The Writing Buddy System

In last week’s post about her writing goals for the year, Tanya mentioned that she and I have been connecting with each other regularly under the guise of Writing Buddies. This Writing Buddy system began with an email invitation by her as she was setting her 2016 goals at the end of last year.  Since the New Year, we’ve been checking in with each other regularly about each other’s respective projects, ideas, and creative dreams. In this post, I’ll talk more about this concept, give some tips for anyone interested in starting their own writing buddy system, and reflect a bit on how its helped my writing practice.

What is a Writing Buddy, and Why is it Helpful?

When I was in grad school, I’d meet with two friends every couple of weeks in person in one of our houses. We’d usually go over one of our dissertation chapters while noshing on snacks and sipping coffee or tea. We’d combine these meetings with semi-regular emails looking for advice at moments that one of us was stumped on our respective projects. Although these check-ins acted as forms of accountability for getting work done, over time they also began to play a more fundamental role in our collective success. I got to know each person’s project more and more with each meeting. Over time I became a fan and advocate for my friends’ work. I came to understand and empathize with where they were struggling and why, and through that process, was also able to understand more about my own work. And when a committee member would critique my work, I had peers to help me sort out what was useful and what was not. In other words, these regular meetings provided much needed camaraderie and support.

The Writing Buddy system that Tanya and I have developed is rooted on the same principles. The work of writing (and research) is a lonely business that gets little love in modern society. In a culture that often seems to prioritize extrinsic rewards, it can be hard to chip away at a project that might not even see the light of day. Pursuing a regular writing practice means you’ve got to put yourself first, which can be ridiculously hard if you’v also got to find a way to make ends meet, or when external pressures conflict with that creative urge. When I first thought about making writing a more regular habit in my life, it was to scratch an itch that I’d had for a years writing about aspects of my rural identity. At the time, I had only been done with my PhD less than a year, and so even though I felt the urge to rebel, I was nervous scratching that creative itch would prove to be a mistake. One of the most important roles of the Writing Buddy system for me is that it has has given me a little nudge towards my goals, and has made me feel like I’m not alone.

Finding a Good Writing Buddy

Luckily for me, I was on the receiving end of Tanya’s invitation, so the challenge of finding someone to work with was not something I had to think about. Yet as soon as Tanya wrote, I knew she’d be a good writing partner. She and I have known each other for several years at this point, and have witnessed each other go through a number of life changing moments, including finishing dissertations, graduating, pursuing post-grad work, and having kids. I also knew the project that she is writing, on women in the military, is a subject that I genuinely want to learn more about. Because she and I both have a child, I had a good hunch we’d both be sympathetic to each others’ challenges related to motherhood and work-life balance as well. Since we started our regular check-ins, I’ve also realized that it’s also important to find a partner who has what is often called an “attitude of abundance” or else your check ins will probably backfire.  It’s critical that they see your accomplishments as something to root for, not a form of competition. As Julia Cameron notes in her well-known book The Artist’s Way, creativity tends to be born and fostered in a spirit of generosity.

How does our Writing Buddy System work?

Let’s talk first about issues of timing. While you can start using a Writing Buddy at anytime, the regular accountability and support can be especially helpful at a moment of change in your life. Some people may want to find a writing partner at the new academic year, at the beginning of a new season, at the beginning of a brand new project, or at the start of a dissertation. In our case, Tanya contacted me in December with the goal of making 2016 her year of writing. Our “Writing Buddy” system thus became linked to a broader set of New Years goals and resolutions.

And as for how? Although Tanya and I once lived in the same city, we now live two timezones away, so it’s impossible for us to meet in person. So we do the next best thing. We use a few different tools to keep connected and apprised of each other projects and process. Our goal is to connect with each other somehow about once a week with some kind of check in. Then about once a month, we connect via Skype or Google Hangout to expand on the discussions we started in our check ins.

When we first started, we tried connect via a more “traditional” digital approach – we’d  email each other with our updates weekly.  But soon, we figured out that it can be hard to keep track of comments in email. The write-and-respond system also makes it far too easy to get off track when one person replies about one small piece of information included in the original email. So by February, we abandoned email for a shared Google Document.

The Google Doc we set up is simple. Every week, one of us writes a heading with that Sunday’s date. Then, each of us checks in at the beginning of the week with whatever is on our mind. Usually, my check-in includes a reflection on the previous week, an assessment of where I am, a set of short term and long term goals, and any discussion of frustrations or challenges I’m having. Then, once Tanya’s post is up, I’ll use the comment tab to ask any questions or provide words of encouragement.

I should note that don’t get too picky about deadlines for our check-ins. Because we are open with each other about our challenges, our schedules, and the bumpiness of life and teaching that can get in the way of the writing process, there are weeks that one of us misses a week or two. If that happens, we usually leave the date there with but leave the check in blank. Nor do we get picky about the length of a check in. There are times when one of us is feeling the need to write extensively about their project, and other times, when a couple of sentences is enough.

During our monthly Google Hangout/Skype times, we spend time catching up, answering each other questions, and most of all, usually just focus on cheering each other on.

Additional Benefits

In addition to the benefits I mentioned above, I’ve also gotten some book recommendations, and when I encounter something that I think Tanya might like, I send it on. This summer, for example, Tanya recommended Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, so we ended up both reading it and talking about our favorite parts.

Writing can be such an up and down process. Some weeks things go quickly, some weeks, it’s like wrestling an octopus. Right now, our weekly check in document is 21 pages long. I am soothed by knowing that through thick and thin we’ve stuck it out. In addition to all the support,  I like having that living document of the process of work, reminding me of my persistence, my efforts, my triumphs and challenges, over the course of the year.

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