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By Dr Susan Mowbray with Christina Green and Rachel Westcott

In last week’s post about a virtual writing group, participants were self-managing regular opportunities to do writing together – this week’s post describes a regular online writing group where participants do their writing separately and then come together to discuss their writing.

Two participants and the group facilitator tell us how it works. Christina is a professional music therapist and composer, songwriter and performer based in Melbourne and working on her doctorate part-time. Rachel is a practising veterinarian and volunteer coordinator for South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management; she is based in Adelaide and is completing her PhD (by papers). As the Academic Literacy Advisor at Western Sydney University, Susan facilitates the group.

The Online Thesis Writing Group: practices and processes

Online Thesis Writing Group (TWG) members meet in virtual online spaces (via ZOOM) for up to two hours once a fortnight.  Groups are small and meetings are facilitated so that each piece of writing is allocated equal time for group discussion.

In preparation for meetings, each member:

  • Circulates their writing at least 48 hours prior to the meeting (5 – 10 A4 pages, 12 point font, 1.5 spaced, 2cm margins).
  • Reviews the writing from their peers so they are ready to contribute comments and suggestions at the meeting. Feedback and discussion is guided by ‘Twelve tips for reviewers’ by Henry Roediger III.

Reflections on participating in the virtual writing group

Christina: I have participated in the TWG for more than 12 months. I was impressed that the university offered this service and I felt I could greatly benefit from an ongoing connection with others beyond my supervisors and the occasional attendance at specific events. Being able to share my PhD ‘world’ with others has ‘kept me going’ despite the distance and my isolation; my writing has been warmly received and understood in the group and I have found the feedback to be invaluable and encouraging. It has been great to give feedback also—a useful skill to develop at this level. My participation and the support I receive have helped clarify the direction for my work. In particular, my attendance and participation in the TWG has been valuable in providing a supportive and caring connection and helping me keep the thread of my work going throughout some challenging times. In short, the world is larger and more connected because the TWG delivers a wonderful combination of mentoring skill, collegiality, academic excellence and rigour—with shared moments of concern, laughter and making “ah-ha” connections in my research along the way.

Rachel: It is no exaggeration to say that as an external student, the genesis of the TWG represented an exponential ascendancy in my PhD experience which followed a persistent and very disheartening nadir. Having participated in the TWG since its inception in July 2016, it is hard to imagine how I might have finished the PhD without the support, diversity of interaction and intellectual powerhouse the TWG offers.

The TWG changed the whole of my PhD landscape for the better—not just as light at the end of the PhD tunnel, but by illuminating everything I was trying to achieve in my research. The group’s fortnightly meetings are something I always look forward to. The diversity of topics greatly enriches our meetings and experience of the PhD process; and this is a real strength of participating. I have great confidence in the fast, insightful feedback I receive from the group, which always improves my written work AND builds my confidence in my writing and research; this is clearly evidenced by my publications that I have completed since being in the TWG. It’s enormously reassuring to know, too, that the group is not confined to fortnightly discussions—we are in contact at other times and help is always available just an email away. The TWG makes an off-campus PhD experience positive, enjoyable, focused, well-resourced and well-informed. And it has helped me significantly progress my work!

Facilitator reflections

Susan: The online TWGs are modelled on the monthly on-campus TWGs I valued so much during my own PhD, with the following modifications: all members submit and give feedback on writing at each fortnightly meeting to promote equitable participation and utility. In hindsight, and not surprisingly, six was too big a group for everyone to share writing in so short a time, and one page was too little for everyone to understand the research context or offer meaningful feedback or insightful queries, as recently discussed by Clinton Golding. Consequently, the structure and functioning of the groups has been refined in a number of ways.

TWGs now have a maximum of four members (including the facilitator). The smaller numbers of participants means everyone receives more regular feedback from familiar group members for a longer period; this motivates more regular attendance and thus helps members to progress their writing. The two week timeframe is short enough to help sustain writing momentum and yet long enough to avoid unwanted pressure. The meetings thus add a sense of structure to writing timeframes and add a welcome sense of routine to what is, in Australia, a largely self-structured, independent research journey. A further bonus of the online TWGs is their accessibility to all postgrads irrespective of their geographical location, mode, discipline and personal commitments (hence the popularity of evening meetings), as evidenced by Christina and Rachel’s experiences!