritter time away. I’m pretty good at that, too. [LAUGHTER] But I’m self aware enough to know I need a little help in terms of structure. And so it definitely has pushed me to become more productive.

Sarah: Absolutely. I agree. This whole conversation is making me want us to do this more regularly, [LAUGHTER] instead of the as needed, because I think about especially the beginning of the writers group. And when I was writing Spark of Learning, my daughter was a toddler. And she was only in daycare three days a week, and I was on the tenure track and just doing a billion different things. And I do not think I would have written that book if it weren’t for writers’ group monthly meetings. I think at that point, we were really regularly meeting in person monthly. And just finding the time at four in the morning [LAUGHTER] or terrible times often, but I don’t know that I would have gotten it done if it were just like, “oh, I have a contract and I must do this giant thing.”

Mike: That definitely helped this begin…the structure. I don’t have a long-term project I’m working on currently so hard for me sometimes to come back around and really have anything that’s worth them looking at. But yeah, you mentioned those long period of the book contract, and there’s a long period of only doing shorter things, whereas so there’s not that continuity from chapter one to chapter two to chapter three, and you’re eager to write those next two pages that are the bridge to the next thing, so group can help with that as well. It seems like a lot, but what happens in writing group is when someone is working on a Chronicle column that needs to be turned in in 48 hours or letters and things like that. And I was wondering if you can give examples of that kind of stuff when the group comes into play. That’s not the big primary thing we’re working on, but it’s kind of the emergency stuff.

Jim: We’ve done a little bit of that, but it’s kind of hard because especially for an upcoming deadline, I think typically we’ve handled that when someone just needed something very quickly, we just handled that by email. But the writers’ group is available in those emergency situations, because we already have a quick sense of like, if Sarah sends me something, and it was for a quick turnaround, it’s for The Chronicle, I can be able to spot very quickly a couple of things that you could maybe do in that short window. And likewise for me. So it’s challenging, though, because you want to have time for people to have opportunity to read and think about that as well. But it’s available for those situations. So it’s good for that.

Rebecca: I can imagine that you’re strong relationship with one another, having written with each other for so long allows for that quick turnaround by email, because you can sense the tone someone’s providing some feedback in [LAUGHTER] and it…

Sarah: Help!

Rebecca: …has a different kind of context. [LAUGHTER] Yeah.

Jim: Absolutely.

Sarah: And it’s such a pleasure, like it’s hard to ask for emergency work from people, even people you’re close with, and maybe even especially people you’re close with, because you know, they have so much else going on. But it’s such a pleasure to read these gentlemen’s words, that it’s not a burden at all, even the emergency ones because it’s like, “Oh, I get to relax, not with a cup of tea, [LAUGHTER] and read some words from Jim or Mike.

Jim: That’s true. That part of it is good, because you know that you can help them in the emergency because they’ve helped you in the past, that same situation. Right now, you know, I’m sort of developing a substack account. And I haven’t really used the writers’ group for that. And as a result, I need to have my wife proofread for me,[LAUGHTER] because substack doesn’t have an editor, and I’m really annoying her by this process. So I need to start using my substack columns for writers group stuff as well.

Mike: Yeah, it is really helpful and we know that there’s just a lot less explaining to do amongst the three of us. If I were going to send something cold to another friend, I think I would have to explain a lot more about what was going on for them to get it. So that’s incredibly useful that way. But it’s funny how different it is from like growing up in a newspaper family, and I would interview someone in the morning and I would revise it four or five times in a period of like four hours and hand it to my editor who would then tell me to change three things. And the whole thing from beginning to end was less than a day. But there was no deep thought, there was no deep reflection or big structural things, and then my time sort of expanded magically as I became an academic and suddenly you can get trapped in a lot of whirlpools of uncertainty about which way to go or that way to go. Whereas in journalism, there wasn’t much choice a lot of the time.

Sarah: Writers note, I love that “whirlpools of uncertainty.” If I were in writers’ group, I would say underline it, put a little exclamation point next to it. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Well, I was a really terrible student in an undergraduate poetry workshop at the same time my sports editor was trying to teach me to write in a linear way. And my teacher said at one point, Mike what you’re writing, as poetry is prose with line breaks in random places. And he said, “Let the language go where it wants to go.” And I was having a hard time imagining telling my sports editor that on [LAUGHTER] Friday night during high school football season, but it seriously took a long time for me to learn I could do both. I could loosen up and be this one kind of writer, and then be this very mechanical quick writer. And that took years as an undergraduate to figure out how can I do both of these things at the same time.

Rebecca: One thing I heard Sarah say is that currently you’re meeting as needed, but then I also heard in the conversation, that maybe we need these things, and we just don’t know it. So having it regularly on the calendar could be helpful. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Jim: Yes, we’re convinced now this conversation is very helpful to us. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Yeah, and plus this almost the end of the semester, so suddenly, we’re gonna have a lot of time on our calendars.

Sarah: …well, those of us still teaching. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Yeah.

Sarah: I’m at 12-month contract now.

MIKEL Oh, you are?

Sarah: Yeah.

Mike: For you, year round.

Rebecca: Me too, Sarah. [LAUGHTER] Maybe we need a separate writers’ group. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Or therapy. [LAUGHTER] …support group.

John: What sort of advice would you give to other people who are thinking about forming a writers’ group?

Jim: Actually, there have been been other people in the writers’ group over the years, I’ve been in other writers groups too. For me, the thing that I look for is people who I thought were sort of ambitious and were writing, because you don’t want to be the person who is trying to gather people together, when they’re just not writing, they don’t want to write, you don’t want to be like the taskmaster in a writers’ group. So find people that are writing and are interested in writing, and find people that you find interesting, you want to hear more of their thoughts. So that has always been a driver for me. And sometimes, if I’m looking for people that I want to hear their thoughts about my own writing, and I want to talk to them about their own writing, I’m gonna be more interested in going to that writers’ group and participating. And so those are sort of two general points I would make: look for people that are writing and interested in writing, and then people who are interesting, you want to see it develop and getting access to their ideas as they’re developing. And I would just say, most people, I think, are flattered, you would like to hear and read their work. So if you identify someone that and you might say, “Well, oh, you know, they’re probably too busy, or they probably already have other people to work with,” that might not be true. And so extend the invitation and see if they want to join you in pushing writing forward.

Sarah: And I think I would add, it’d be hard to figure this out, [LAUGHTER] but one thing that I appreciate about this group, and I would want in any writers’ group is having a similar level of like sensitivity and openness to feedback and criticism. So I think that all of us are really great at taking feedback and taking constructive criticism, without either taking it personally, or I think Mike referenced this, but sometimes the Jim in my head or the Jim on my page, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not listening to you.” [LAUGHTER] But then a lot of times you do. And so t o people who are at that level of like, open to hearing criticism, but also confident enough to stick with their gut if they feel it’s right. And yeah, and so that’s a delicate thing. And it’s hard to figure out about someone without actually engaging in writers’ group. But I think if they were in your department meetings or on committees with you, kind of keep an eye and get a sense for how open they are to other people’s thoughts and how willing they are to give them.

Mike: Yeah, and along the line with open is something I always warn undergraduates about, but in grad school it would come up with separating the characters on the page, even the narrator, that that person I’m writing the first person about, it’s Mike, the narrator on that page, but it’s not necessarily all of what I am. So, ‘cause when you’re talking to someone, then you can point out stuff that you think is maybe sexist, or is whatever, but be able to talk about it in a separation where you’re not personally attacking the writer, but that you are holding that in a certain place. I think we’re really good about those sorts of things, we know the level each of us are trying to get to, we’re just trying to help each other get there and again, smooth out anything that the audience might misinterpret. That’s a mental discipline that takes a while to be learned. And I’ve had friends who have been in groups where things have devolved to name calling, and to really unfortunate situations where the writing group had to be broken up, and so I’ve even heard that happen in academic settings, like in actual seminars. Fortunately, I was not part of any of those, but where people went stomping out of the room. And so yeah, having the maturity in just the way you carry yourself in life, I guess, to know how to treat other people and work with them constructively, a really important thing. But otherwise, in terms of advice, let’s say that whatever kind of writing group you want to have, you want to sit and just right beside each other and then go have drinks that what this one’s gonna be, are you all aiming to publish and you’re trying to help each other get published? That can be a very different mentality, depending on what you’re trying to do. That’s my two cents.

John: Do any of you have any other thoughts about writing groups that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Jim: I will say just as an editor, you know, editing the book series, I can also sometimes tell people who had writers’ groups when they turn their manuscripts in who had prior readers. So just from my perspective as an editor, I absolutely recommend this, forming a writers’ group, especially if you’ve signed a contract, and you’re intimidated by it. The fact that you have this deadline, you have this big project coming up, A writers’ group can not only put some structure on to the process but also forestall a lot of the work that I will have to do as an editor. So you can make my life easier when you’ve had some prior readers who kind of work with you to iron out a lot of the kinks that have developed, as any writing project will have in the drafting.

Sarah: Yeah, my editor was very grateful for writers’ group. We met monthly, my editor for Mind Over Monsters and she was wonderful. But writers’ group was like a third character in the room. [LAUGHTER] Because we would meet monthly, I’d be like, “Alright, well, here’s the chapter, but this is what writers’ group says, and they think that I should reframe this.” So it was really like the three of us, or I guess, the four of us, melding you two into one being in the conversation and in the room. And that was an interesting process.

Mike: I think another thing that’s been interesting to me is that because Jim and Sarah have books out a lot of the time, and there’s a good bit of talk about the publishing aspect of it, there are times when say, Jim might know someone that one of us should hit up, or contact, or things like that, or how to interpret an editor’s reaction. And there’s been a good bit of conversation about those things where I kind of felt like I know, these editors I’ve never met. [LAUGHTER] I’m sure that’s a big stopping point for a lot of people is they’ve written this thing, and now they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what the path is, and how to get there, how to get someone’s attention. And so there’s a lot of talking back and forth about things like that.

Rebecca: Do you have wishes for your group moving forward?

Jim: I guess, more regular meetings.

Mike: …more regular meetings, yes. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Sounds like a way to save Jim’s marriage.[LAUGHTER]

Mike: I guess, I should sell them another road trip so I could write another road trip manuscript.

Jim: Yeah.

Sarah: There you go. I would read that.

Mike: As we sneak toward possible retirement…a travel book…that could be the plan.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Sarah: Well, more regular writers’ groups, I guess. But I think as Mike just referenced, he’s retiring. So he’s going to have a lot more time to write coming up. And Jim and I are both, I think at the phase of thinking about next book projects. And so maybe it’s going to be a new day for writers’ group.

Jim: That’s true. I’m actually doing the final, final, final revisions of my current book manuscript, which are due on April 22nd. So that will be coming up shortly. And so I’m in that phase where like, I’m kind of finishing everything up, and also the editing and all that stuff, and copy editing, but still at least starting to open up in the sort of creative part of your brain about like, what might be next? And so that’s maybe one final thing I might say about writers’ group is sometimes we will come in with just like a one pager of ideas. And Sarah has done that several times. And we kind of give her feedback like, this is the one that seems like it might be the best path to pursue, for example. Anyways, I’m in that space right now. So I hope that for me going forward writers’ group might help me land on the right project next.

Mike: I should mention too that just the venting of frustration is good. And it just crossed my mind, one of Jim’s funnier Facebook posts of all time was when you were finishing up a book and what you posted about how you felt about the book. I don’t know if you recall this or not?

Jim: Yeah, absolutely.

Mike: So tell them. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: So I just remember talking about the fact that whenever you finish a book, I’m just so sick of it. At that point, I never want to think about it again. [LAUGHTER] And then of course, a year later it comes out and you have to think about it all the time. [LAUGHTER] I’m a person that has multiple interests, and they sort of change on a regular basis and like, by the time I finished a book, I’m like, “Okay, I’m done with this now, what’s the next thing?” But then, you know, hopefully a year goes by when it’s coming out, and then you get interested in it again during that time, hopefully.

Mike: Well, the specific line I remember was, “I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate you, stupid book.” [LAUGHTER]. It was that quote.

Jim: Yeah.

John: Well, I can see it’s probably good that you focus on the writing and not the marketing of these books. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah.

Mike: It wasn’t this book, it was a different book.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you about your work. And we’ve been hearing about this writers’ group [LAUGHTER] for a while. So we were glad to have the opportunity to dive in a little more deeply.

John: And we’re also grateful that we’ve been able to benefit from the writers’ group. I was just thinking back, four of our reading groups over the last few years were products of this writing group.

Jim: Wow.

John: So we appreciate the work that you’ve been doing.

Jim: That’s very cool.

Sarah: Thank you. It’s an honor.

Mike: Yeah, thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.