Composing in glass houses: Technology, social media, and the practice of writing
If you’re anything like me, scholarly writing is not the easiest or most exciting of activities. As useful as it is, I still rate it at about the level of fun as when I was 5 and accidentally smashed my own hand in the family minivan door.
It is for that very reason that the writing group was invented: for encouragement, commiseration, accountability, perspective, and yes, honing written communication. The writing group teaches us to write transparently: to demystify the writing process and make every step, from idea to final product, as clear to the reader as it is to the writer. This transparency can be frightening. There’s a lingering fear that showing people my work-in-progress will be like showing everyone my glass house: it’s fine if I have time to clean it up for planned visits, but if passers-by peeked in they would see it in complete disarray. And how can you respect a peer who clearly left last night’s partially consumed pop-tart and glass of Chardonnay next to the sofa?
While traditional writing groups demand that I clean my house more frequently and keep everything a bit more ordered, there are a number of useful new (and not-so-new) tech and media tools to enable more encouragement, commiseration, and accountability:
- For busy schedules, Doodle polls and Google Calendar help with meeting times and group deadlines (both may be shared with specific groups);
- For those of us who travel a great deal (or live in different parts of the country/world), meet in real time via Google+ Hangouts, which allows you to see and talk to multiple people at the same time;
- Sharing and syncing documents via DropBox is simple and manageable, while Google Docs offers real-time editing. Either way, your in-box stays clutter-free;
- Use Twitter to alert others when a group member is writing, or alert others via text message;
- And yes, group notes and reminders still go out via email.
Sure, it isn’t necessary to be technologically intense in writing groups, but instead of integrating writing into my weekly routine, the technology has helped me to integrate writing into my daily routine. Distance (social and physical) follows a well-known direct relationship: the closer the carrot or stick, the greater the motivation. Most of us have a difficult time looking a peer in the eye and saying, “I slacked off this week.”
So much for the stick. But each of the social media and digital aspects of the group has a role to play in bringing group members closer together at each stage of the writing process. These moment-to-moment interactions allow for all parts of the writing process to become visible to all group members: good day or bad day; struggling, surviving, or succeeding; each person’s writing processes are visible to everyone else. Just as importantly, it helps us become familiar with our own unique writing processes. And incremental progress emphasizes writing as process, which is the prelude to product.
Don’t get me wrong: we’ve had frustrations. Arguments over software (Microsoft vs. Anything Else) and combining document edits; hardware issues (I finally got a webcam); and bizarre internet issues (“the DoD is scrambling your wireless signal??”) have taken time to work through. But we are working, some steadily, some in fits and starts, on designated projects, and seeing results and feedback quickly. And my group members, who now have a near-unobstructed view into my glass house, are surprisingly forgiving about the mess – and I’m finally getting used to the idea that their houses aren’t always so neat, either. So we learn to give and receive feedback from peers: those who are not grading us, giving us (or denying us) funding (yet), and who are writing in the same glass houses. Under these circumstances, nobody seems inclined to throw any stones.