PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Director of PhD Student Services at the Schar School
Research and writing need one another. Clear prose is the most effective way to share research insights with policymakers and the wider world. In graduate study, however, written material often serves as an assessment tool instead of as a learning process. Opportunities are limited for students to engage in “low-stakes” writing and to talk and reflect with peers about it (Elbow 1997).
How, then, can a doctoral student become fluent in the written word? Consistent routines and frequent practice are essential. So is breaking the habit of self-containment. In a 2008 survey of productive authors in the field of educational psychology, respondents most frequently cited collaboration with colleagues as contributing to their productivity (Mayrath 2008). Graduate students who participate in writing groups also report increases in output, skills, and confidence (Aitchison 2009), (Li and Vandermensbrugghe 2011), (Ferguson 2009).
The benefits of writing with a group are threefold. The first is practical skill improvement by giving and receiving feedback. You learn to identify your patterns and to replace them with sharper prose. Your work becomes more readable as you expand the range of style options available to you.
Second is increased productivity. A group helps you find your pace. Output is expected as group members hold each other accountable. Participants support each other in developing a more organized writing practice.
Third are the psychosocial benefits. Sharing your work with non-judgmental critics (yes, they do exist) allows you to gain confidence in your process. The encouragement and camaraderie of a group can help you overcome fears you may not even know are keeping you from your best work.
Can any group arrangement do the trick? Perhaps, but the studies noted above offer insight into best practices. One is that including members with different research backgrounds is an advantage (Ferguson 2009). Scholars and policy experts rarely write for just a single, narrow discipline. Rest assured your readership will consist of more than just the three or four members of your committee. Diverse group participants can help one another become more dexterous communicators. Multiple perspectives enhance your awareness of the reader and compel you to write clearly for a range of audiences.
Another insight is the positive impact of offering feedback to others. While participants expected the critiques they received to improve their writing, they were surprised at how much the process of reviewing the work of other members improved their own (Aitchison 2009). Scholarship on peer tutoring suggests similar benefits. By instructing fellow students, tutors review and reevaluate their own knowledge and learn to appraise their own material (Topping and Ehly 1998). Attending to the form style, and clarity of peers’ work will help you find the best way to say what you have to say.
Finally, creating a voluntary and positive group identity with clear guidelines for constructive feedback enhances the psychosocial benefits of participation (Li and Vandermensbrugghe 2011). Doubt, insecurity, low confidence and fear of rejection affect early-career and established academics’ writing productivity as much as time pressures and heavy workloads. Academic authors report that peer support enhances confidence and motivation. It is a new experience for many students to engage in a review process that is not linked to a consequence. This in turn might give you the confidence to try new approaches when delivering your ideas.
Forming a Writing Group
In most cases, any group is better than no group. Peer support alone can be a great motivator. Even if the members decide to meet simply to write independently, the experience of writing in the company of others adds value. Your group, however, may be eager to make something more of the time you spend together. The tips below can help you draft your group’s outline:
Composition: Aim for small, adaptive, diverse, and engaged. A writing group can consist of as few as three and as many as ten members. A smaller size helps you avoid scheduling headaches and enables ample opportunity for in-depth criticism. Consider how you will handle people leaving and others joining later especially if your group includes students at different points in the program. Ideally, you will have a mix of native and non-native English speakers from various stages of study with a range of research interests. It may be impossible to achieve such balance, so bear in mind that commitment trumps demographics. Group members must be enthusiastic in their dedication to this undertaking. It only works if the participants make it work.
Design: Spend your first meeting hashing out a blueprint. Compile a list of the group’s basic objectives. Decide how often you will meet, where, and for how long. The most common format involves members sending pieces to each other a week or so in advance of the session so that everyone has a chance to read and compile comments. For a small group, there may be time to critique each contribution. For a larger group, it might be preferable to take only 2-3 submissions for each meeting or to split into smaller clusters to provide more robust feedback.
Facilitation: A gentle, consistent guide can enhance the critique process and keep the discussion on track. The simplest approach is to allow the facilitator role to rotate among the members. Alternatively, a few folks in the group may gravitate towards this position and others may appreciate their leadership. It is a good idea to discuss this openly. As time goes on, more reserved members may be encouraged to take turns leading.
The facilitator makes sure every attendee receives submissions ahead of the meeting and confirms the schedule. During the session, this person watches time and keeps the conversation on track. The facilitator should come prepared with simple questions such as, “What works for you in this piece? What is confusing?” The member in this role can guide the discussion, summarize, create transitions, and draw out quieter participants. The facilitator may also be in charge of determining a brief writing exercise to be offered at the meeting.
Creativity: Many groups dedicate a portion of each session to generating material. Free-writing exercises are a common tool. While your time may feel too pressed for this, consider the value of writing while creativity is firing on all cylinders. When ideas about style are flying around, participants may be primed to produce useful raw material. This segment of the session can be dedicated to general brainstorming, reflection, or a structured exercise. The facilitator could provide “either-or” options for the free-write, such as “either compose an outline for your next chapter or prepare a draft conclusion.”
Evaluation: Assess the process at regular intervals. Review group objectives and make adjustments as needed. Which aspects of the sessions are most fruitful? Do some members want to attempt a shared writing project? Take advantage of outside resources to support your progress. The sites listed below provide guidance on peer writing practice and collaborative learning. You can also contact Shannon Williams in PhD Student Services for ideas about how best to use other Mason resources so your group can thrive.
Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group is a toolkit that contains templates, guides, and tips for running a group. From Dr. Souhi Lee and Dr. Chris Gold at the Hume Writing Center at Stanford University.
Running an Effective Writing Group from UCLA’s Graduate Writing Center hosts an online page with tools and links for getting started.
Aitchison, Claire. 2009. “Writing Groups for Doctoral Education.” Studies in Higher Education 34 (8) (December): 905–916.
Elbow, Peter. 1997. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing.” New Directions for Teaching & Learning (69): 5.
Ferguson, Therese. 2009. “The ‘Write’ Skills and More: A Thesis Writing Group for Doctoral Students.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 33 (2) (May): 285–297.
Li, Linda Y., and Joelle Vandermensbrugghe. 2011. “Supporting the Thesis Writing Process of International Research Students Through an Ongoing Writing Group.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 48 (2) (May): 195–205.
Mayrath, Michael C. 2008. “Attributions of Productive Authors in Educational Psychology Journals.” Educational Psychology Review 20 (1) (March 1): 41–56. doi:10.1007/s10648-007-9059-y.
Topping, Keith and Ehly, Stewart. Peer-assisted Learning. 1998. Mahwah, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates.