Starting An Effective Dissertation Writing Group
By Sarah Groeneveld
Sarah Groeneveld is the Interim Associate Director of the UW-Madison Writing Center, a role she took on after working as an instructor at the Writing Center for four years. This year, she has enjoyed supporting graduate tutors, organizing and running workshops, meeting with student writers, and developing new programs such as the Graduate Writing Groups. She completed her PhD in English at UW-Madison this past summer.
Last week I received an email from Katie Zaman, a dissertator in the Sociology department, in which she told a delightful story:
“Today I was in Helen C White, organizing for the TAA, and I met a happy dissertator in the hallway. She was heading to get coffee because she had already met her writing goal for the day and it had only been half an hour in the dissertation writing session. She was smiling and relaxed and I asked her about the group – she told me I could find out how to join it by emailing you. I want to be happy like her and have writing goals and meet them! Is there an application process?”
Katie was referring to the Graduate Writing Groups that have been meeting this year at the Writing Center. These groups are made up of about twenty students who gather together once a week for three hours. During that time, graduate writers set goals, write, and then check back in at the end to share successes and keep each other accountable. As the organizer of the groups this year, I felt that Katie’s email encapsulated why these groups are so important. Writing can be a very lonely activity for graduate students. To combat that feeling of isolation, these groups are a way to see writing as something shared and collaborative – something that is more fun, less overwhelming, and more manageable when it’s done with others in the room. Through goal setting, brief conversations about writing, and – first and foremost – dedicated time for writing, the groups help graduate students get more words on the page in a supportive setting. Needless to say, I was more than happy to have Katie join a group.
The Legacy of Writing Groups
These groups are in many ways an offshoot of two other kinds of writing groups that the Writing Center has used to support graduate students in past years. Our Writers’ Retreats (which are for both graduates and undergraduates) take place about four times a semester, with different students attending each retreat. As one-time events, these retreats allow students to set aside four consecutive hours for writing any kind of assignment or project. The Graduate Writing Groups also share similarities with the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps, now in their fifth year, which are weeklong (sometimes longer) all-day camps for dissertators.
This semester’s Monday writing group meets to discuss their goals for the day.
While these two programs were and are helpful for students who want to dedicate extended periods of time to writing, we felt that there was still something missing – support to help students write consistently over the course of an entire semester. The Graduate Writing Groups were designed with this in mind, inspired in part by a dissertation group run by our colleagues at Indiana University. The groups were born this past summer as six-week long, once-a-week, sessions for both graduates and undergraduates. I was lucky enough to lead one of those groups. Over those six weeks, I was excited to see how the emphasis of these groups was on working writing into one’s everyday routine – coming back to write week after week and making writing a sustainable habit. Yet still, many of these graduate writers were nervous about what would happen in the fall. Would weekly writing still be possible once the busyness of the school year began? My goal with the Graduate Writing Groups has been to provide a space for this writing to happen in the midst of all the many pressures and demands that are an inescapable reality for graduate students.
Participants of the groups come from departments and programs all over campus, including Sociology, Geography, Spanish and Portuguese, Theater and Drama, Zoology, Biochemistry, English, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Curriculum and Instruction, Horticulture, Marketing, Kinesiology, French and Italian, Communication Arts, the Nelson Institute, Management and Human Ecology, Art History, Anthropology, Economics, and many more. Some are students completing papers for their coursework; others are working on their Master’s thesis; some are putting together their dissertation proposals; some are working on chapters or articles; and many are in the last stages of their dissertation writing process. Last fall, about 40 students participated in the groups. This spring, 76 students expressed interest in the groups with 65 eventually joining one. Having students from so many different departments in so many different stages of their graduate careers allows for rich conversations about the many challenges and successes with writing that graduate students experience.
Voices of Participants
For this blog post, I asked group participants to share with me some of what they gained and learned while in the group that I led Monday mornings from 9:00-12:00 last fall. I asked each of them to tell me what they feel they’ve gained from the groups and what they’ve learned about themselves as writers.
Writing Group participants Anne Wheeler and Kim Moreland get to work.
Saili Kulkarni, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, is working on finishing her dissertation, which focuses on the intersections of race, culture, and ability; special education teacher education; and special education teacher beliefs. Saili enjoyed the groups so much that she’s a part of one this spring as well. When I asked her what she feels like she’s gained, Saili said, “The Graduate Writing Group provided me with organizational skills to take back my week (Monday mornings at 9 meant I started my week off getting words on the page)! It also created an overall structure for the week. I left knowing what tasks remained for the rest of the week and it set up a great system for me.” While some of the groups take place in the morning and others in the evening, I agree with Saili that there seems to be something especially rewarding about dedicating Monday mornings to writing and taking control of the week.
Many participants focused on the benefits of accountability. Saili told me, “Getting goals written down and sharing them every week also supported me in being accountable for my dissertation.” Another participant, Anand Nageswaran Bharath, emphasized accountability as well. Anand is a doctoral candidate in Mechanical Engineering affiliated with the University of Wisconsin Engine Research Center. His dissertation focuses on optimizing the air handling systems of automobile engines running on low temperature combustion strategies to improve their performance and mitigate emissions, through the use of computer simulations. Anand found even just the presence of other writers to be motivating: “Knowing that I am surrounded by other graduate students who are studiously working on writing assignments reminded me of the writing tasks ahead of me and forced me to do them so that I could finish off my writing requirements for the day.”
Writers share a table and enjoy a sense of camaraderie.
Sanja Badanjak agrees. Sanja is a doctoral candidate in Political Science, working on a dissertation project concerning the impact of European integration on politics of party systems and party competition in the EU member states. She talked about the “personal and psychological” benefit of being in a writing group: “I think we all had several moments of insight concerning the way the process of writing a dissertation works, and how similar our experiences are, particularly in terms of moments of doubt and confusion about the proper way to proceed when one faces a writer’s block. We also had an outlet for a common problem of dissertation writing, the sometimes very acute feeling of loneliness as one is completing the project.”
Setting Goals, Managing Expectations
Every week, I ask the group participants to spend the first few minutes of the session writing down three different kinds of goals: the minimum amount of work they want to accomplish, what they plan to do after that, and the most they think they could get done in their wildest dreams. Types of goals range from “write 500 words” to “outline a new section” to “made edits based on my advisor’s comments.” My hope is that this form of goal setting helps writers understand their own writing process better so that they can set more realistic and achievable goals for themselves. Some seem to overestimate what they can do, but, as Sanja told me, this can help one become more aware of one’s capabilities: “I have learned to be realistic in my assessment of writing success. I now know in advance that a particular type of writing (or editing) may be easier or more difficult, and if the latter is the case, I know to adjust my expectations concerning the speed with which I can complete particular tasks.”
Every week, groups check back in at the end of the session to keep each other accountable.
And yet, the opposite can prove to be the case as well. Saili told me, “I am actually someone who sometimes UNDERestimates how much writing I could get done, so when I started, my goals used to be very small. As I started achieving writing goals, however, I learned to push myself to do more.” Setting goals also kept participants from feeling overwhelmed, a point that Anand made by saying, “Because I know that I have set aside a certain time in my week for writing, I was able to commit myself completely to the writing tasks at hand rather than postpone them every week just because I was overwhelmed with research projects which in my mind were more important. It forced me to rethink how I prioritized my tasks in my schedules.”
One thing that I was also pleased to hear from Saili, Anand, and Sanja is that they have been able to track noticeable changes in their ability to produce written work. Saili told me, “When I started the writing group, I was averaging about 1-3 pages a week, sometimes less. Currently, after being in the group for a little more than a semester, I average about 10 pages a week (especially at the end stages of my last 2 chapters). I am able to set more challenging goals and meet them and spend additional time making edits.” Sanja also talked about the immediacy and the life-long applicability of the skills she learned while being a part of the group. She also mentioned how the groups were more useful to her than an informational workshop might have been: “The main benefit of the Writing Group is in the way it combines workshops and insights with a sharing of experiences, and a practice of writing. A workshop may teach one about using tools, tips and tricks on how to be an effective and efficient writing, but they are often not useful when one is alone in a library, an office, or one’s kitchen table. By providing us with a shared space and time for bringing up concerns about the writing process as they appeared, we were able to have almost immediate assistance and support. For me, this meant that advice became more than a set of words, but was rather turning into a skill that I would be able to use once I leave the Writing Group.”
Reflecting on Writing as a Process
An important part of maintaining progress is reflecting purposefully about the writing process.
It was also important to me that the members of the group not see our time together as a magic wand that would suddenly make writing easy. Anand put it best: “I learned that no matter how good a writer I was, or however confident I was in my writing abilities, writing requires extensive planning and effort, because the first draft will never be good enough. As a result, a writer should set aside large blocks of time to re-read, revise and get feedback, and repeat this cycle numerous times to get the draft he/she wants.” Members of the group agreed that setting aside time for writing each week was vital for staying on schedule. At the same time, they saw that writing is and will always be hard work, and more words aren’t necessarily the only goal. One week, a group member told us that she had started the morning with more words than she had ended with – but that she now had better, more concise, and more clear words down on the page. She was just as happy as those writers who had written many new words that day.
For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of leading these groups is that because all of the group participants come from different departments, the focus is not so much on what is being written, but rather on how that writing gets done. The common factor between everyone present is that they want to write and to think consciously about the writing process itself. Sonja talked about this particular aspect of the groups as something that has changed her overall perspective on writing: “This consciousness of the process has made me a more realistic planner, and with it a more content and calm dissertator.” She also emphasized the uniqueness of this focus on writing in her experience as a graduate student: “Even as I was approaching the very end of graduate school, and was beginning to focus on my dissertation, I was surprised to find how little I knew about writing itself. I knew much about the literature, about methodologies, and about academic writing in terms of style and structures, but the writing process was quite neglected as a topic of discussion and instruction. . . . the Writing Group provided an insight into the way my colleagues are dealing with the problems that stem from the nature of the dissertation project.”
Graduate students commit to coming to the group every week for the majority of the semester.
These are the things that I have found lead to a happy dissertator (or any graduate writer): the knowledge that one is not alone, the opportunity to set goals and know that others will hold you accountable to those goals, a sturdy table, and time to write. I’ve also found that rewarding writers with star stickers to put on their nametags at the end of each session results in some smiles. These things may seem simple, but they are difficult to find as a graduate student and even more difficult to sustain week after week. My hope is that group members not only learn more about their writing process, but that they develop habits and skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. And I hope that each continues to seek out opportunities to write alongside others, turning writing into a social practice and a happy experience.
Two effective forms of dissertation writing groups are those dedicated to quiet writing in the companionable presence of others and those that focus on support for the dissertation writing process. This post describes ways to make both types successful.
A third kind of group is structured to share writing and provide peer feedback. I wrote about them in Dissertation Writing Groups | Feedback and Motivation.
There is evidence that regular writing is the route to productivity. Robert Boice, a researcher who investigated and wrote about faculty life, found that faculty members who wrote regularly, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone else weekly, wrote 10 times as many pages as those who wrote occasionally in big blocks of time.
Graduate students, especially at the dissertation writing stage, often struggle to develop the habit of regular writing. Self-discipline, isolation, and motivation are common problems. Groups can help. Making a public commitment to others (and thus to yourself) assists building a regular writing habit.
Quiet Writing with Company
A quiet writing group only requires a regular time, a quiet working place, and some companions with a shared commitment. Read a first-hand description from Kelly Hanson at Grad Hacker.
- Weekly sessions are common, although sometimes small groups meet daily when writing is the top priority.
- Start each session with every participant stating a writing goal for the day.
- Access to food and drink (especially with caffeine) is a bonus.
Setting ground rules and shared understandings is important for these groups, just as it is for feedback groups (here are 11 questions to get feedback groups started). Questions of particular importance for quiet writing groups include:
- How many participants? How are they identified or invited?
- Is attendance required or optional? Should participants let others know if they will be absent?
- May participants arrive late? Leave early? Take breaks?
- How much noise is tolerated? Quiet conversation? Are phones allowed or turned off?
- Is internet access permitted? Instituting a “no email/no surfing” rule can focus the mind on writing. (Kenny Gibbs, in his 3 Keys interview, advocates this in his third piece of advice.)
There are lots of apps and tools for productive writing that can be used in quiet writing groups:
- Timers. Essential to the popular Pomodoro Technique, which breaks writing into 25 minute chunks followed by a 5 minute break.
- Productivity trackers. A simple spreadsheet allows you to log the number of words or pages you complete every time you write.
- Distraction blockers. Several tools for distraction-free writing are describe here and here at Grad Hacker.
- Note taking tools.
- Reference and citation managers.
Writing Support Groups
Support, encouragement, and improvement of your writing practice is the primary emphasis of a writing support group. A weekly conversation with other writers is a way to maintain momentum. Most groups ask each member to set a goal at the end of every session, and to report on the goal at the start of the meeting.
Exploring why goals are or are not met is fodder for discussion. The questions below mostly come from the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School’s “Making a Thesis or Dissertation Support Group Work for You.”
- What went well with your dissertation since the last meeting? What did you accomplish? (Give kudos.)
- What didn’t go so well?
- What will you do differently in the coming week (or two weeks)?
- What are your specific goals to accomplish during that time?
- What obstacles might keep you from meeting those goals?
- In what ways will you address those obstacles?
- What have you learned about what helps you to write well? Productive times of day, locations, tools?
- What problems, if any, have you encountered that are affecting your progress on the dissertation (e.g., with a part of the dissertation itself, a relationship problem that has arisen in conjunction to your dissertation work, a problem with your advisor or committee)?
- How will you reward yourself for meeting your goals?
- Are there (simple) ways the group can give you support?
The benefits and pitfalls that pertain to feedback-focused writing groups are also applicable to support-focused writing groups. I cover these in Dissertation Writing Groups | Feedback and Motivation.
Virtual Writing Communities
Both quiet writing groups and writing support groups can be virtual. You can access other online communities as well.
- Support groups can meet via phone, Skype, or FaceTime. Setting a consistent time and place to “meet” allows far flung participants to be part of a supportive community.
- For quiet writing with support, the online “Shut Up and Write” communities are Twitter groups that holds online “meetings” every other week on Tuesdays for an hour of intense writing productivity. There are groups for Australia, North America, and the UK.
- Dean Jan Allen, of Cornell University, hosts a Productive Writer Listserv that is open to all. It helps graduate student writers during the December/January term break. Once you sign up, you receive messages, every other week, with writing encouragement and advice.
- Academic Writing Month takes place each November sponsored by the blog PhD2Published. Participants sign up with a goal on a public Accountability Spreadsheet. Support is offered collectively using the Twitter hashtag #AcWriMo.
University Sponsored Boot Camps and Retreats
Your regular writing habit can get a jump start by participating in your university’s Dissertation Boot Camp or Writing Retreat. The first boot camps were started at the University of Pennsylvania and the first reported dissertation retreat was at the University of Colorado. They are now offered by many universities, including Princeton, University of California Merced, Claremont Graduate School, Cornell University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Texas at Austin, and Australia National University.
Another service is offered at University of California Davis, which pairs writers with accountability partners.
Like fitness boot camps, the premise is that new habits are formed by repeated and successful practice. The duration of boot camps vary from two weeks (the norm at Stanford University, which offers 10 sessions a year) to mini-boot camps of three days (like Boston College).
Typically, boot camp offers:
- Initial workshop to help participants set goals and analyze their writing habits
- Food and drink
- A quiet space with access to printers
- Companionship with students from other departments at the same stage
- A legitimate commitment that provides a reason to leave the house (say good bye to the laundry and the kids) and leave the lab (advisors see boot camp as legit)
- Access to trained writing tutor
Boot camps are sometimes sponsored by the Graduate Dean’s Office and sometimes by the campus Writing Center. If you want to advocate for one on your campus, those are places to start.
Data shows that far from being remedial, boot camp participants finish more quickly and report improvement in their writing practices and attitudes about writing. There have been several published articles assessing the impact of boot camps and intensive writing retreats. Among them are articles in Across the Disciplines (2015), Praxis: The Writing Center Journal (nd), The Writing Lab (2013), and NASPA: Excellence in Practice white paper series (2011).
Combining the Three Models
Although I have described the three models – quiet writing, writing support, and writing feedback – as distinct, they can be blended. Most groups have a primary emphasis, but borrow aspects of others as the needs and desires of the group evolve. Many boot camps incorporate some aspects of guidance, along with the quiet writing time. Some feedback groups include time for quiet writing. Most feedback groups spend some time on support and encouragement. (Beware of spending too much time problem solving or complaining, at the expense of insufficient time giving feedback to the author-of-the-day.)
I keep this photo of my writing group at graduation in my office. That’s me in the middle.
In the last few months before submitting our dissertations, one of my feedback writing groups shifted modes completely. None of us could handle any more input. But we craved encouragement and community. Instead of sitting around a table, we took a weekly vigorous 3-mile walk. The initial steep climb was dubbed “pissed off hill” and whomever was most upset with their advisor used the time to vent. None of us responded (we were huffing and puffing our way up the ascent). By the time we reached the crest, the aggrieved person was spent – emotionally and physically. It was a cathartic release. Just before commencement, we returned to the open space where we hiked wearing our robes and had a celebratory photo taken.
 The history and theory are described in this article by founder Anita Mastroieni.
Published July 6, 2016