The benign dictatorship and distributed delivery of a writing accountability group
Writing is famously difficult. I have visions of a prolific publishing schedule, but a glance at my Medium or Substack shows a far more meagre output. It turns out that writing is much easier with body doubling (working on something individually alongside others, borrowed from the ADHD community), someone to facilitate (or host) you, and regular accountability. These are the three magic ingredients of Blog Club that make writing, if not joyful, then a little less painful.
Blog Club is a fortnightly writing group that I stewarded for the first two years (despite only rarely attending for health reasons). I have recently handed over Stewardship to Connie van Zanten. It’s a good time to reflect on small but powerful experiment in accountability and distributed delivery.
How it works
- 1 hour, every other Friday morning at 10am GMT over video call
- The hour consists of: a 5 minute check-in, 50 minutes writing (screens on, sound muted), ending with a 5 minute check-out
- At the end of the check-out, someone volunteers to be the Host of the next session in two weeks time.
Steward: The one accountable person for Blog Club. They make all decisions about Blog Club (but can and should ask for advice from Writers where needed) and are responsible for making sure it happens every two weeks. This role involves 5–10 minutes of effort every fortnight to keep things ticking over.
Host: The facilitator of each Blog Club. This rotates every time. At the end of each session, the Host asks the Writers who will host next time. The new Host sends the calendar invite for the next session. Once you’ve attended one Blog Club to see how it works, you can Host, and newbies often Host immediately after their first session. We include clear Hosting instructions in every calendar invite (see below) to allow this role to be easily distributed. Charlotte Fountaine came up with the word “Host” for the session facilitator, which sets a really welcoming tone.
Writers: The participants of Blog Club. Their only job is to turn up and write. You really feel the generosity when you participate as a Writer, knowing that the Steward and Host for that week are holding all the administrative duties, leaving you to focus solely on your writing.
What interests me about Blog Club
The body doubling and accountability really works
The reason that Blog Club has lasted for two years, despite minimal steering and effort, is because it works. The accountability of body doubling while you’re writing feels both like you’re being gently “watched” and supported to write. When I was well enough to attend most sessions, I wrote and published consistently. The feedback from Writers is consistently that the format really works.
It combines governance by benign dictatorship and distributed delivery
As the first Steward of Blog Club, I had a strong vision for it from the start. I knew the day, time, format, roles, purpose and tone of voice needed to make it work (the “container”). None of this was co-created or up for discussion, I simply decided it, hopefully in a benign dictatorship sort-of-way, and then attracted people for whom this appealed.
Aside from the container set by the Steward, Blog Club has distributed roles and responsibilities (delivery), as Hosts elect themselves and run the sessions, rotating each time. The fact the container is set and held by the Steward allows the distribution of roles between Hosts and Writers to work efficiently and autonomously without input from the Steward, even within a group that has no interaction or social ties outside of Blog Club. If day, time, format and roles were constantly up for discussion, Blog Club would crumble under the weight of a weakly tied group attempting to make decisions by consensus, which I observe all the time in my work as an organisational designer.
It’s easy to transfer roles
As described above, Hosting is an easy role that anyone can perform after having attended one Blog Club session.
It was also surprisingly easy to transfer Stewardship from myself to Connie. I’ve never met Connie, but all it took was a short email exchange and she was all set up and ready to Steward. Connie now holds all decision-making rights about Blog Club.
It’s a writing club, not a social club
The social etiquette of the Club was also set by myself. One of our members once asked me to arrange a Blog Club meetup. I said no. This is a writing club, not a social club. This may sound harsh, but I am a fan of clearly demarcated, intentional spaces. Blog Club is for writing only, something that many of us struggle to accomplish, and we need a dedicated, supportive space for that. There are plenty of other spaces for socialising and building communities with deep social ties. Of course, there is nothing stopping people from picking up the connections they make in Blog Club and deepening those connections outside of Blog Club. If that has happened, that’s wonderful. But I love that this is a space with no obligations beyond turning up every two weeks, if you want, and writing for 50 minutes.
I initially toyed with setting up a Whatsapp group for the Club but I’m glad I didn’t. There’s something about the formality of it exisiting only over email and calendar invites that means that people don’t send superflous messages. No one wants to spam 50 people.
What works and doesn’t work
- Having one accountable person who is the decision-maker, the Steward. There is zero effort required from Writers in co-creating the Club
- Extremely light duties for the Steward
- Separating the Steward and Host roles. Due to illness, I couldn’t attend Blog Club as a Writer for 12 months, let alone Host, but I continued to Steward during that time
- The simple format — 5 mins check-in, 50 mins writing, 5 mins check-out. This means that anyone can Host, as long as they’ve attended a minimum of one Blog Club session
- Having all the information in the calendar invite so the Host can pick it up easily
- Email and Calendar, no Whatsapp/ Slack/ Discord
- It’s every two weeks, not every week. Every week feels onerous, like an obligation. Every fortnight feels like an event, a treat. I run most of my life on a fortnightly rhythm — it’s the sweet spot between regularity and spaciousness
- The casual nature of it. We usually have about 4 people attend each fortnight, there are a few regulars but often it’s newcomers or people who haven’t been for months.
What doesn’t work
- Hosts are encouraged to send out email invites immediately so that the next Blog Club is in people’s diaries with two weeks notice, but this often falls by the wayside, with invites appearing late, which I think harms attendance. This is one of the trade-offs for the Host role being so autonomous, and the Steward role so hands-off
- The same people tend to volunteer to Host. I don’t know if this is a good thing (they are the only people that want to Host) or a bad thing (people don’t feel confident enough to Host, suggesting there’s an inclusion issue)
- It’s quite anonymous as no one person consistently attends every week. I have no sense of how diverse the membership of Writers is, for example
- Sharing our writing with each other. This happened at the beginning but stopped fairly quickly, as least as a whole group activity. It’s possible that people are sharing in pairs or smaller groups, in ways that the Steward doesn’t have sight of. I wonder if sharing as a whole group would create more demands (to read each other’s writing) than the group is set up to handle? We would also need a Whatsapp/ Slack/ Discord group to make this work, as there would need to be a mechanism for feeding back on pieces without sending a lot of emails. Perhaps this is the trade-off for having a focused writing group, where we’re about writing and publishing (getting it done) rather than critiquing each other’s work (improving our writing)?
- I have transferred Stewardship from myself to Connie, but it’s unclear to me whether I have transferred Source to Connie. The Source of an initiative is the person that has the first idea, and holds the vision and integrity of the work. They tend to know intuitively what will and won’t work to keep the soul of a project intact. I suspect Connie and I need a deeper conversation about this.