Dissertation & Article Working Groups (DAWGs): What They Are, How They Work

[Update: April 7, 2022: the next DAWG will be running from October 5 to November 9, 1-3pm. After reading the description below, you can express your interest in joining that group now by completing complete the form here, and I will be in touch as soon as possible.]

DAWGs are designed to provide a structure and community to help graduate students in life & physical sciences write more, faster and better by reducing common impediments like isolation, insecurity, anxiety, lack of accountability and lack of feedback. They are modeled on the classic creative-writing workshop. (See some testimonials from former participants, below.)

DAWGs have between 6 and 8 participants, who meet weekly over 6 weeks with a week off in the middle. Every participants submits excerpts of work-in-progress twice, in addition to a short writing exercise for the first session. The general schedule is shown below.

In line with the DAWG’s goal, our discussions are geared toward constructive feedback—as opposed to critique or picking apart arguments. This is not to say that there should be no criticism—of course not! It’s more an issue of emphasis, tone and intention: our goal as members of this group is to help each other out with the writing / revision process. Submitting your writing to the group should not feel like submitting to your supervisor or committee; the group is not there for quality control or for picking apart ideas. It is there to identify and suggest places in the document that may benefit from extra attention, from re-arrangement, etc.

A good meeting should leave the submitting authors feeling eager and full of ideas about how to revise their manuscript.

To this end, feedback on submissions is given orally (not in writing) during virtual meetings. The most productive approach is to keep feedback selective (focusing on systemic issues or, alternatively, single issues that have a serious consequence for clarity/readability/coherence), rather than listing lots of smaller issues (e.g. typos, formatting). We usually begin with some positive feedback, followed by constructive criticism. As befits the purpose of this group, comments should focus on writing issues (clarity, structure, “flow,” paragraphing, etc) rather than content (science) issues. I will provide some guidance about how to do this.

General Schedule

  • Week 1: Introduction to the DAWG + workshopping of everyone’s writing exercise (a 100-word “lay abstract” submitted three days before the first session).
  • Week 2: Workshopping half the group’s first submission (up to 6 pages double-spaced), submitted three days before the session.
  • Week 3: Workshopping the other half of the group’s first submissions, submitted three days earlier.
  • Week 4: No meeting.
  • Week 5: Workshopping the first half of the group’s second submissions, submitted three days earlier.
  • Week 6: Workshopping the other half of the group’s second submissions, submitted three days earlier.

Submissions. A range of submissions, up to a maximum of 6 double-spaced pages, are appropriate, but the best are perhaps early drafts of single sections (Introduction, Results, Discussion, etc). My preference is for early drafts, especially if they are written for the workshop. The submissions must be in prose (i.e. continuous stretches of writing divided into paragraph. An outline is too early. The other limit is when the paper is polished and nearly complete: at that point it should go to your supervisor, not to the group!

Commitment. Joining a DAWG requires a real commitment, both in terms of time and in terms of active engagement with others’ writing. Participation is expected even when your own work is not being workshopped; these groups will only work if there is a mutual commitment to reading peers’ submissions. Circumstances can make perfect attendance unrealistic, but the expectation is that you put the meetings in your calendar and be prepared to attend every meeting.

Participants. DAWGs are capped at 6 or 8 participants, and selection is often competitive. Participants tend to come from several science departments; the interdisciplinarity of the group is an intentional feature, and several participants have cited it as one of the most valuable aspects of the DAWG.

Finally, two “rules”:

1.      No Excuses, No Apologies, No Explanations. Those submitting work should not apologize or feel the need to account for the roughness, incompleteness, etc of their writing. Those qualities are expectations in this group! Nor should they submit written preambles explaining or contextualizing their submission (that can be done during the seminar).

2.      No Reading Recommendations. In other words, when giving feedback, refrain from directing them to references the author may have missed. I can explain my reasons to those who’d like to know why.

Testimonials from past DAWGs

“DAWG was a great experience. At the very beginning of my dissertation writing process, I was intimidated by the scale of the project and unsure where to start. DAWG provided a supportive environment with the perfect mix of friendliness and accountability to actually get  started.” (PhD, Psychology)

“I found DAWG to be very helpful as it gave me deadlines for smaller sections of writing, which made the writing process feel more manageable. The feedback I received was also very useful and always came from a friendly place. I ended up writing a bulk of one of my thesis chapters while attending. I highly recommend it to anyone who is motivated to get some writing done.” (PhD, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology)

“The DAWG gave me the boost I needed to finish a draft of an article. The group was the perfect combination of structure & accountability with practical advice & support, and I left the group feeling empowered to chip away at my writing tasks without feeling overwhelmed. The group embodies ‘progress, not perfection’ and taught me practical ways to approach writing and revising that have made a huge difference in how it feels to write. I highly recommend this group!” (PhD, Physics)

“Participating in the Dissertation & Article Writing Group (DAWG) was a great experience that allowed me to critically and constructively review my own academic writing and the writing of an engaged group of graduate students. I found DAWG to be informative in identifying my own writing tendencies and habits, while also providing common tools and techniques practiced by the instructor and other students to improve their writing. I highly recommend the working group for graduates at any stage of their thesis or article writing journey!” (PhD, Physical & Environmental Sciences)

“Aside from the pressure to actually put things on paper, I also found the feedback from my peers and from Dan extremely helpful. Providing feedback to others also made me feel more confident in my own revision skills. The group was great because it was low risk (nobody was going to judge you on academic merit, the novelty of your findings, how much you had accomplished that week, etc.) and high reward (extremely valuable feedback, sense of accomplishment for meeting deadlines, great sense of community among peers and the organizer, Dan)” (PhD, Ecology & Evolution)

“[The most beneficial aspect of the DAWG was] getting bi-weekly feedback on my writing. I really liked the setup, and I enjoyed that there were fewer people which allowed for discussions on writing prior to discussing everyone’s work.” (PhD, Earth Sciences)

“[The most beneficial aspect of the DAWG was] getting to think about writing through a more objective and functional lens was very helpful for me to better understand the basic structure of scientific writing. I greatly appreciated the feedback from the other group members and enjoyed reading work from outside of my field.” (PhD, Psychology)

“I learned so much from Dan that was applicable to every form of scientific writing and communication. I’d recommend this workshop to anyone at any stage of writing. Even if you’re early on in the writing process, learning from Dan and other group members has been super helpful to me.” (PhD, Ecology & Evolution)

“The DAWG was a wonderful, supportive community. I received helpful tips for structuring papers in their early stages and revising work that was more developed.” (PhD, Psychology)

“I participated in the DAWG writing groups for two sessions. These sessions were extremely helpful in writing nearly a full draft of my intro, methods and discussion of my first chapter.  Since getting started with writing can be the hardest part, the non-judgemental nature of the workshops was particularly helpful. I submitted writing at various stages and always left workshop with a page full of notes with suggestions on next steps, and/or alternative approaches. I plan to continue with these workshops to write the rest of my dissertation!” (PhD, Ecology & Evolution)