2016-04-23 15.31.19
Photo by Diannehope at Morguefile.com

This week started with a rare treat – a whole day to write. More accurately, I was facilitating a writing retreat for our current cohort of CAHSS Mid-Career Fellows, but I took the opportunity to join them in spirit as well as body.

Writing retreats are one of the most popular offerings from IAD, probably a reaction to the double whammy of fragmented academic time and increased pressure to produce outputs. We based our approach on the work of Professor Rowena Murray and in advance of the retreat we encourage all those attending to read the Murray and Newton paper which considers the value of structured writing interventions.

At the end of the day, I asked people to briefly consider if there was anything they could take away which might help to write in less focused circumstances. We talked about the ease or difficulty of writing at different times of the day which reminded me of the work of Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega, in particular a blog post in which he shared his academic writing approach. He talked about both the discipline of writing every day but also finding a slot where this is possible. For him it’s around 5am – perhaps linked to another of his pieces of advice which is about not being interrupted. The early morning writing habit was admitted by several of us in the room.

Another tip was making an appointment with yourself to write and preparing for the appointment in the same way that you would any other (because clearly everyone reads committee papers in advance). This isn’t just about putting a writing slot in your diary (although in an era of shared diaries you should do this and make sure it appears as “busy” rather than “tentative”) but about starting that appointment with a clear plan. All preparations in place, tools to hand and ready to make the most of the time available. Someone mentioned that they’d “saved up” their best writing ideas for the day so it felt like more of a treat and an occasion that they weren’t going to squander.

We also talked about the guilt of not writing when in a room full of people who know you should be. There’s many a “you should be writing” meme that you can print out and have glaring at you when you lift an eye from the screen or page, nothing is as effective as another human. There was nothing competitive about the atmosphere, so I don’t want to suggest there was an unseemly comparison of word count in each break. More that we all gently willed each other on to keep pushing on until the end of each slot. Someone referred to this as “strength in numbers”.

However, despite the fact that it’s possible to weave some of the features of the retreat into a daily routine, when asked if they could see a way to achieve some of the same value, for some the answer was a clear “no”. The cumulative effect was key to the impact of the day. One person talked about their final hour being the most productive by far. Although there might be some value in the planning and scheduled commitment, nothing could come close to the impact of being able to achieve a flow.

The fact it has again taken me until late on a Friday to do this week’s blog (& Sunday  to post it) shows that these habits aren’t easy to weave into busy schedules, but here are some things that might help.

SUAW and mini retreats – there is a regular SUAW hour on Twitter each Tuesday which could help achieve a sense of strength in virtual numbers. There may also be part or half day retreats in your school which you can attend when you need to. The Mason Institute runs a fortnightly retreat, but you could start one – IAD has written a facilitator guide which I used as the basis for the one this week.

Writing plans – I often plan to spend time on writing, but then get slightly paralysed thinking about what to write. The process of mapping out each of the hours in the retreat meant that I started the first hour almost effortlessly. This might be a good use of the next writing slot – to make a set of writing plans rather than fail to write.

Write by hand – this was an interesting reflection from one person. We start the day with a free writing warm up exercise and at points he found it easier to return to pen and paper. If the distractions of a keyboard and screen prove impossible to resist, perhaps it’s better to go back to basics and get a first draft out the old fashioned way.

Whatever helps you to write, persevere.

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