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Evolution and emerging trends of university writing groups

Linda Galligan, Patricia Cretchley, Lucy George, Kris Martin McDonald, Jacquie McDonald & Janet Rankin
Writing groups have developed in universities to assist academics to publish. Knowledge of these groups and their successes and challenges is valuable, and informs the wider academic writing community. However there is a paucity of research in this support area. This article will discuss writing groups from two other universities and report on the evolution of our writing group over a three-year period. It will then compare the characteristics of the three in terms of publishing acumen, collegiality, leadership and affect, and discuss emerging trends.

Quality research projects and published output are an integral part of academics' normal workload (Boud & Lee, 1999). However, the pressure being placed upon academics to write papers and publish in scholarly journals is higher now than it has ever been before (Morss & Murray, 2001). While this may not be problematic for academics in full-time research positions, this is not the case for many academics who juggle roles including teaching and scholarship, research, administrative duties, writing, community work and networking.

Despite the "great push" toward increased academic writing and published output, there is a paucity of literature available on academic writing for publication (Morss & Murray, 2001). In 1998, Blaxter, Hughes and Tight observed that, at that time, there was only one published text in the United Kingdom providing practice-based guidance on the processes of writing for publication and only three in North America (Blaxter et al., 1998). Why this should be the case is not clearly identified in the research literature, although Blaxter et al. (1998) aptly notes:

It seems to be widely assumed that, at the level of research, the nature and process of academic writing is understood, and that, at the level of guidance, academics already know how to write. Hence, there is little need for research into, or guidance on, for example, the development of writing skills, the processes involved in getting writing published, or individual and joint writing strategies. (p. 13)
The research that is available suggests that variables such as time, university or faculty policy, workloads, and intrinsic motivation (Rodgers & Rodgers, 1999) assist or obstruct any academic writing. The implications for academics are that unless they are guided by sympathetic senior colleagues to manage time, policy and motivation issues, as well as the writing process itself, most will learn their writing skills through a process of trial and error based on comments by reviewers and editors and these may be disheartening for novice writers (Blaxter et al., 1998).

The gradual development from novice to expert that is seen in teaching and learning literature (e.g., Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999) may be replicated in this context. Just as students, guided and supported by academics, gradually build their skills and come to recognise their acquired knowledge and can use it in different contexts, novice academic writers need similar developmental support.

If there is a belief that academics need support and guidance in their path from novice to expert writers, then it is imperative that processes be established for that purpose. Indeed positive and constructive ways for academics to learn the necessary writing skills are emerging. These include co-authoring (Streuly & Maranto, 1994), mentoring (Grant & Knowles, 2000; Wunsch, 1993), writing retreats (Grant & Knowles, 2000), and writing for publication programs (Morss & Murray, 2001). These may incorporate 'study buddies' and include strategies to improve goal-setting, discipline and deadlines, confidence and motivation through sharing and discussion, peer feedback, evaluation, and developing self-knowledge. Many of these strategies could be incorporated in a writing group. Two such programs are outlined in the following section and were used as a springboard for our writing group at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) and as a discussion focus during its development. This writing group also came to reflect on our collective experiences and broader issues for women entering academe through non-traditional pathways (George et al., 2003). The aim of this paper, however, is to discuss and compare key developmental issues with other established writing groups, to report on the evolution of a writing group at the home institution and to discuss emerging trends.


While writing groups have been part of university culture in some form for the last 200 years (Gere, 1987) and many universities have initiated writing groups, little has been documented about how and why they work. Some writing for publication programs in the United Kingdom (Morss & Murray, 2001; Murray & Mackay, 1998) provide clues not only in terms of outcomes but also in terms of development for academics, but the Murdoch University and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) studies below provided us with the framework to develop our own program.

The Murdoch Study

A peer-mentoring program was established at Murdoch University in the late 1990s in which five writing groups convened for two semesters on the basis of discipline area and type of writing. The explicit aim of each group was product oriented although writing processes were also considered. Group members provided support for each other by way of constructive feedback on draft articles and exchanged information on research and writing interests.

Grant and Knowles (2000) reported five benefits that academics had obtained from that program: information exchange (including intellectual property and referencing); collaboration; career planning and strategising; professional support and encouragement; and at least one piece of work written by each participant. They also described the academic development over that time in terms of motivation, a community of writers, realisation that talk is important, acceptance of criticism, confidence and enjoyment.

The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Study

The need for writing groups at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS) arose when staff members were faced with changes in the nature of their work role. Three colleges of advanced education were combined to form the university, and staff needed to "make a radical change from having been adult educators to becoming academics" (Boud & Lee, 1999, p. 5). Two writing groups were formed, the first (all female) to meet the needs of new researchers, and the second (mixed gender) for researchers with at lea st one publication.

Saunders, Sampson, and Lee (1998) discussed the development and efficacy of the first writing group, who perceived themselves as being expert teachers, not researchers and writers. This group met fortnightly at first, and then weekly over two years.

Saunders et al. (1998) concluded that the first group was a resounding success on a number of levels. Positive outcomes included increased output; group members were discussing writing both collectively and publicly; staff understood and valued collaborative work practices; and other writing groups were formed because of the success of the group.

Saunders et al. (1998) noted that in this first group, members developed in several areas. They moved from being educators to being academics, developing:

Three principles emerged from the UTS groups - 'peer-ness' (sic) (an enriched collective and reciprocal relationship rather than a traditional academic collegial model), 'normal business' of being an academic, and investment satisfaction which Boud and Lee (1999) suggest may be a set of principles to generalise to other local sites of practice. Principles, developments and outcomes reflect many of the findings in the Murdoch study.

In summary, there are a number of barriers for many academics when developing a publishing profile. Nevertheless, the literature establishes benefits for academics involved in writing groups: support and encouragement from other academics, overcoming resistances and writing blocks, greater writing output, and joy in becoming a writer. Moreover there appear to be key developmental benefits in terms of the writing process, confidence and a sense of becoming a writer and part of a community of writers. In the next section we will outline the evolution of our writing group, and discuss key issues and emerging trends.


While the framework for the writing group at the University of Southern Queensland emerged from studies in the literature, mainly Boud and Lee (1999), differences in our structure and some key features soon emerged. The four phases of this writing group are summarised in Table 1 spanning 21 structured meetings over a 36-month period which included a break of almost a year. This evolution is derived from notes taken by two of the coordinators, emails shared with members of the group, notes in members' personal journals (6 detailed journals) and a semi-structured taped group discussion. During part of the writing group's history, an action research project was undertaken and will be detailed elsewhere (Martin McDonald et al., in press).

Table 1: Writing group evolution: outline and key activities at each meeting

PhaseMeetingKey activities
I: Setting the boundaries1the ideas workshop
2setting the parameters
3strategic planning
4surveying the participants
II: Developing know-how
and writing skills
5selecting the correct journal
6peer reviewing articles
7writing and reviewing sections
8-9presenting & reviewing articles
11-14presenting & reviewing articles
III: Developing and
undertaking an action
research project
15action plan
16writing submissions and feedback
18review of literature
IV: Writing19separation of tasks
20writing articles
21writing articles

The context

In order to understand the writing group evolution some local knowledge is useful. The Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education was established in 1969 and became the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in 1990. The tradition of offering distance education started in 1970 and this has expanded to the stage where USQ is internationally recognised in this field. Besides the faculties of Science, Education, Engineering, Arts and Business, USQ has the largest offering of external preparatory programs and since 1990 has offered undergraduate and postgraduate nursing studies. Its initial role as an institute of education with little emphasis on research is similar to both UTS (Boud & Lee, 1999) and Queen Margaret University College (Morss & Murray, 2001). The change from college to university status gave rise to the need for research in particular niche areas such as distance education, and for strategic plans to promote the young USQ in research output from academic staff.

Phase I - July 1999

Workshops and seminars to support all academics have been part of USQ's professional development since its inception, with recent projects such as career enhancement, PhD completion and promotion preparation. These initiatives were met with good attendances and encouraging feedback; for example, one attendee noted in the evaluation:

Very focussed, absolutely the best. Interview techniques, publishing I found those excellent.
In 1999 a seminar entitled Strategies for PhD completion, presented by Professor Alison Lee from UTS, included a session on writing groups. This session was immediately met with interest from the participants, and some guiding principles and aims were developed for the establishment of a writing group at USQ: It was proposed that each group have 8 - 10 members who would commit to a number of meetings (over six months initially), present their own writing, and offer guidance to others.

While these guidelines emerged from the literature, they were modified to suit the culture of the university. A major factor was the cross-disciplinary nature of the groups as many of the members were from sections with little academic development support in place. While some discussion emerged on gender issues in this phase, it was decided the group should be for women only.

An initial meeting, held in August 1999, attracted 17 academics. At the next meeting the female Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) was invited to address the group on good writing and publishing for promotion and tenure.

A survey of those interested in joining a group provided data which suggested a wide range of writing interests and experience. While the major thrust of this first stage was setting the boundaries of the writing group, there was also emphasis on knowing what writing groups can do, and the importance of academic writing in career paths.

Phase II - August 1999 - April 2000

With 17 people interested, two groups appeared necessary. Two suitable facilitators had been identified but neither could commit immediately. An interim facilitator led the next two meetings. The first meeting centred on selecting and writing for a journal and offered advice from an editor's point of view. The second centred on a participant's paper that was to be submitted for a journal.

One of the previously identified facilitators took over nurturing the meetings from October 1999 to April 2000. The group planned to look at different sections of articles at every second meeting, including introductions, methodology/justification, findings, discussions and conclusions, and look at participants' articles in between.

These sessions were attended by between 4 and 8 people, but 16 still regularly expressed interest. In February 2000 plans for the future were discussed. The second facilitator started an Arts group and the original group retained those wishing to stay. After April the facilitator of the original group retired with this reflection:

I think it is very beneficial and could be of inspiration to a lot of us regardless of our experience ... there is so much sanity to be found in the company of creative female academics.
However, interest was waning and the April meeting was postponed. Some reactions to the group's leadership were:
Maybe if we had one leader we might have been restricted in the long run, we would have had that person's expertise rather than the collaborative efforts of everyone we can talk to that's experienced and then share them.

Didn't need a formal leader, I felt instantly attracted to the mixture of people ... not going to help me directly but broaden me as an academic.

While the main focus of this phase was developing academic publishing acumen, that is, writing skills to publish in academic journals and knowing the processes involved in publishing, there was also a developing sense of collaboration in a core group. There was also, for some, an ownership issue in order to take the group to new directions that then emerged in Phase III.

Phase III July 2000 - Nov 2000

A meeting in July attracted seven members, from Instructional Design (Distance Education), Science - Mathematics, Science - Nursing (2), Preparatory Studies (2) and Equal Opportunity. While there was no facilitator with as much experience as the previous two, a new coordinator, who had just completed her PhD, emerged within the group and there was general consensus that we needed to get on with writing. One participant noted:

It took us a bit longer to get to the stage of writing - to get us to do something ... we're sick of listening.
Fortnightly meetings were agreed on, and specific tasks were allocated: The real driving force thereafter was an application for a research university grant for a participatory action research process whose aims included: Participants were asked to start journaling about writing generally and about their thoughts on this group's processes especially, within 24 hours of each meeting, and to reflect on the obstacles that prevent us from writing. At the same time participants were reading relevant articles on writing and writing groups (e.g., Bartlett & Mercer, 1999; Day, 1996; Elbow, 1998; Grant & Knowles, 2000; Morss & Murray, 2001).

In August when one of the members left the university, she offered this reflection:

I only got to a few of the meetings, but I was able to bring the introduction to a paper I'd already presented at a conference but wanted to write up for a journal for scrutiny. I found that process very helpful - I've always had to do my writing in isolation, best guessing what I thought the readers wanted, and always very nervous when the readers were significant (such as examiners, or journal editors). It was wonderful to have supportive people give me immediate feedback as to how they understood what I had written, and able to give me very constructive advice on how to better focus both the introduction and the article (which I still have to write - although it motivated me enormously, other things got in the way, and the nature of my job often makes it more difficult to set aside writing time).
The research grant submission was successful at faculty level and was used to support a literature review. The group had a 'pregnant pause' for one year while other writing tasks took precedence. However the six participants were still willing to continue to be part of the writing group, as one participant reflected:
I had to make a decision to stay or not - it had to be worthwhile ... If we weren't going to publish anything ... now this is keeping me here, definitely worth my time. I wouldn't be able to find a buddy to support me in my area.
Phase IV - November 2001 to June 2002

The group (now six members) reconvened at the beginning of 2002 with renewed vigour to concentrate on the researching of literature in this area and the writing of three articles based on the experiences of this writing group. While the facilitator organised the meetings, members directed the focus of the meetings and held other informal meetings as necessary.

Meetings 20 and 21 were based around the business of writing and had a reflective aspect as can be seen from journal entries:

My attitude has changed .... Now don't accept the word rejected (from reviewers). Don't see it as rejection and re do what is needed.

Hear it in my mind far worse than it is and reread it a few days later. That's the editor doing a good job and accept it graciously ... confident to defend my position.

These final two stages were very different, with the emphasis moving towards publishing acumen: from individual identity to collaborative collegiality, from leadership with an external focus to an internal one, and a strongly developing affective component. The change in these four areas can be expressed by Table 2.

Table 2: Writing group evolution: developmental phases in four domains

Domain:Phase:       I    ---------------------->    IV
---->Neophyte publishing and writing
Seek knowledge on the process of publishing and writing
Emerging publishing and writing skills
Testing writing and investigating publishing
Publishing and writing expertise
Most with some experience and more writing
Drawn together by a will to write; part of a larger women's network
Influenced by experience peers supporting each other in a writing group
Collaborative collegiality
Community collaboration support across disciplines
Willing to take organizational tasks
Co-mentoring and early stage of relationship and supporting each other
Participatory leadership
In collaboration and subgroups
Motivation, confidence
Investment, satisfaction, and /or pleasure

Limited and fluctuating
Motivated, more confident, satisfied, pleased with the investment


While the USQ writing group evolved in its own very distinctive way, its original framework emerged from studies at UTS and Murdoch. These two studies shared the following, which were in contrast to our group: Themes emerged from all groups in four broad domains of publishing acumen, identity, leadership and affect.
  1. Publishing acumen in terms of knowledge from the writing and publishing perspective:

  2. Identity in terms of self and as part of a group:

  3. Leadership in terms of facilitation and participation within the group:

  4. Affect:

While the UTS and Murdoch groups appeared to have structure and fixed size, the size of the USQ groups fluctuated, and the nature of the leadership evolved. As more experienced facilitators fulfilled their roles and moved on, the group members gradually assumed more responsibility. This evolution was probably the biggest difference from the other universities' groups. Development of peer learning environments appeared to be a strong feature of the USQ group from the beginning and common characteristics of the search for publishing acumen, identity, leadership and affect reflect strong similarities with the other two groups. These will be discussed in more detail below.

Publishing Acumen

Publishing knowledge: As with the other groups, the search for knowledge emerged early at USQ, stimulated by reading articles on writing, such as Grant and Knowles (2000) and Elbow (1998). The first two or three meetings focussed on targeting the correct journal, and using conferences and journals strategically. Other seminars had already addressed the issues of time management strategies, and publishing acumen was already developing and being shared. Two participants reflected:

Needed information know how to publish generally.

How do other people do it eg choosing the journal ... the whole business of being in writing.

A self-knowledge was also emerging in terms of what works for them, and how to write journal and conference papers. Two participants commented:
Doing a bit of research every day? Nope didn't work for me.

I need models to work from and someone to drive me to help set goals. Not many academics in my area to model from.

Writing knowledge: The practice and process of text production for publication was an important part of all these models but the USQ process was different from that of UTS. We found more benefit in analysing sections of work rather than full articles, because we were in different stages of writing. We did not feel we had the time to critique whole texts and found a sense of achievement in looking at a section of the writing process. While the content of the work could not be assessed in depth, smaller parts could be critiqued in one session. The focussed goal of writing was taken a step further in Phases III and IV as seen in these excerpts from participants' emails:
The writing group helps me to focus and the diary helps me see where I'm at.

There is little academic writing happening in (discipline) especially at my academic level, so the opportunity to share ideas and be part of a determined and goal focused writing group was motivating and supported my writing attempts.


Self: The groups at UTS and Murdoch found that participants initially did not see themselves as writers nor as part of a community of writers, but that this gradually developed over time. For our group, this did not appear to be a major concern. All the group members were part of a larger women's network which had developed confidentiality and a feeling of being part of a larger community of writers, and so the task of reviewing was undertaken fairly early in the group's history. The radical shift that the UTS colleagues identified (from adult educators to academics) was not an issue. In the UTS study all group members were from the Faculty of Education, and in the Murdoch study, all were from the same broad discipline area. At USQ, the members were from, in the main, different faculties and hence the development of collegial relations was even stronger than in the UTS group. Not only were we using disparate theoretical frameworks, we had different orientations and the whole corpuses of knowledge were different. Participants noted this:

Attracted to the persons in the group the different disciplines that to me had an internal worth on its own ... did not help in style but be aware of other writings.

While my writing was in a different genre and people couldn't comment on the content, it was kind of nice to feel that what you had to say and write impressed other academics.

The development of the "normal business" of being an academic mentioned in the UTS study took a different form at USQ whose idea of a writing group was seen as part of the normal process of being an academic.

Collaborative collegiality: This was strong in all groups. UTS writers considered an overall principle of 'peer-ness' as important in the development of any writing group and the Murdoch writers spoke of the benefits of collaboration, a community of writing, professional support and sharing work and the actual talking about writing. It is more than "collegiality" which, as Boud and Lee (1999) point out, may be too "laissez-faire" and not meet new academic standards. It is also more than "collaboration" which suggests working together on many different levels such as "collegial, meritorious, mentoring and directing" (Hart, 2000). It may take the form of either or both aspects at different times. This flexibility became important as the USQ group evolved. When the final structure emerged, one aspect that became clear was the group members' sense of isolation from mainstream academic culture. Nursing, preparatory studies and instructional design are not seen as traditional areas for academic research, and women in mathematics and offices of equal opportunity have their own sense of isolation. The group's sense of cooperative collegiality emerged from normal academic isolation and area specific isolation. The USQ group members had the advantage of being exposed to different forms of writing and publishing acumen within and outside of the group, but enjoyed sharing the experiences.

I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the group meetings plus the feed back on papers (one participant).

Very supportive way to work; smart way to work (one of the facilitators).


While leadership appeared to be the strongest theme in the USQ group, especially in terms of coordinating at the beginning and facilitating at the end, the other two groups had themes of leadership as well. UTS incorporated some of this notion in 'peer-ness' where experts taught a new researcher but where an expert writer also had a draft submitted for group feedback. The Murdoch group did not mention leadership but spoke in terms of collegiality and cooperation, and planning appeared to be a group process. In either group, participatory leadership appeared essential whether it be within or drawn from outside the group.


Motivation, confidence, satisfaction and pleasure: Commitment and motivation were important components of the other groups. While this may have been a weakness in our initial stage (as seen by variable attendance), the final stages saw this affective domain emerge especially strongly when members could see they were participant researchers/writers. This is not to say earlier participants did not derive pleasure or satisfaction from their experience and some went on to another writing group which did not continue. It may have been that committed individuals made this writing group a success, each person continuing with a clear purpose. Feelings of satisfaction and pleasure in the other groups were also strongly reflected at USQ:

... a supervisor who never gave me any positives ... affirmatives I never had in my years of writing ... really important to me.

I often went to meetings thinking I'm really too busy to be spending this time at a writers meeting and always came away re-energized and feeling glad to be part of the group.

In summary there appear to be seven overall strengths in the USQ group:


From the emerging literature, it appears that writing groups can play an important role in the development of academic writing. These processes reflect the same patterns as any development from novice to expert, as writers gradually see and apply the processes of writing and publishing. This article has shown that while there are common structures, developments and themes in writing groups, the developmental processes must be flexible enough to suit local conditions. In the USQ group, participants (all women) were from different faculties; there was no one leader; and no defined end. Teams may emerge with from five to ten members, with or without study buddies, with or without a resident expert, with or without an established end point, and with or without a commonality of discipline. While these alternatives may emerge as the group evolves, awareness of the range of possibilities is important. The experience of the USQ group suggests that there is no need for anxiety over issues like the lack of an expert, or stringent timelines, and indeed constraints like these may even impede the natural working of the group.

Publishing acumen, identity and a strong affective element appear clearly in writing groups. Another theme that appears to be consistent is the atypical identity of the groups. This atypical identity became a strong bond that kept the group together for an extended period, resulting in a strong sense of collaborative collegiality, which was an essential element in all groups. Writing and productivity was another strong theme and more affective themes of motivation, satisfaction, pleasure and confidence were an unsurprising characteristic of all the models.

One question clearly worth addressing is why some writing groups flounder. The UTS study noted that one group changed considerably after a change in convenor. In our study, the attempt to start a parallel group failed. How often does this happen and why should a group dissolve when it reaches a particular stage? Do personalties impact on the success of the group? Is sheer good timing the recipe for success? The USQ experience suggests that within a successful group, committed participants shape the goals and mould the model to meet their needs and wishes.

Finally, while it is clear that there are unique steps in the development of any writing group, some characteristics and developmental patterns are similar. Knowledge of other groups' successes and challenges is as valuable as inculcating group interaction, and such knowledge informs the emerging academic writing communities.


Academics who are no longer at USQ who contributed to the writing group: Shirley Wilson, Marian Sullivan and Lucy Zinkiewicz.


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George, L., Martin-McDonald, K., Galligan, L., Cretchley, P., McDonald, J., & Rankin, J. (2003, June). Issues that confront professional women entering academe through non-traditional academic career paths. Paper presented at the Researching Research Agendas: Women, Research and Publication in Higher Education, Perth.

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Martin McDonald, K., George, L., Cretchley, P., Galligan, L., McDonald, J., & Rankin, J. (in press). An Academic Women's writing group - emerging needs and trends. International Journal for Academic Development.

Morss, K., & Murray, R. (2001). Researching academic writing within a structured programme: Insights and outcomes. Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), 35-59.

Murray, R., & Mackay, G. (1998). Writers' groups for researchers and how to run them. Briefing Paper 60. Sheffield: Universities and Colleges' Staff Development Agency.

Rodgers, R., & Rodgers, N. (1999). The sacred spark of academic research. Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory, 9(3), 473-492.

Saunders, S., Sampson, J., & Lee, A. (1998). Proceedings of the Winds of Change: Women and the Culture of Universities international conference, University of Technology Sydney, 13-17 July.

Streuly, C. A., & Maranto, C. L. (1994). Accounting faculty research productivity and citations: Are there gender differences? Issues in Accounting Education, 9(2), 248-263.

Wunsch, M. A. (1993). Mentoring probationary women academics: A pilot programme for career development. Studies in Higher Education, 18(3), 349-369.

< td>Author details: Linda Galligan, Patricia Cretchley, Lucy George, Kris Martin McDonald, Jacquie McDonald and Janet Rankin, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland 4350, Australia. Phone: 07 4631 2693; Fax: 07 4631 2407. Email: galligan@usq.edu.au

Please cite as: Galligan, L., Cretchley, P., George, L., Martin McDonald, K., McDonald, J. and Rankin, J. (2003). Evolution and emerging trends of university writing groups. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(1), 28-41. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/galligan.html

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