Writing groups and the art of the Pomodoro #LTUacwrimo (Priscilla Ennals, Carmel Hobbs and Ingrid Wilson)

Writing in progress!
Photo by Carmel Hobbs, Priscilla Ennals and Ingrid Wilson.
Academic writing and doing a PhD can often feel like a hard and solitary experience, but it doesn't have to.

As part of La Trobe's 2016 Academic Writing Month, this week's post is by Priscilla Ennals, Carmel Hobbs, and Ingrid Wilson, who share their experiences of being part of writing group, and the techniques that got them through the PhD process together.

Rule 1: Respect the silent writing time – this is a writing group and we all need to leave with words on the page.

The phone alarm goes off signalling the end of a 25 -minute Pomodoro, which is the way we structure our Fridays in the group. 25 minutes silent writing, then a break of 5-15 minutes (filled with talking, drinking, eating, and moving).

This is repeated multiple times. We generate a rhythm of 6, 8, or 10 blocks of silent writing interspersed with bursts of talk, support, advice, and listening.

Rule 2: Be socially involved, share your ups and downs, test ideas, praise or whinge about your supervisor, but also be self-aware – maintaining a positive vibe helps with the writing.

The PhD, and writing more generally, can be a very lonely and isolating process. No-one else really gets what you are doing, no-one really wants to engage in your argument or hear the pain of your struggle and effort. Connecting with others who are doing something similar, who get the effort involved, who might care about methodological intricacies or chapter structure dilemmas, and who are also negotiating with supervisors, can be a tonic for the isolation.

Rule 3: Find a space where you can meet that suits your needs – writing does not require a lot of infrastructure but decent chairs, access to a cup of tea, and natural light can help.

We write in a lovely room with a floor-to-ceiling window. There is no wi-fi; we've come to appreciate this as a boon for writing productivity. It forces us to be organised, to come with a plan and any sources we need pre-downloaded. We found this space at Bouverie, a La Trobe campus in Brunswick. Jeff Young (Director) and Penny (Business Manager) generously allowed us to use the space without cost.

Rule 4: Optional and flexible attendance. Come when you can and stay for as long as you can – writing has to fit in with life.

Writers drift in and out across the day, depending on schedules and non-writing obligations. Near the middle of the day, we might have 6 or 8 of us there while, earlier or later, there maybe 2 or 3. Other days, it is a small group all day.

Rule 5: Find the right people to write with – there needs to be some common ground along with an openness to learn to from others.

Our group lasted for around 18 months and at least some of us met on most Fridays across that time. We formed following a 3-day Kathy Charmaz grounded theory workshop (which was blogged about earlier). Kathy had advocated for writing groups during the workshop and, miraculously, we found each other: 8 or so of us who were all using grounded theory in our PhDs, all somewhere in the middle of the PhD process, and all living close enough to meet regularly. 

The common theme of grounded theory and being at a similar stage in our research process seemed to be important in making our group work. Our questions and struggles often progressed along a similar arc and the group was a learning space for us all. We shared epiphanies, headway, blocks and barriers.

Together we interpreted and re-interpreted complex constructivist grounded theory analytic processes. Our research topics varied widely and yet we often found our ideas or arguments or struggles were similar.

Rule 6: Let a writing group run its course and don’t force it – groups come and go. They do not last forever.

Our group dissipated without much discussion after about 18 months. This was a natural process as some people completed their PhDs, and went more part-time, changed jobs, or travelled. There needs to be vigorous commitment from at least 2 members to keep a group going, but needs can change over time.

Rule 7: Acknowledge and celebrate milestones along the way – writing is hard, and completed writing is an achievement worth celebrating.

Carmel, Ingrid, and Priscilla were part of a La Trobe-generated writing group in 2014 and 2015. Between them they have one PhD in the bag, one submitted, and one very close, along with multiple published articles - all of which progressed through this group. They still meet up occasionally and the group has dinner planned in a few weeks' time to celebrate writing and non-writing milestones: PhD submissions, publications, well-received conference presentations, new jobs, and a baby.


Priscilla Ennals was a PhD candidate at La Trobe University from 2012-2015. Her thesis explored the experiences of university students with mental health issues.

She is an occupational therapist and lectured at La Trobe in Occupational Therapy for 12 years until mid-2015.

She is currently the Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation at Neami National, a large national provider of community mental health services.

Carmel Hobbs is a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe.

Her research is a qualitative project exploring the experiences of young people who disengage from mainstream schools and re-engage in an alternative setting. Carmel currently works as an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Public Health here at La Trobe.

Ingrid Wilson is a PhD candidate at the Judith Lumley Centre. Her research explores opportunities to reduce alcohol-related intimate partner violence, drawing on the experience of women survivors. 

She established and co-ordinates the La Trobe University Violence Against Women Research Network (LAVAWN).