Writing Retreats and Courses for Academic Writers


Comments on the Training for Retreat Facilitators

Having read Rowena Murray Writing in Social Spaces, I decided to host a few day-long retreats for my graduate students. Productivity was good and the students happy, but there was clearly room for (much) improvement and I wanted to help the students get more from their time and efforts. I attended Rowena’s Facilitator Training retreat in the Bowfield Spa Hotel. A lovely hotel with good facilities including a fully equipped gym and a swimming pool. The weather was typically Scottish – dreich – with moments of rain, snow, hail and then long sunny spells perfect for walking in. The 3 days are divided just as a Writing Retreat would be, with structured breaks for exercise and food. Times are strictly adhered to in order to respect the group and get the most out of the time. The sessions explored the methods and rationale behind the Writing Retreat model, as well as the practicalities of facilitation, and a great session on staying healthy while you work with Dr Morag Thow MBE, that had us all sitting up straight and paying more attention to our movement and understanding why the retreat timings were as they were.

When was the last time you wrote for 10 hours out of 48, and felt energised at the end of it, and itched to write more? That’s the writing retreat effect. I took the facilitator course because, as a translator and editor, I enable writers all the time, but most of our contact is online; we’re not in the same room. Many writers I work with could use some other approaches, which they aren’t finding in their institutions. I wondered how I could lead a roomful of strong-willed academics and get any writing done. Now I realise a facilitator who is writing too is moving in the same direction. It works. Writing takes persistence, and a persistent facilitator can help you persist, by prioritising and enabling the writing. Translators’ work is unseen – I’ve often talked about putting on my Harry-Potter-style invisibility cloak to translate. A good translation doesn’t feel translated, but we need to see it happening to understand how it works and who did it, and to get better at it. That’s true of any writing.

Not only did the training give me the tools to improve my retreats, it helped me understand how the model works. Respect for the group; for people’s time and for the work you are doing is key. Stick with the programme. It works! The training is vital. Without it, I don’t think anyone can run a suitably successful and productive retreat. The collegiality at the retreat was motivational and supportive, the food and the company (and the short visits from Ally the greyhound) made it good fun as well as valuable. My foremost motivation for attending the training was to do a little more for my students; but I left with more than that, feeling inspired to run external retreats and determined to showcase the value of writing retreats in improving academic leadership to my institution.

An opportunity to take the time to write, but also to meet very interesting people, learn lots, and see some fantastic countryside.

Retreating is engaging – putting writing first, together

Kate Sotejeff-Wilson, KSW Translations
6 April 2019

What’s the point of a writing retreat? Luxury for a privileged few – or a strategic move? A well-structured retreat can make your writing happen, on site and long after your return home.

I don’t like being told what to do. Perhaps even more than that, I dislike having to tell others what to do. So what on earth possessed me to fly all the way from central Finland to western Scotland to do both, and train to facilitate writing retreats?

Enabling writing is what I do, and I wanted to try doing it in the same room as other people. As a translator and editor, I midwife academic texts for a living. This means much more than just “fixing the English”. A week before this course someone told me, “I’m just so amazed how you can revise the text so that even I, as the writer, can make better sense of my own ideas!” I was delighted, but we have never met – our conversation is entirely in comments in Word and by email. For some time, I had been feeling that this wasn’t enough. Many writers I was working with could benefit from some other approaches, which they weren’t finding in their institutions. It was time to leave the comfort of my own home office and do something about it.

One reason for coming to Howwood near Glasgow was to meet other writers, face to face. Writing together does not necessarily mean working on the same text: one can write with others who have a similar sense of purpose, in the same space. A dozen writers did this training; professors, senior university administrators, editors, an engineer, a psychologist, an archaeologist, a cancer researcher… we had had a lot to say to and learn from each other. In retrospect I realise I wrote a lot of my own PhD as if I was on writing retreat – living in a house share with other doctoral researchers. We’d work together in the then newly-opened British Library, stop for lunch and to plan what to cook for dinner (“I’ve got half a courgette”/“I’ve got some pasta”) and move on to talking about our work. We took different approaches – one of us literally cut and pasted bits of her handwritten paper text on the floor – in different institutions and departments, so we could help each other without competing. Our quick chats about our work helped us move on before our supervisors knew anything of it. A writing group or writing retreat can create that same common purpose and move your writing forward. It forges unexpected connections.

A shared space makes writing come out. Usually we don’t see each other doing it; it is pushed off our agendas and out of our office hours because so many other things come first – teaching, management, finding funding, other work, paid and unpaid, the rest of life. Writing is usually invisible, but outing it, making the process explicit, removes some of the concerns and barriers that stop us getting started and helps us set specific goals, monitor them, and meet them.
Putting writing first like this requires structure. A structured writing retreat creates space for only writing, offline, within timetabled slots lasting from 5 to 90 minutes, with plenty of breaks for exercise, eating and rest. This adds up to 10.5 hours of writing – doing nothing else, not even checking a quick reference – over 48 hours. When was the last time you did something like that, and felt energised at the end of it, and itched to write more?

Structuring writing to put it first is a strategic choice. You will do the other things, just not now. And not writing for too long means that there will be time for the other things. The facilitator leads that process and ensures that everyone writes enough, but not too much. This means telling people to start and stop writing on a fixed schedule that can feel artificial. It means cutting off conversations, even if people are talking about their writing for the first time in years, perhaps ever – and getting them back to actually doing it. Before the course, I wondered how on earth one could monitor and enable a roomful of strong-willed academics and get any writing done oneself. Now I realise that’s not only possible, it’s desirable. A facilitator who is writing too is not just leading or modelling, but actually doing the same thing, moving in the same direction, as the rest of the group. And I found that it works. Writing takes persistence, and a persistent facilitator can help you persist, by prioritising and enabling the writing.

But what happens next, when you come out of the structured social space and try to maintain the process in real life? When is the next time you’re going to write? With whom, where, for how long? One colleague on this course said she always stopped mid-sentence, so she knew where she was going to start next time. Stopping while the going was good meant you were more likely to want to go back to it. Writing meetings with a partner, regularly monitoring what you’ve written and what exactly you’re going to write, can keep you at it. In this way, you bring the energy generated on a retreat back to where you came from.

As I flew home from the course, I changed planes in Amsterdam. I had just ten minutes at the charging station by the gate to send some messages and write some thoughts down. As the last few people boarded, I unplugged my charger, and the girl with her laptop next to me was startled out of her concentration to get on the same plane. “I just needed get a bit of work written” she said, grinning. And off we flew.

See Rowena Murray, Writing in Social Spaces: A social processes approach to academic writing (Routledge 2015)
This was the version written on the plane/train home from the retreat. Potential audiences to rewrite this for:
1. translators who need to make time and space for their OWN writing so they translate better; I could do workshops and then retreats for all of these as I already do training for them
a) UK Institute of Translation and Interpreting magazine,
b) Finnish translators: SKTL magazine (work with Virve on translation)
c) Finnish linguists’ trade union: Kieliasiantuntijat website/newsletter
2. authors’ editors who want to help their clients in a different way, as 1 but also they might want to do the training themselves later
a) NEaT website/newsletter
b) MET the Hive
3. “pitch” to academics I work with, for themselves and their staff, once I know what they do already and what they need
a) Heads of university departments and language services I work with a lot,
b) Finnish (then German) historians’ associations for their conference pre-workshops,
c) UK academics I know who’d like the concept but might not know it,
d) British Library head of strategy for her Living Knowledge Network project and to make her aware that people are already using the BL for this informally
e) Max Planck Institute(s) after we do it for MET colleagues there?

Endorsements for Rowena Murray’s Thesis ‘Endgame’ Course

Quoted anonymously, with permission

‘‘It was indeed a terrific workshop. We all knew the writing tasks, but I was grateful to actually experience the results – it put in place a framework which is tight in a way that it can prevent me from spiralling off in other directions, especially at this last stage. Then it forced me to answer questions I’ve been avoiding – like contribution to knowledge, limitations and future directions. I still don’t have clear answers, but I will soon – fingers crossed!’

‘[This course] has made an enormous difference by providing me with the clear guidance and external accountability that I needed to help me tackle key sections of my thesis. I am very happy with what I have done, with all its faults, and I have your notes, individual feedback, books and writing groups to help me to improve and keep going. I feel very fortunate to have found you and my new writing buddies this year.

‘I had my supervisors meeting yesterday to receive feedback on everything I’d written and revised through the Thesis Endgame course, and I was quite frankly gobsmacked at how positive their feedback was! I wouldn’t consider myself a natural or keen writer, so I found the course incredibly helpful, and it has really motivated me onto the next steps’.

‘I found [writing chapter introductions] quite tough because it forced me to make a lot of decisions that were probably long overdue to be made. As a result, I feel much better about my thesis planning now!’

‘I found [writing thesis conclusion] really difficult. I think I’m still struggling to make that final decision on the conclusion and want to discuss everything I found and did as well as all the issues I had. Hopefully, acknowledging that will help’.

‘My supervisors were both very pleased to know I was on the course and to have about 5,000 words to review my thesis argument, rather than having to troll through an entire thesis, when it’s much more difficult (and sometimes too late) to change this’.

‘Thanks again for all your help during the course – I am loving it! I wish I had found it sooner because it is helping me with clarity and brevity’.

‘Many thanks for the Endgame course; I’ve really found it very supportive and thought-provoking’.

‘This has been a really great exercise to help me bring my chapters and overall aims/claims together – there is still work to be done to make these clear, but the thinking/writing is getting there!’

‘Thank you again for a great month together. It has really shifted my thinking and writing in the right direction’.