a toolkit for running a writing retreat: bring your own participants.

As you know the Think Ahead team have made a habit of running monthly writing retreats. Ours are adapted from academic writing expert Prof. Rowena Murray’s work and a ‘retreat’ in this context just means a space away from your normal workplace — we go to a lecture theatre or seminar room and write together. Research staff and students can book for a morning, afternoon or full day.

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Our November festival of academic writing, WriteFest, is based around a framework of retreats too. The 2017 festival prompted 324 people to dig out stalled writing projects, and over 185,000 words were collectively written in the retreats. The equivalent of something like 23 research papers!

I see also that writers are wanting to keep up their new habits, I am delighted to see that there are a numbers of retreat spin outs popping up led by the Medical School Post-Grad Society, Dept. Politics PhD researchers, Arts & Humanities Writing Club, The University of Sheffield Women’s Network Writing Club, Management School Academic Staff, and most recently a session for University Teachers, led by Dr Jenny Burnham.

It’s clear that the retreat model produces good results for us in Sheffield, and in Murray & Newton’s original research. Below I share the tools and format that I have developed for Sheffield — feel free to download and use or adapt them for your own retreats. Please be sure to credit the original developers Murray & Newton too. If you compare our version to what’s described in the paper you will see we have adapted the model to provide shorter, no-cost, on campus sessions. We also vary the day, and provide a 9.30 start and 16.30 finish, to be inclusive to our researchers who have different working patterns and commitments and whose wider lives outside research restrict them to shorter periods of time. Not everyone can be there in person I know — and it’s very possible to run this model via a Google Hangout/Adobe Connect webinar too.

Our Think Ahead team basic ground rules also ask participants to book their places and to give fair notice of cancellation (because we always have waiting lists), and to attend the full morning or afternoon session, because it’s easy to let time slip away in the lab or in meetings if you don’t have to make a commitment. The point of the retreats is making a date with yourself, and as well well know, people are more likely to actually get themselves into the room if they have made a deal with you to attend.

  • Click here to see a video describing how session format for potential participants. I put this together because despite our best efforts, some researchers still arrived expecting a taught workshop rather than a writing space.
  • Click here to download the Writing Retreat Intro slide deck, the ‘set up’ slides for the half day writing retreats we run:

Slide 1 distills out the principles of why writing in structured retreats works.

Slide 2 is about what participants will gain in addition to simply getting writing done — it helps people become more strategic writers.

Slides 3 and 4 show the timings for the morning and afternoon retreats, and allow a 1h lunch.

Slide 5 is a link to the next retreat I run so people can immediately take action to create themselves more protected writing time.

Some components, often skipped, or missing from this kind of session, that maximise the learning:

The warm up: participants ‘freewrite’ (don’t stop to correct their work), in sentences, as much as they can in 5min in answer to the writing prompt “The writing I need to do today is…” Either laptop or handwriting is fine. At the end of the 5 timed minutes ask participants to note their approximate word counts, what they can achieve in 5min when the writing prompt is defined. Remind people that every 5min counts for writing, you don’t have to wait for a ‘free day’ — we weave writing into our working week.

Set targets: through discussion in pairs, participants set themselves a specific goal for session 1, and a specific goal for session 2. e.g. ‘draft 500 words on topic X’, ‘make a bullet list of points I want to make about Y’, ‘freewrite my ideas about Z’… the more specific the goal, the easier to stay on track and fulfil the goal.

Review targets: at the end of the retreat, participants review their progress with their partners. Were their goals realistic? Did they achieve more, or less, than they set out to? How could they recreate this productivity, finding 2h for themselves in the coming 3-4 weeks

My big tip to you is don’t skip the breaks in favour of continuing to hammer away at the keyboard. I often hear  ‘but I’m on a roll now’ I don’t want to stop. OK sure I’m not going to make you stop! But I recommend you do have a break, firstly because it’s easy to accidentally do a long and tiring session, then end up rewarding yourself with a day (week, month) off. Secondly, it’s good to leave writing on a high of enjoyment! It means you’ll want to come back to it sooner rather than later and enjoyment is the biggest motivator!

Best of luck with your retreat — please let me know how it goes. I am always very keen to know who used retreats and how they adapt.



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