A writing community is important for all writers. It is no fun to write alone and writing alone does not push you to think and stretch and grow. Belonging to a community of writers can help you do things you never thought possible. It is more than the feedback you receive as a writer, it is also reading the work of other writers and helping them craft their work. It is engaging in talks about writing and words and writers. As humans we crave community. We learn better in communities. We achieve more in communities. That is why writers need a community to support their growth.
But community does not just happen and a community of writers doesn’t happen by accident. You do not put a group of students in a room and expect them to instantly become a community of writers because you make them write together and force them to peer review. That is actually a recipe for disaster. Don’t make me tell you the stories. You need to give your students a reason to support each other. Too often students bring a long history of bad experiences working in groups and giving feedback – you need to overcome that first.
So how do you create a community of writers? You first bring them together and share – share their lives, their interests, before sharing their writing. My personal favorite is to use six word memoirs or six word stories to introduce my students. Sometimes I use Me Museums as we do with our Summer Institute. Sometimes I try to match these introductions to the class – for example, with my comic book class we introduced ourselves using six word memoirs about our super powers.
I also create lots of opportunities to connect. In an online class this means creating back channels as well as official class discussion spaces – I’ve used Twitter but now prefer Google+ for this. In my traditional classes this means creating groups and fostering lots of conversations. We begin by sharing ideas and responding to those ideas, modeling how supportive feedback works, when those ideas are still fresh and new and no one expects them to be polished and the authors are not very invested in them.
Only after we get to know each other and understand how to share and explore ideas together do we begin to share writing, but there we also begin very very slowly. Long before my students get involved in any type of heavy duty peer review of an important writing assignment we are sharing lots and lots of low stakes writing. We write almost every class – traditionally a simple prompt that is intended to get them thinking about the topic we will discuss that day – and those reflections are not shared – just the ideas that they represent. We are writing together, but at this point the writing is simply a tool, a stepping stone. Students do, however, contribute to a class blog every week (inspired by those class reflections and discussions). This is also low stakes writing – the writing is not graded on spelling, grammar, etc. but simply the contribution to our class conversation. But the writing is shared with the class and the class is expected to respond to the ideas shared and questions raised.
It is only after we have spent weeks getting to know each other, exploring and learning together, and writing together that we begin to offer suggestions and questions about writing because, in my view, it is essential that we build community, we build trust, or that feedback itself will be meaningless – just as it has been in the past.
That’s how I build community and it is very similar to the way that we build community in our summer institute. We begin by getting to know each other, using me museums, and then we begin to write together but in those early days we know that these are just ideas, not polished pieces, so we celebrate the emotion, the sensations, the ideas, and the words, but we don’t judge, we don’t polish, we don’t critique. We simply revel in the joy of creating word magic together.