Thesis Writing Full Time #2: Creating Structure

I’ve now been thesis writing pretty much full time for about 7 weeks. I’ve still been dipping in and out of work for other projects, leading the organisation of a new local branch of Soapbox Science (our speakers have just been announced – see the brilliant lineup we’ve secured for Aberdeen here!), designing new products for Science On A Postcard, and flitting about at Buckingham Palace.. so it’s not all been thesis-based. Anyway, I feel like I’ve finally got into a routine so thought I’d share that – hopefully it’ll be useful for those of you also writing up and struggling to find your groove.

I said in my last ‘thesis writing full time’ post, that the most productive times for me were between 3 and 6pm, and after dinner until I go to bed. As it turns out, that estimation was wildly wrong, and I just happened to be most productive during those times because I forced myself to focus during those times (that said, I am writing this blog post at ten past 9 on a Wednesday night, so many the night owl thing has some truth to it..). I’ve now found a much better routine, and it involves just getting on with work no matter what time it is. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. This structure thing takes time and dedication, and it’s actually quite difficult to force yourself out of bed an hour earlier just because you ‘should’.
I went on my first writing retreat last December and thought it was brilliant, so brilliant that my parents gifted me another one for Christmas, but it was the second one that I went on (March), that really forced the need to create structure into my brain.

As I said in a blog post about that first writing retreat, Rowena Murray’s retreats rely on a set structure made up of writing blocks, non-negotiable break times, and a distinct lack of distractions (the health app on my iPhone genuinely thought I’d been asleep for 3 days because my phone hadn’t moved from my bag during the entire retreat). During my first retreat I thought I’d got a lot done, but knowing what was ahead of me meant that I prepared much more effectively for the second, and I finished a thesis chapter a week in advance of the deadline (I know, shocking!).

This writing retreat structure is brilliant, it forces productivity, and in the words of Rowena herself, it forces ‘self-efficacy’. So, how have I managed to translate this seemingly magical structure into real life? I’ve been using the Forest App to force myself to focus (I see the irony of needing an app to reduce my ability to be distracted by technology, but it works for me), and I’ve been blocking out writing slots (an hour or an hour and a half depending on how much I want to achieve), and then.. just getting on with it. That’s been great, but it’s easy to find something to creep in and take that time away from me.

Enter, the wonderful Lucy Hinnie. I met Lucy at the March writing retreat where we bonded over a shared love of the fact that Rowena Murray was actually making us more productive, baked goods at break times, and RuPaul’s Drag Race (do not judge us, that show is a cultural masterpiece and I will hear nothing against Mama Ru).
Anyway, she’s continued to be fabulous from afar, and today she ran the first #remoteretreat via Twitter. This took the same structure as Rowena’s retreats, and judging by the response online, it was bloody brilliant. I didn’t manage to make this one, but Lucy is forcing our productivity again next Wednesday (28th March), so I wanted to draw attention to it.
I’ll be joining next week’s #remoteretreat but will need to skip out for an afternoon meeting – join us at 9.15am (GMT) to set goals, and then get writing!

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My First Writing Retreat

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.

What
Retreat programme, taken from the Anchorage Education website.

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.

The typing pool – a desk, lamp and charging points for each attendee.

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.

A walk to Gartmore House on Day 1.

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.