Blond woman in glasses sits on sofa with laptop
Image by Ivan Sakov

Professor Catherine Needham and Professor Iestyn Williams run online School writing retreats for academic staff and postgraduate students. Dr Steph Haywood, who attends the retreats, joins Social Policy Matters to explain what a writing retreat is like, what kind of projects people work on, and how your writing can evolve as you work alongside others (and their cats)…

The aim of writing retreats is to encourage academics to set aside dedicated time for writing – no emails, no meetings, no distractions.

At the moment, they are taking place once a month via Zoom. It’s a 9am-5pm call, so a full day just for writing. All you need to bring along is your notes, a computer, and a piece of writing you want to work on. Coffee and snacks help too.

We start off each retreat by sharing what we’ll be working on and what we hope to achieve over the course of the day. Then we tend to work for about 90 minutes at a time before getting up to stretch our legs and find something to eat. Throughout the day, we are encouraged to keep our cameras on so it feels like we are all working in the same space together. These structured blocks of writing time allow us to separate writing, breaks, and social time with others on the retreat.

You don’t have to attend all day, either; people dip and out as they need to. Sometimes people join for just a morning or afternoon.

Writing alongside others—in person, or on camera—is a surprisingly good way to improve your productivity.

Writing retreats are useful not only because they allow you to set aside dedicated time for writing; they also encourage productivity because you’re sharing time and space with other people who are all doing the same thing. This keeps us accountable.

At the end of each morning and afternoon, we update one another on we’ve managed to achieve (whether that’s writing a whole introduction or editing a couple of paragraphs). It encourages you focus, to not get distracted by other tasks or emails that come in.

This is also an opportunity to learn about what other people in the School are working on, which opens up conversations about similarities and crossovers with your own projects.

From PGR students to early career researchers, to more senior staff—everyone is welcome.

Dr Steph Haywood

We have a good mix of School staff and postgraduate research students (PGRs) on our writing retreats.

From PGR students to early career researchers, to more senior staff—everyone is welcome. The retreats are a great way of meeting other people within the School. There are some who are regular attendees but every month, we have a couple of new faces, which is always great to see.

People have brought along all sorts of projects to the writing workshops—there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ project for a retreat.

We’ve seen people work on conference proposals, book chapters, first drafts of journal articles, R&Rs (revise and resubmit), and grant and promotion applications too. There’s no restriction as to what you can bring along. Some people will bring along a couple things to work on, focussing on one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

If you’re struggling to decide what to work on, it’s helpful to pick something that you don’t need to research anymore, and then you can just spend the whole day writing.

Whatever you can’t fit into your normal working week, bring it along to the retreat. You might be surprised at how much you can get done.

While we’re all working, the atmosphere is relaxed, and then there’s time during breaks to connect and keep relationships going.

We have conversations at each break, not just to update on work progress but also to check in on how everyone is doing in general. It’s nice to be able to ‘see’ everyone while you work (and sometimes, to see their pets!).

Attending writing retreats can help you and your work to evolve

Productivity during the retreat looks different to everyone depending on what stage in the writing process they are. It can be going from bullet point ideas to a full first draft. Other people come in with the first draft already complete and spend time editing specific sections. It’s really up to you and what you aim to get done in that space.

Stephanie says: “In the first writing retreat, I took along a paper idea that I wanted to develop into a conference paper proposal. I went into the retreat with lots of research notes and findings and a few bullet points of arguments that I wanted to make. By the end of the third retreat, I had finished the conference proposal and developed a first draft of the full paper. I’d also developed other arguments that I decided to pull out into a separate paper – I’ll be working on this over the next writing retreats.”

If you’d like to meet new people in the School of Social Policy and motivate yourself to get that piece of writing finished, please email Catherine Needham. The next retreat will take place on April 29th 2022.