Last week I attended my first writing retreat. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found that the experience really helped with my confidence in terms of thesis writing, so I thought I’d explain what the retreat was like, where I went etc in case there are any soon to be thesis-writers reading this who would like to know more.
Who, Where and When
Myself and a group of other academic writers from various institutions across the UK; a really good mix of PhD students, post-docs and established researchers, with a diverse range of backgrounds too. The retreat itself was facilitated by Rowena Murray, she’s published a tonne of books on writing and runs writing retreats through her company, Anchorage Education, about once a month.
Retreats are usually based at the Black Bull Hotel in Gartmore, with attendees staying at the hotel or one of the surrounding guest houses. I stayed at Craigmore Guest House which is only a few minutes from the Black Bull Hotel. I was really glad that I was staying at the Guest House – purely because it forced me to get up and get ready earlier, meaning by the time I’d got to the Black Bull Hotel I was properly awake (I am very much not a morning person!).
The retreat started on Wednesday evening (6th December), which meant we got an hour of writing in before a long day on the Thursday. We finished on Friday afternoon at about 4pm. Honestly, that was long enough I think. My head was feeling a bit mushy because of the amount of concentration that writing requires, and I was glad it was the weekend – having a retreat towards the end of the working week also meant that I went into the weekend feeling like I’d achieved a lot, could have a guilt-free break, and then get back to work again on Monday.
Rowena’s writing retreats are structured, they have a very clear programme and we don’t stray from that. At first this intimidated me; I was thinking ‘what if I don’t feel like writing?’ ‘what if I need to look something up?’ ‘what happens if I run out of things to write?’. By the end, I was totally converted, and plan to bring some of that structure to my thesis writing over the next few months.
Before I went to the retreat I had planned out what I wanted to achieve, I’d downloaded a squillion papers and resources because we were told that the wifi would be patchy – also, you’re not allowed to use wifi when you’re in the ‘typing pool’ (i.e. where you sit during your writing slots), so took a tonne of stuff with me in case I got stuck and needed some inspiration. In the end I didn’t use many of the papers I’d brought with me; I read a few in the evenings so that I felt more prepared for the following day’s writing, but ultimately the writing slots were brilliant for doing just that, writing. I didn’t find that I wanted to look up references or double check facts – I simply wrote, and added comments or notes where I wanted to check things later. This method meant that I got much more done than I thought I would; when I’m at home or work I tend to write for a bit, stop and check something, and then write a bit more, editing as I go. This retreat demonstrated that my previous way of working was much less productive than I had ever thought possible.
The hour-long writing slot on day 1 was particularly useful as it set the tone for the rest of the retreat. It also showed me what I needed to prepare for the following day – day 2 is a much longer day so it’s important to have clear goals set out.
As well as this practice of consistently writing for an hour or an hour and a half at a time, we were told to set very clear goals – goals based on words; number of new words, number of edited words etc. I was largely aiming to generate new words for the discussion of my systematic review, and came away with 5,500 words more than I arrived with. Without recording my word count at the end of each session I doubt that would’ve happened. More words is great, but they were high quality words too (I think anyway, we’ll see what my supervisor thinks!) – because I was sitting there with no distractions, I felt that I could make connections and get to grips with my data much better than I had done previously. The entire process actually made me much more confident in myself. Data analysis and discussion writing is the bit of my thesis that I was feeling most insecure about, but now I feel like I’ll actually be able to do it, which is good considering my hand in date of next June.
The way I’ve described the retreat so far makes it sound as if it was all work and no play! Luckily that wasn’t the case, Rowena structured the retreat so that we had defined breaks and time for walks etc too which I think added to how productive we were in the writing slots.
Overall, I found the writing retreat to be exactly the boost I needed to get going with my thesis. The setting was beautiful, accommodation was comfortable, and the hotel staff were absolutely brilliant. We were treated to delicious food at every break time, and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about other things like food or chores made the process of writing much more enjoyable. I’m already looking at dates for my next retreat and would highly recommend looking into writing retreats if you’re feeling a bit stuck and need to give yourself some headspace for writing.