get your writing unstuck – retreat!

This is a guest post from Ciara Kelly, a Doctoral Researcher in the Institute of Work Psychology


As researchers our job demands that we maintain focus on our long-term outputs despite few meaningful milestones.

This can present challenges to the best of us, and the following scenarios (or some variation thereof) may be familiar to you:

Scenario 1: The cursor blinks accusingly. You nibble on your third Anxiety Muffin of the day. You’ve exhausted the entire internet of cat pictures and you have 3 tutorials to teach this afternoon. The Word document open in front of you boasts 17 words. They are some damn fine words, obviously, but you concede that the editors of *insert your favourite journal here* might possibly want a little more. The answer to your problem is clear. Muffin number four.

Scenario 2: Your fingers skim the keyboard like a professional computer hacker from a late 90s sci-fi thriller. You. Are. On. Fire. Time slows down as a single solitary hour appears to be giving you days’ worth of productivity. You start to wonder whether you should seriously consider how you will decorate your office when you become VC.

I’ve recently found a way to turn the Groundhog Day feeling of scenario 1 into a fairly predictable scenario 2* through Think Ahead writing retreats (based on Rowena Murray’s work on developing and researching the retreat concept1).

I recently began to arrange my own half-day writing retreats with colleagues from my department and I would like to share my experiences so others can try it out too. Maybe you will also be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to schedule stress free productivity into a 3-hour time slot.

The idea is simple – you arrive at a pre-arranged time with your laptop and an idea of what you want to work on for two hours. You spend 5 minutes on a writing warm up, 15 minutes discussing your plan, two hours of writing with a half hour break between.

The writing warm up involves describing the task ahead of you, including what you’ve already done and, importantly, the specific steps you need to take to reach your two-hour goal. When this shockingly short five minutes is up you will realise that you’ve already written around 200 words. Always a positive start!

After the warm up you spend 15 minutes discussing your plan with the person next to you. This process can also foster mutual support and add to your understanding of the work of your colleagues. You may learn how others are approaching similar problems to you, or find you develop a more realistic idea of the progress and goals of those around you. I have found that these chats can even lead to insightful suggestions and solve road-blocks in my own work. Then you set your timer and write!

My advice for organising your own writing retreats is:

  • Stick to the rules: the non-negotiable timing is what makes this work. The half hour break between the two 1-hour writing sessions is also crucial.
  • Note what you can actually get done in an hour because this can make future planning more effective.
  • Have a space where you are unlikely to be interrupted. When I tried this in the café of my own department there were a lot of well-meaning colleagues popping over to say hello.

University of Sheffield researchers, you can book yourself on to the next retreat here. And once you’ve found out how it’s done, feel free to adapt the method and run your own groups.

*Well, perhaps minus the VC’s office. For now, at least.

1Murray R & Newton M (2009) Writing retreat as structured intervention: Margin or mainstream?, Higher Education Research and Development, 28(5): 527-39.



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