Track Changes: Dissertation Writing Groups

Thinking about starting the new academic year as part of a writing group? These communities can offer a lot during the process of writing a dissertation: different readers might point out unclear aspects of an argument you have taken for granted, or let you know how your work resonates with research in another discipline; peers keep you accountable in the intervals between consultation with advisors; and of course, meeting regularly with friends leavens the isolation of long hours spent reading, coding, and revising.

If you are looking to start or join a writing group, check out a few guides and reflections, such as:

While completing my dissertation, I participated in two writing groups. Each varied in size, followed distinct organizational patterns, and impacted my work in different—but equally vital—ways. Group 1 comprised just 3 members. We met once a month, giving detailed feedback on one person’s pre-circulated chapter. By the time we went to the job market, we knew each other’s work quite well, and changed our regular meeting schedule to include practice interviews and job talks. Group 2 comprised 5 members. We were looking for a bit more accountability in our writing during the summer months, so we agreed on a rotating schedule in which we each had to send a short sample of new or revised writing (up to 5 pages) to another group member on Fridays. When the academic year became more intense, we shifted these incremental exchanges to a schedule like that of Group 1. Still, we maintained our focus on accountability by holding interim meetings where we simply caught up on each other’s projects.

Based on these experiences, I’ve come up with few thoughts on successful and meaningful work in a writing group:

1. Don’t wait

I was just drafting my prospectus when two friends invited me to join them in Group 1. I was hesitant, thinking that I simply didn’t have enough material yet. Still, I said yes and sent around the prospectus for comment. The detailed—and difficult—responses from my friends both prepared me for my prospectus colloquium and had a formative impact on my project.

2. Organize the feedback you receive

If I sent my writing group, say, a 25-page chapter section, I would likely receive back (1) a page of overall comments, (2) a copy of my file with a more specific inline notes, and (3) additional spoken points during our meeting. Implementing feedback requires a system, so decide early how you will organize these notes.

3. Cultivate the art of the response

Articulating clear questions and productive comments are skills that translate across and beyond academia. Reflect on how you go about critiquing the work of your peers, and hone these skills for use in the classroom, the conference room, and everywhere else.