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Doctoral writing circles: Learning to write and collaborate

Graduate students will graduate, and at that point they’ll need to write with others. In academic positions they’ll work with colleagues on committees and research projects that result in written materials, books, or articles. In professional positions they’ll work on project teams and write plans and reports. Yet while they are in school, especially at the dissertation stage, students’ work is typically conducted on their own.

First, let’s define the term collaboration to describe “an interactive process that engages two or more participants who work together to achieve outcomes they could not accomplish independently” (Salmons, 2019). Sometimes writers collaborate to produce one piece of writing, other times they collaborate on the process, while each produces their own piece of writing.

With those possibilities in mind, as instructors, mentors, or dissertation supervisors, how can we create opportunities for that help students collaborate to generate their best writing and at the same time, learn to collaborate so they are prepared to succeed in a team-work world?

One way is through writing groups. I prefer the term writing circle to writing group, because I like the underlying assumptions. A circle means members are equal, and the relationships are reciprocal, in contrast to a more top-down arrangement where an instructor serves as the main organizer and reviewer.

Here are two examples, with lessons learned.

Structured Writing Group Kept Growing

Aitchison (2009) described how what began as a structured 10-week writing program evolved into informal, multidisciplinary, ongoing writing groups. Participants joined the group because they believed that through regular social interaction around text, they would develop writing skills and productivity.

The process used by this group involved five activities in what they described as a “cycle of learning” (p. 911):

  1. Text volunteer writes and circulates text with explicit feedback instructions;
  2. Peers review volunteered text before meeting
  3. Group discussion of text and of feedback
  4. Facilitator provides language-focused input through explicit instruction, modelling, scaffolding and directing writing activities
  5. Author redrafts the text

Aitchison surveyed members and generated findings that support the value of collaborative learning and writing:

When students were asked to reflect on how learning occurred, they expanded on the notion of learning arising from feedback on their writing, to include discussions about how learning also (and unexpectedly for them) occurred when they were engaging in the critique of peers’ texts….Participants pointed to…the different nature of feedback coming from peers compared to supervisors, the sense of reciprocity and mutual obligation they shared, the relative freedom to experiment with ideas and writing away from their supervisors, a heightened sense of the processes and craft of writing when readers were not content specialists, access to alternative non-discipline-specific perspectives, and the formative nature of self-directed learning. (Aitchison, 2009, pp. 908-909)

These students were able to gain confidence in their own writing, and in their ability to encourage others.

Write On! Faculty and Student Writing Days

Maher et al (2013) participated in and studied a project called “Write On!” which involved voluntary day-long writing events. The article was written by the student participants.

Participating doctoral students and faculty converged in someone’s home with their writing projects. The day ended with each participant briefly describing accomplishments.  In writing circle fashion, faculty followed the same routine of individual writing and collaborative debriefing (Maher, Fallucca, & Mulhern Halasz, 2013, p. 196).  Their research findings on the project uncovered four emergent themes:

  • Protected Time and Space: The writing circle offered a time away from other distractions.
  • Maintaining Momentum: Participants felt that having the supportive group helped them stay on track and meet deadlines.
  • Accountability to Others: Participants made time to attend, believing they had something to offer to each other in a “community of support” (p. 202)
  • Common Purpose. Participants observed, “There is something very important about being in . . . a very intimate group of people- where you can see what they are working on, and you can see that they have gonebeyond where you are, and that it is possible” (p. 201).

Lessons and Questions

Four consistent points emerged from these articles:

  • Individual writing time in a group setting is beneficial. Participants report being able to stay on track when other writers are at work too.
  • Critique is essential, within a trusting, agreed-upon framework.
  • Groups typically have a small number of active members who commit to meet regularly to review and discuss each other’s work. If more people want to join, then spin-off groups can form.
  • A group facilitator provides important logistical and pedagogical support.

More questions to consider include:

  • These examples were in face-to-face settings. What about online writing circles? I have some experience, but given reports about the value of writing in others’ presence, would like to learn more.
  • How can voluntary, non-credit writing circles be integrated into formal doctoral programs?
  • Should facilitators be (paid) faculty or writing program staff? What training is needed?

Aitchison (2009) emphasized “the value of seeing writing and meaning making as a social activity relevant to a massified higher education system”(p. 915). We expect that completing a doctoral dissertation or thesis will demonstrate the ability to design, conduct, and write about original research. Students who have been a part of writing circles such as those described here demonstrate additional skills because they are able to listen, and to give and receive constructive feedback.  These are qualities I hope we can emphasize more strongly and find ways to cultivate with our doctoral students.

For more on this topic: Join the webinar on April 11, “Mentor, Coach, Supervisor: Collaborative Ways to Work with Writers” and see the new book by Janet Salmons, Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn.


Aitchison, C. (2009). Writing groups for doctoral education.Studies in Higher Education, 34(8), 905-916. doi:10.1080/03075070902785580

Maher, M., Fallucca, A., & Mulhern Halasz, H. (2013). Write On! Through to the Ph.D.: using writing groups to facilitate doctoral degree progress. Studies in Continuing Education, 35(2), 193-208. doi:10.1080/0158037X.2012.736381

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.