In late September 2021, SPHR Pre-Doctoral Fellows Emma Adams (Fuse, Newcastle University), Jo Dawes (UCL), Kate Dotsikas (UCL), Charan Gill (Imperial College), Shivangi Medhi (UCL), and Chiara Rinaldi (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) self-organised a four day face-to-face writing retreat facilitated by Maureen Michael of Room for Writing.
With trains booked, accommodation sorted and supermarket delivery on its way, we packed our bags and headed to Stroud in Gloucestershire. Since starting our fellowships in early 2020, we have worked remotely, so for many of us this marked the first time we had met face-to-face. We came together in idyllic Stroud, with the lovely Hammonds Farm acting as our home base for the week.
After 18 months of working from home, we felt we needed a chance to connect and create a space away from our daily routines where we could each focus on individual writing goals. The in-person collaborative space was chosen so we could help each other work through writer’s blocks and review documents in a supportive and constructive way. Aside from the obvious benefits from having designated writing time, the real draw was the opportunity to bring together our peer group and further the relationships we had built over Zoom.
Our facilitator, Maureen, created a schedule for the week which involved: setting and revising writing goals for each day and the week, ten designated writing blocks, and debriefing sessions. The first roadblock we had to overcome was trying to reprogram our mindsets and write without constantly returning to and proofreading sentences or stop to look something up.
“One of the things I’ve found most useful about the format of our writing retreat was setting realistic short-term goals that can be achieved within a 1.5-hour writing block. While I usually don’t strictly schedule my time, having short writing blocks with regular breaks helped me focus on my writing without (frequent) distractions and kept me motivated throughout the day.”
– Chiara (LSHTM)
Although we all had different writing goals, we quickly developed the innate ability to challenge each other if our goals were under or over-ambitious. If ever we got stuck, we knew we could always reach out to Maureen for support and suggestions. Being in a large farmhouse, we had the space to write in the same room and be motivated by the rhythmic tapping of fingers on keyboards or retreat to a smaller room or window seat if we worked better in silence.
Maureen was very clear that with such intense blocks of writing, the scheduled breaks and lunches were essential to productivity. By the end of Tuesday, we had all entered some semblance of routine and normality and were really getting on well with producing text. We learned that it is okay to leave place holders (that citation could wait for another day!) and if you are stumped try and write about why you are stuck.
“I found it so useful to be reminded by Maureen that the purpose of the retreat was text generation. Previously, with academic writing, I would spend ages rearranging words, agonising about what I’m trying to say and revisiting references. The retreat helped me try writing a different way. Uninterrupted blocks with the sole focus of getting words on a page. I left with 2,000 words of a systematic review paper written down. This felt so much more efficient than my usual approach”
– Jo (UCL)
Despite some rainy weather, we found respite in being surrounded by rolling green hills, a local bramble patch, friendly alpacas, and two 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. One of the best parts about holding the writing retreat face-to-face, rather than on Zoom, was in the conversations we had while cooking food and eating meals together. The peer support while munching on some soup or bread was vital for development, and something we have so badly missed by doing a fellowship whilst working from home. It also meant when one of us got positive news or had a breakthrough we all celebrated together. All too often, we do not find the time to celebrate small or large milestones as we are so focused on next steps. Instead, we were able to take the time to celebrate our victories and successes, guilt free, in the company of people who understood what those victories and successes really meant.
Another added bonus of a physical writing retreat is being away from our regular home life, not having to think about the laundry or the bills. It allowed some of us to go for early morning and evening walks, enabling us to really appreciate the environment and the beautiful surroundings. By being in a physically different location it allowed us to re-establish the work/life boundaries, which have been really blurred during the pandemic and the constant remote working. Although we can all take outdoors walks when we are home, being in a new and greener environment made us take more notice of local area. We even took the time to visit the local alpacas staying nearby
“Being in a different environment really helped to change my mindset and reenergise me. I was eager to go on early morning walk every day instead of my normal routine of logging on minutes after I have woken up. Those walks really helped to set up my day and clear my head, which enabled me to set realistic goals for each writing sessions. It was also useful checking in with Maureen, who helped keep me grounded. When I was keen to continue writing at the end of one day, Maureen reminded me the importance of setting boundaries. Instead of working into the night, I set myself a deadline and stuck to it, which allowed me to have an early evening stroll before enjoying a lovely meal with my Pre-Doc pals, which in turn set up nicely for the next day.”
– Shivangi (UCL)
As we came to our last writing day, it felt like we had only just arrived as the time seemed to fly by. We had our final debriefing session with Maureen where we discussed our experience of the retreat, our writing progress and goals for the future, as well as what practices we could continue when we go back to the real world. We were surprised by what can be achieved in a short period of time with a good schedule, the right attitude and a supportive environment. Something that we all felt could further benefit our writing was organising regular in-person writing sessions now that we are slowly transitioning out of working from home. After some final writing tips, we said goodbye to Maureen and thanked her for her skilful facilitation. We spent our last night nattering around log fires, cooking dinner, and frantically trying to finish our last puzzle. Perhaps fitting for how we all sometimes feel when you cannot pinpoint what is off in a paper, was the fact our final puzzle was missing one piece.
As we awoke on the morning our trains departed, we begrudgingly packed up our bags and gobbled down our pancake brunch. With hugs and plans for another face-to-face in November, we left the retreat feeling refreshed and proud of our productivity. Perhaps the fact we had developed a sense of comradery over Zoom meant that we were able to feel at ease with one another, but I think that would negate the butterflies and nerves that were very present on the train ride down replaced by feelings of warmth and belonging on the return journey.
Reflections after a writing retreat: Emma Fuse (Newcastle University)
As I logged onto my computer the following Monday morning, I felt like there was a weight lifted off my shoulders. Something about having spent a week focusing on writing and one task seemed to have left me feeling rejuvenated for the final crutch of my fellowship. After over a year being up in Newcastle upon Tyne without seeing the rest of my Pre-Doctoral cohort, I felt validated and less alone. More importantly the skills around structured writing time and the relationships I developed over cooking dinner and washing dishes left me feeling equipped to deal with the obstacles that were likely to arise in our final months. Some of us have already secured funding for doctoral training, some new employment opportunities in practice, and others are undergoing interviews and drafting applications. Although we all have slightly different trajectories for the next six months, I am assured no matter what our futures hold we will remain a close-knit cohort fostering a space for early career researchers to celebrate our individual successes and support each other in times of disappointment.
Our Key Lessons from a Writing Retreat
- We will constantly have competing time priorities. We need to find a way to make space for writing where we are free from distractions. Setting out of office notices or committing to only check emails at lunch or the last 30 minutes of the day are two ways to do this.
- Create realistic writing goals. It is important that you separate ambitious long-term goals (e.g. finish writing a paper) from short-term goals that can be achieved within the time you have at hand.
- Use word counts proactively rather than a restrictive tool. Write for an hour and figure out exactly how many words you wrote. Whether it is 500, 1000, or 1500 think about how much of a paper or report that equals. Use this word count as a benchmark to determine how much you can write if you are able to set aside an afternoon.
- Accept that you rarely get full days to write, so finding ways to write productively in small chucks of time is essential. This can be helped by having a clear structure for the pieces of writing you need to do. By breaking a paper down into its key paragraphs means that if you have a spare 30 minutes, you can quickly hop to tackling one of those paragraphs in that available time.
- When you set aside time for writing, try to keep that time for getting actual words on the page and focus on keeping the writing flow going. Put place holders for references or where you might need to look something up in the literature so you can return to it during a separate time. Resist the urge to fix simple mistakes straight away, instead return to do a read through for grammar and spelling when you are finished an entire section.
- Scheduling breaks (and keeping to them) are just as important as scheduling in writing blocks. Even if you feel energised to continue into the night, resist that urge and stick with your timings.
- Despite the benefits of Zoom, nothing can truly replace the face-to-face contact, or the environment created when you are able to separate yourself from your normal office setting. We found the physical location created a boundary around our writing time that gave us permission to ignore everything else. Our challenge will be creating this in our everyday life.