I’ve organised two writing retreats for the Centre of African Studies, and I’ve helped out a couple of others. So whilst I’m by no means an expert, I have a couple of nuggets I’ve gleaned from this experience that Muireann and Eystein asked me to share.
First, though, I must emphasise the direct and indirect contributions of Professor Rowena Murray, of the University of the West of Scotland, who through her publications and a workshop hosted by the Institute for Academic Development has contributed greatly to my understanding of how retreats work best.
- Structure is good.
At first, we used a very loose model. We'd have a discussion at the start, a few scheduled activities, but aside from that, let everyone find their own schedule.
At our most recent retreat in November 2013, we switched to a much more structured model - writing in two or three 90 minute chunks per day, and encouraging people to socialise and exercise outwith those times. This shifts the focus to concentrated, purposeful sessions on a bit of a paper/chapter that’s been targeted for completion beforehand, rather than open-ended binge writing.
This model works much better. People do more better when their writing, and can enjoy the social times guilt-free.
2. Don’t be scared to be strict.
A corollary of this is that the timings of the writing periods should be enforced - no talking, no phones! It can be quite difficult telling people to pipe down, especially when the offenders are senior academics, but it’s important to make it for everyone. People with thank you (silently).
3 Venue and food matter.
Writing is a demanding process, so it’s important to make the surroundings as pleasant as possible. Nothing ruins esprit de corps like bad food and uncomfortable chairs. In the past, we’ve used Firbush, Comrie Croft and The Burn. All of these have their pros and cons - Firbush has lots of outdoor activities included, but the set-up for writing and food aren’t ideal, The Burn is beautiful and has great facilities, but it’s quite a way from Edinburgh. Comrie Croft is probably the best compromise for our purposes.
4. Splash the cash.
Relatedly, I think it’s well worth being ambitious in asking for funding. For better or worse, publishing is the single most important (or at least economically valuable) thing will do, and writing retreats contribute directly and tangibly to that. This is more so than a mini-conference, say, which can cost quite a bit more. As this is our core activity, and the facilities matter, it’s well worth investing in.
5. Purity of purpose.
Finally, it’s always tempting to add other content to the writing retreat schedule - presentations, training sessions, workshops etc. This is especially so if the retreat is a rare opportunity to gather people from a particular department together. Some of these activities might be unavoidable, but they should be kept to a minimum. A writing retreat is for writing, not a container for miscellaneous stuff that couldn’t be schedule elsewhere. Presentations, in particular, can be bad as they can foster precisely the sort of peer anxiety that inhibits writing in the first place.
Murray, Rowena, and Mary Newton. "Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream?." Higher Education Research & Development 28, no. 5 (2009): 541-553.
Moore, Sarah. "Writers' retreats for academics: exploring and increasing the motivation to write." Journal of further and higher education 27, no. 3 (2003): 333-342.