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

[Update: August 17, 2021: the first DAWG of the 2021-2022 academic year has been scheduled: it will run on Mondays from 1-3pm from October 25 to November 29 (six weeks, including a break on November 15). If after reading the text below you think this is something you’d like to participate in, please 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.

DAWGs meet weekly over 6 weeks with a week off in the middle. Every session, half the group will have precirculated a draft of their work-in-progress. This has to be submitted a week before the session. Each member should plan to submit twice at least.

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.

Submissions. A range of submissions are appropriate, but the best are perhaps early drafts of single sections (Introduction, Results, Discussion, etc). My preference is for shorter, earlier submissions—drafts that are advanced enough to have structure, but that have not yet been through multiple rounds of revision and/or editing. 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 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 10 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.