Dissertation writing can be an isolating experience. The magnitude of the project can overwhelm. Dissertation writing groups—comprised of fellow dissertators who provide feedback—are a lifeline.
There are three kinds of writing groups:
- Quiet writing with company. Meeting with others to write for a specified time period; also called Shut Up and Write (here is a virtual SUAW community) or DIY Writing.
- Support groups. These groups focus on helping each other through the process, and may include accountability check ins. (University of Michigan has a guide for Dissertation Support Groups.) I write about these first two kinds of groups in Dissertation Accelerators.
- Feedback groups. These groups share writing, and provide peer feedback. These are the groups I am focused on here.
The dissertation feedback groups I participated in as a doctoral student were instrumental in my success. They certainly improved my work. My productivity increased. In this blog post, I reprise and update the advice I compiled shortly after I graduated. 
The benefits of a group usually far outweigh the cost of time and energy. Feedback on your dissertation writing is the obvious benefit. There are other less obvious payoffs.
- A source of emotional support. Because you are all going through the same process, you can understand, vent, bolster, encourage, sympathize and crack the whip.
- Keep you accountable to your progress goals. Fellow students are excellent procrastination detectors. (Groups can combat Perfectionist Gridlock.)
- A community of support in a time that can be quite isolating. Some universities may feel uncaring and anonymous places. Creating a community of sympathetic peers provides an oasis.
- Develop skills in creating a supportive intellectual community, in giving, and in receiving feedback.
- Peer mentors are often harder critics than faculty. Practicing a proposal defense or conference presentation in a group can help iron out all of the kinks. A group of students familiar with your work ask harder questions than most faculty members! It is confidence building to satisfy your peers.
- Supplement input from faculty. Students are able to give each other more time than most faculty members can. In addition, there are not the power imbalances that exist between faculty and students.
- Open up possibilities for research collaboration.
- Group members can be sources of new resources, perspectives and ideas.
Eleven Things to Discuss When Starting
Successful writing groups have negotiated a shared understanding about the answers to these questions. There are no right answers, but all members need to agree. The goal for is to help each member of the group make progress and finish the dissertation. The agreed upon answers set the ground rules for the group. (These 11 questions are adapted from the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking at Stanford University’s Academic Writing Group starter kit.)
Before the first meeting, each prospective member should review these questions and consider what might be optimal for them. During the first meeting, the group can set their plan. (Worksheets to structure your first meeting are at the end of this post.)
- How often will the group meet and for how long? Once a week, twice a week, every other week? 60, 90 or 120 minutes? When will you not meet (holidays, exam periods, major conferences)?
- Where will you meet? On-campus or off? A seminar table, a white board, and a quiet location are helpful. Far-flung group members can meet over Skype or Facetime, even if they never started face-to-face, they can be very productive, as this post attests.
- How big will the group be? Four or five members is optimal. This provides sufficient diversity, but allows each member to get feedback every 2-3 meetings.
- What are the rules for group membership? Do members’ dissertation topics have to be related or not? Same department or across departments? At the same stage of the dissertation? When are new members added? How are new members identified?
- What format will you follow at each meeting? Below is a list of some ways to spend meeting time.
- What are the “formal” roles for the group and who will play them? A facilitator keeps the discussion on task. A convener sends reminders, sets locations and calendar, and holds a copy of the Ground Rules. A time keeper monitors agreed upon time allocations. A note taker writes down keep points made during feedback. Do positions rotate?
- What kinds of work will the group read? Dissertation-related only? Or grant proposals, interview protocols, survey drafts, posters, conference papers, CVs and job letters? Loose ideas, free writing, outlines, rough drafts, polished drafts, drafts that have been seen by outside readers?
- When, how, and how much work will members submit for feedback? How many days are needed for thoughtful feedback? Via email or Dropbox? How many pages can the author give?
- What kind of feedback is reasonable to expect? How much time are readers expected to take? Setting a reasonable range keeps it equitable and manageable.
- How will members respond to each other’s writing? Will the author provide a detailed request for feedback with the text? Will readers comment directly on the draft, on a separate response sheet, via e-mail, make oral comments in the meeting, or a combination of these?
- What is the initial commitment? The startup phase of every group is a settling-in period. Give it a little time before deciding whether the group is useful. At the end of a term is a good time to revisit ground rules and shift members.
How to Spend Meeting Time
There are lots of productive ways to spend time during a meeting when you are responding to writing you have read before the meeting. Suggestions for responding to other people’s writing from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina can get you started with what to say and how to say it. Their reacting to feedback from others tips help you listen.
Feedback to the Author
- Each person provides feedback in turn.
- The author guides a group discussion on particular sections or asking specific questions.
- The author listens and take notes, without responding to group discussion. While it is initially awkward and frustrating to listen to people discuss you as if you weren’t there, it can be illuminating to hear the group try to understand and explain your work to each other (rather like discussing a reading in class). This can lead to a nuanced understanding of how you are expressing your ideas which might never emerge if you had been able to respond and explain immediately.
Other Group Activities
- Quiet reflective writing
- Set writing goals. Each person states one goal to be met by the next session. Making a public declaration increases the likelihood that you will meet it. Start the next session by briefly reviewing whether you met your goal, and if not, why not. (One goal could be to write daily; a widely-recommended technique. Academics who write daily are 10 times more productive. GradHacker advocates regular writing for grad students.)
- Update each other on milestones, triumphs, frustrations, personal lives, and what you are proud of.
- A two-hour meeting schedule for a 5-person group:
- 10 minutes: individual updates, including progress on goals set at the last meeting (2 minutes per person)
- 30 minutes: feedback each for Person A and Person B.
- 10 minutes: silent reflective writing
- 5 minutes: state a writing goal to be met by the next session (1 min. each)
A productive group has a high level of trust between members. Trust grows and develops over time; it is earned.
- Hold each other accountable for the commitments you make and the ground rules you set. Don’t accept excuses for not reading work, being tardy, skipping meetings, providing too many pages, or sharing work after the deadline.
- Be honest and thoughtful in your feedback.
- A group is a safe place to try out new ideas and present work very much “in progress.” Take intellectual risks.
- Don’t apologize for your work. Don’t be embarrassed by it.
- Laugh together.
- Share food. Rotating responsibility for snacks can be nice. Keep it reasonable; don’t try to outdo one another.
- Celebrate together.
There can be negative aspects to group work. Occasionally conflicts of personality or expectations arise, and must be addressed. Remember, if the group does not meet the needs of a participant, for whatever reason, it is OK for that person to leave the group.
- The higher education system has its competitive aspects. For example, we compete for the attention of faculty, for fellowships, for plum TA/RA opportunities, for conference presentation slots, and ultimately for jobs. Do not ignore the challenges of competing with those with whom you work most closely and cooperatively. Clear communication about expectations (Do you tell each other about newly discovered opportunities? Do you share bibliographic information and sources? Do you practice job talks in front of each other or the rest of the group?) and anxieties (acknowledging the presence of competition) is crucial for maintaining trust.
- Intellectual property rights are something to be aware of. If you are studying topics similar to that of other students in your group, it is important to air these issues. How do you acknowledge and cite each other? Who retains the “rights” to ideas developed within the group?
- Participants may have different levels of commitment to the group. Some members may demand more from others than they give back. One person may be habitually late. What happens if someone reneges on a commitment, such as not providing writing or skipping a meeting? Set aside time occasionally to revisit group ground rules and expectations.
- The time of renewal for a group, when considering adding new members, can be a difficult period. Discussions of who to include must be conducted with candor and confidentiality. The integration of new members requires patience.
There are some great worksheets in Stanford’s Academic Writing Group starter kit including:
- Writing Group Ground Rules Agreement
- Personal Goals Worksheet (What do you want to accomplish?)
- Writing Inventory (How do you write?)
- Group Work Inventory (What do you like in a group?)
There are more worksheets in Writing Group starter kit from the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill:
- Thirteen Ways of Talking About Writing Groups
- Personal Goals Worksheet
- Writing Inventory Worksheet
- About My Writing Sample Worksheet
- Group Work Inventory
- Schedule Inventory
 My original handout still lives here on the internet; written in 1994 & 1996. Updated versions were incorporated into Stanford’s Hume Center Academic Writing Group starter kit (initially in 2008). The original Starter Kit was co-written with Dr. Sohui Lee. It was updated by Dr. Sarah Pittock and Dr. Julia Bleakney.
Posted June 29, 2016.