Updated: Apr 15
Many participants will be embarking on this writing retreat in some state of lock-down. Already in retreat, but how has the writing been going?
A quick Google Scholar search with the key words ‘doctoral writing’ brought about 2,320,000 results in 0.05 seconds, while ‘acdemic writing’ brought me about 4,730,00 results in 0.04 seconds. Search terms “covid 19” does render more results, which is reassuring, but it is probably fair to say that writing and related skills are a preoccupation among academics and researchers.
Who doesn’t start the day sometimes thinking, I’ll make time for some writing today! Even if you participate in a writing group of some kind, such as ‘Shut Up and Write’, you might sneekily answer a few emails first, post on social media, or do a crossword. No? Maybe that is just me!! So, it would seem that one of the first steps to academic writing is self-discipline, hence the joy of writing reatreats.
Writing retreats come in many formats. There are independent companies who organise writing retreats, often in fab locations (they might be feeling the pinch right now), companies who offer online retreats (for a fee), and sites were you can get good advice for free. The following suggestions for organising and/or participating in a writing retreat represent a synthesis of various approaches. There are some commonalities in the advice offered: self-regulation runs through many of the sources (a nod to social cognitive theorists), as well as operant conditioning with interval schedules and reinforcers (yes, the behaviourists are back). This might feel like we’re suddenly getting into serious territory, but the point is that there are theoretical underpinnings to how writing retreats can work. So let’s begining at the very beginning and establish what is meant by writing‘retreat’:
Rethink your definition of a writing retreat
What we are talking about here is time away from distractions, and yes, that could include putting your phone on divert, closing down your emails, and even shutting your web browser! You are retreating to a place that is protected to enable you to write. Surrounding yourself with peers who are doing something similar can be helpful, you can get a vicarious sense of possibility by observing others around you working on their writing. In a social environment, you know you are on a shared journey whether your retreat lasts an hour or a day.
Set a specific target
Set a target for the time you have, and be specific. Generative writing is generally the way to go for writing retreat, so you may set a target to write a certain section or amount of words. Quality is important, but takes more time. The point of a retreat is to get writing. If you are working towards a long-term goal, then break that down into manageable steps and use the retreat to make a start on one step. Some writing retreats use accountability and invite participants to share their target, at the end of the sessions participants are invited to report back on their progress. Sounds alarming – Paul Silvia (of How to Write a Lot-fame) is an advocate because publicising our target helps us to commit.
Commit to writing
There is something to be said for committing publicly to a target: if we keep missing our target, perhaps we are being unrealistic and setting ourselves up to fail? If we keep exceeding our target, perhaps our expectations of ourselves are too low, or our self-belief could do with a bolstering? Either way, making a commitment in front of a group of peers and getting some feedback could bring us some much needed and appreciated support.
Sustain your writing
Lots of people have found the Pomodoro Technique especially useful for maintaining focus. Download the app, or use any timing device. Set the timer for twenty-five minutes, then have a five-minute break. If you are with others, you can chat during the break and then crank up the timer and write again for twenty-five minutes. You can incrementally build up the writing sessions and reduce the number of breaks, having instead a longer break after a sustained period of writing. Others have no need for such conditioning and simply start writing.
Practice writing with focus, test different approaches to find out what works for you, and finally…
Celebrate the successes
If your target is simply to sit in one place with one document open and write for an hour, then acknowledge that. Whatever your target, use small rewards to sustain your motivation, and celebrate the successes.
This is not a prescriptive list; you do not have to apply each of these six considerations to your writing retreat, but they provide a structure to help develop good writing habits.
Some useful links for organising, facilitating and taking part in a writing retreat:
"Chapter 7: The day I threw my printer out of a 5th floor window"