Dissertation Working Groups (DWGs): What They Are, How They Work

[Updated May 4, 2023]: the next Humanities DWGs will run every second Thursday, 1-3pm, from September 7 to December 14 (inclusive). A new Humanities group will run in Winter 2024, along with the next Social Sciences group, running on alternating Wednesdays 10am-12p.

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What are DWGs?

DWGs are specialized master-class style seminars designed to provide a structure and community to help dissertation writers 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. Groups are capped at 9 participants, and selection is competitive. (See testimonials from former participants, below.)

(I need to address a rare misconception that has come to my attention. At least one former participant joined my DWG as (in their words) “a replacement for [their] supervisory committee.” I’ll stress what should be obvious: a DWG is NOT to be seen in this way. Think of it as a way to help you prepare written work so it is readier faster to submit to your real readers–your supervisor and committee.)

Who can join?

DWGs are reserved for doctoral candidates (i.e. you must have completed all program requirements other than the dissertation) enrolled in graduate programs in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

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

When is the best time to join?

This is a hard question to answer, but I do have some ideas. What I can say is that you must be at the writing stage of the dissertation, not completing analysis or wrapping up interviews or whatever: you must be writing.

In the past, participants have joined at varying writing stages. Some join as soon as they begin, others join toward the end. Most join somewhere in between. I won’t specify an ideal time, but some responses from past participants suggest that joining before having done any writing on the dissertation may be too early, while joining during the final push to complete may interfere with the task of finishing. I won’t venture to specify an ideal interval for participation, but it might be worth not joining until you’ve actually started writing. If you’re on the home stretch, I would suggest other forms of writing support that allow you to focus on your own writing exclusively, such as my Peer Writing Support groups or my weekly virtual Writing Camp.

How do DWGs work?

DWGs meet every two weeks for a term. One week before each session, based on a predetermined schedule, 3 participants pre-circulate a draft of their work-in-progress. Each member is expected to submit three times per term (every four weeks), not counting writing exercises.

A range of submissions are appropriate. They can range between a few paragraphs to 8 pages double spaced. My preference is for rougher submissions—drafts of new writing that are advanced enough to have structure, but that have not yet been through multiple rounds of revision and/or editing. An outline is insufficient for submission: it has to be in prose. At the other extreme, a paper can be too polished for the group; at that stage it should be going to your supervisor or committee, not to the group!

At the end of each term, the DWGs are dissolved and new groups are formed. The new group might include a number of “veteran” participants (who were in the group during the previous term), but I will give priority to new (“rookie”) participants. I also help veterans start and maintain self-directed, student-run DWGs.

Obviously, DWGs are not able or intended to replace your supervisor and committee’s role in guiding your dissertation. Among many other reasons, the DWG does not aim to give feedback on content; nor does it have the field-specific approach that a supervisory committee brings. Think of the feedback and structure you get from a DWG as a complement to the supervisory committee’s work. In many cases, it will help to think of the DWG as a way to help make your drafts readier faster to submit to your supervisor.

How does the workshopping work?

In line with the DWG’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. We are not gatekeepers. The group is there, instead, to identify and suggest places in the document that may benefit from extra attention, from re-arrangement, etc.

A good meeting should leave 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 meetings (which are virtual for the time being). I’ve learned that written feedback tends to be too detailed and thorough, and can therefore be overwhelming instead of helpful. The only written feedback comes from me.

In general, 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.

I provide some guidance about how to do this. One practice to avoid is asking the author to account for themselves. There are productive ways of asking questions, but there is no need, within the context of the DWG, to be asking questions like “Can you explain why you addressed this issue in this way?” These sorts of question, which are more appropriate for members of the supervisory committee, put the author on the defensive, which is not what we’re about. Such concerns can more productively be stated as facts about your own needs as a reader, for example “I didn’t quite understand why you dealt with this issue in this way.” The author can thus register the issue without feeling the need to respond, unless they want more detail / explanation.

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.

Some testimonials by former DWGs participants:

“The writing group was extremely helpful and provided a needed push to move forward with my dissertation.” (PhD10, Anthropology)

“I found the DWG to be extremely helpful for completing my dissertation. The focus on form and structure over content really helped me to clarify my arguments and improve the flow of my writing. The warm and non-judgemental aspect of the seminars helped me and others to feel comfortable with the vulnerable position of sharing early work. Dan’s instrumental approach, which focused both on making the diss better and on getting it finished in a timely way, helped me to get the project done!” (PhD graduate, unspecific humanities field)

“I owe finishing my dissertation to the DWG. The group gave me the momentum and support to write nearly 90 pages of my dissertation in 8 months. Running drafts of my chapters by peers in other fields helped me see the forest of my argument, whereas before, when writing on my own, I’d get caught up in the roots of trees no one else could see.” (PhD graduate, unspecified humanities field)

“Since I began participating, I have experienced a surge of confidence in my independent abilities as a researcher, an improvement in the flow of conversation with my fellow graduate students, and an enhanced air of collegiality with faculty which Dr. Newman nurtures among all members of the group, though we all arrive from various disciplines…. Dr. Newman’s presence in my early dissertation journey has in a very short time helped me determine, for myself, how I plan to broadly develop my signature style and authorial voice as a writer…, and more specifically how to position myself as a scholar within my field through language.” (PhD4, Drama, Theatre & Performance).

“Participating in the writing group has been a significant source of help in completing draft chapters and putting me on a clear path to submitting my dissertation. The writing group, under Dr. Newman’s constructive writing guidance, has been an invaluable space to workshop rough work alongside a diverse cohort of motivated peers that has strengthened the clarity and significance of my writing and project and more broadly my confidence as a writer, editor, and aspiring scholar.” (PhD5, Political Science)

“This group … has been an invaluable space where I can share my writing (sometimes in the roughest of forms) and receive insightful feedback that responds to my anxieties and suggests clear next steps. I’m so thankful for the group—I only wish [it] had been in place earlier in my dissertation writing process.” (PhD6, Cinema Studies)

“Daniel Newman’s dissertation working group has been a transformational experience. I completed an introduction, conclusion, and two chapter drafts (including revisions) during my year with the group. Setting ambitious deadlines and preparing submissions for feedback from the group pushed me to finish a full draft in line with the goals set out by my committee. Witnessing common struggles and issues with graduate writing in a variety of disciplines has been particularly freeing, increasing my confidence to share early drafts and get feedback at different stages of writing. I  feel extremely lucky to have been a part of such a smart and kind (not to mention fun) group of interdisciplinary scholars over the last year of dissertation writing, I only wish I’d been a part of such a group earlier on in my degree!” (PhD6, Art History)

“The opportunity to workshop my writing with my peers and a skilled, supportive writing instructor has made a huge difference in clarifying my understanding of the process – what is expected of me, what a dissertation chapter should look like, each of its component parts, as well as generally boosting my confidence in my current and future abilities. This group has made me feel like I belong here and like I can finish – that I will finish.” (PhD6, English)

“The working group helps me in two ways—it pushes me to finalize sections and/or projects faster as well as build good editing habits. The writing group has also reminded me of the pleasure of academia: sharing ideas, reading peers’ work, thinking through arguments and concepts.” (PhD4, Sociology)

“It has been a great help to me to be in discussion with other people involved in the dissertation writing process. Working through issues in each other’s writing in a supportive environment has taught me so much about how to structure a dissertation chapter and has helped to keep my writing on track.” (PhD5, History)

“Dan’s dissertation writing group was a friendly, low-stress environment that helped me to figure out recurring issues in my dissertation writing, and also helped to keep me writing on a regular schedule. His feedback was invaluable, and I would highly recommend his group for any PhD students who could use help with isolating issues in their writing, or would just like a friendly environment to workshop drafts and get into the habit of writing regularly. ” (PhD4, English)

“I cannot recommend the Dissertation Working Groups enough. The DWG was extremely helpful in building an accountability system: having regular deadlines allowed me to dedicate time for writing. What’s more, the submissions were expected to be short and need not be polished at all. These two aspects made writing more manageable and submitting less stressful. The entire experience was illuminating and productive as not only did it make me reflect about my own writing, but also the research itself — its purpose and significance. Dan was careful and thoughtful with his feedback; he provided detailed, actionable comments and did so in such a kind and positive way. My peers, likewise, were so thorough and encouraging. In fact, I had many lightbulb moments from my sessions! Last but not least, Dan and the rest of the group members fostered an affirming space, making the entire process of writing, sharing, and revising such a joy to experience. I actually look forward to writing now!” (PhD5, Linguistics)

“This group has been a game-changer for me, as it has given me confidence in my skills as both writer and editor. Along with moderating our biweekly workshops, Prof. Newman has provided us with valuable exercises in developing our ideas throughout each term, such as writing lay abstracts, describing our projects as if they were popular tv series, and creating fake epigraphs related to our current chapters. The feedback I’ve received in these groups from Prof. Newman and my peers, rather than making me feel burdened by more work, has always made me feel hopeful in what was possible to revise and where my ideas could turn. I recommend these groups to anyone writing a dissertation, and Prof. Newman as a teacher to anyone looking to improve on their writing.” (PhD4, English)

“Without having joined the group, I think I would be very much behind in my work. The group has helped keep me motivated to write, both directly by making me submit one to three submissions within a semester, and indirectly by making me much more confident about my work, especially when our group not only comments on the wrinkles in our writing, but points out places worth praising, places we liked, and that has been something that has helped me get a better sense of what needs work and what can be left alone, so that I would not be left with an overwhelming feeling that everything needs substantial reworking, which tended to be how I felt after sharing work with committee members or conference participants…. Overall, the dissertation writing group has been very supportive and truly invaluable to me and my work.” (PhD4, Philosophy).

“Ever since participating in Daniel Newman’s Dissertation Working Group, my understanding of the rhythms of writing long form projects as a graduate student, as well as the genre of dissertation writing has greatly improved. Because of this, my life as a graduate student has also greatly improved, and I feel much more equipped to cope with the inherent stresses that come along with dissertation writing and receiving feedback from a committee. My participation in Daniel’s Dissertation Working Group felt like a turning point for my work as a graduate student, and I highly recommend participating in it if you are struggling to start any portion of your dissertation, whether that be a specific chapter, or even the whole thing.” (PhD4, English)

I am pleased to offer my enthusiastic recommendation for the Humanities Dissertation Working Group. I originally signed up as I knew that preparing content for my assigned weeks would keep me on a disciplined schedule and ensure that I was writing almost every day. Yet I also achieved other objectives that I did not fully anticipate. Reading work from other disciplines (besides being often very interesting!) made me more aware of how my own writing comes across to those outside of my field. Very importantly, the feedback I received from Dan and my Working Group colleagues was thoroughly helpful. Feedback is professionally given in an organized, mutually respectful and structured setting. I am grateful for the constructive questions and comments that I received, and for the moments when Dan and/or my Working Group colleagues discovered an underdeveloped theme in my writing that I hadn’t yet realized. I gratefully encourage others to participate in the closer look at the Dissertation writing process that the Working Group provides. (PhD4, Religion)