Two organised and self-sacrificing fellow students
Two professional writing coaches
A bevy of helpful academics
One kilo (possibly more) of ground coffee
Circa: 300 teabags (assorted varieties)
12 litres of milk
Perhaps 450 biscuits
Around 320 sandwiches (nice neat little triangular ones)
14 pints of soup
Several boxes of very good German marzipan chocolates
A jar of ready-mixed cocoa powder
One very squashed chocolate cake
Place in a warm department for seven days and bake gently, with regular additions of mutual support, self-discipline and bracing walks.
What, so far, has been the product of this culinary experiment? We're not quite at the end; writing on Saturday night we still have one day left to go. But it's perhaps safe to take a small peek, without the cake collapsing into a sad concavity in the bottom of the baking tin.
Yesterday morning we had our first completed draft article, so that is perhaps the trial edge bit, the early sample which has brought approving munching sounds from the chefs. The rest of us are still, it seems, quietly cooking away. But despite the weird and wonderful array of flavours (ranging from medieval Irish poetry to Turkish politics, political activists to avant-garde Russians), the end result seems likely to turn out very tasty.
Having extended that metaphor as far as it can gracefully go, it's time to get a little more exact. The blogs which precede this have laid out many of the aspects of the writing process(es) which have been going on during EdJoWriWe. We've had advice and analysis, crises and revelations, frivolity and deep, deep concentration.
I like writing retreats and courses. Having made my living as a jobbing writer for over a decade, I've always believed that one can improve, tweak and challenge one's own writing style and practice. No-one is so good that they cannot learn something new, whether it is in their writing itself or in the methods they use to create it. Writers are made, not born, and anyone who tells you different is either a fraud or a freak.
For me, this week has partly been about just taking the time to focus on writing – not reading, not making notes, not answering pressing emails, not preparing lessons or marking homework, not fitting writing (and the thinking that goes into it) around a hundred easier tasks. It's an incredible privilege, not only to be able to take that time, but also to do so amongst a score of colleagues equally set on producing work. I wanted to see how much I could actually get done in that time, not under the fevered pressure of deadlines but simply in a supportive environment with clear and targeted aims. I also wanted to find advice and ideas about how to develop my academic writing style, balancing the demands of exactness and depth with values such as readability, concision and accessibility drawn from my time as a journalist and book author.
I've found the space to do those things, and more. What are the main lessons I want to draw from this week? Well, one of them is to limit the number of rhetorical questions I drop into my text. But I think that's only my second, so I'll let it pass. Aside from that, the main points I'd draw from the last five days:
- You don't have to be doing the same discipline for it to be useful to work with someone on your academic writing. Some of the basic lessons of style, construction, clarity and argument are common to a wide range, if not all, subjects. And sometimes, sharing your work with people who aren't going to focus on the facts and figures means that instead they'll ask the useful questions about why you've phrased something that way, or put your argument in that order;
- Working around other people is not necessarily a distraction. If you're focused and disciplined, having other people being equally focused and disciplined in the same room helps keep you honest – and also makes sure that all of you take the breaks needed to stop your back seizing up, your wrists getting RSI and your brain shrivelling into a desiccated husk in your skull.
- Changing your space can make a big difference. It's easy to sink into working in comfy, habitual places - but different places can be good for different tasks. Do you want utter focus and silence, or to be able to pace and talk to yourself, or break off to work things out in conversation and discussion? As someone once said (probably a woman, since it's so very sensible), a change is as good as a rest...
All those, and many other aspects of this week, will change the way I write, and for that I am immeasurably grateful. I deeply and sincerely hope that EdJoWriWe happens again, and not too far into the distance. Having said that, I very much hope that Eystein and Muireann are not organising it; it's their turn to benefit from the focus, support and care they've delivered to the rest of us. It's someone else's turn. Now, where do we submit those funding applications to...?
Due to yet more disturbances in the upper atmosphere, we are experiencing a scheduled break in communications with our indomitable satellite. A final report from the mission is expected tomorrow (earth-time).