The case for structured writing retreats

If you’ve ever been to a writing retreat at the UoB, you’ll have heard us explain why we structure it as we do.

If you’ve not, then you might wonder why we run them in such a structured way.

The structure might even have put you off.

This post will explain some of why we shape our retreats like that – and what the potential benefits are.

*spoiler alert* – they’re not just about how many words you write!

For anyone in the UK looking into writing retreats, the name that almost immediately pops up is that of Rowena Murray. Murray is now a Professor of Education based at the University of the West of Scotland, and is involved in more types of writing training and support than I can possibly list here.

But what Murray is probably best known for, at least in writing-retreat circles in the UK, is an article that she published in 2009 with Mary Newton. That article, which presents the rationale for structured writing retreats, has become the standard blueprint for pretty much all academic writing retreats run in the UK, in UK universities.

Note, ‘structured’ writing retreats, not just ‘retreats’. The notion that academics need time away from the distractions of their everyday work to write is no news to anyone. But before Murray and Newton, no-one had really studied what should actually happen on those retreats. Often, they were simply blocks of time set aside for writing. And sure, writing was being done… but how much, and for how long, and how sustainably, was another question.

Murray positioned her question as follows.

Since “academics across the world face increasing pressure to publish… [and] research shows that writing retreats have helped…” what are the most effective form for those writing retreats? (Murray and Newton 2009: 541.)

From a series of six, two-day retreats, run between 2005 and 2006, and attended by some forty academics with different levels of experience in writing, Murray and Newton identified a number of characteristics that would make a retreat most effective.

First – they should be structured. There should be a beginning and an end. Time to warm up, time to plan, time to review, time to discuss, and time to be quiet. There should be time to write and time to stop. Structuring a retreat, they found, meant that people got the most out of the time. It ensured that people wrote when they were supposed to write, but also rested well, so that they could write well again. And that meant that they wrote more, and better.

Second – the experience should be shared. Where an academic sat on their own in their office is open to all manner of distractions, and accountable only to themselves, they found that a group writing together created a ‘mutuality of engagement’, a sense of being ‘in something together’, which helped them to stick with writing, when they might have otherwise drifted off task.

Third – a part of that mutual engagement should be the setting and sharing of goals. Murray and Newton found that this not only helped writers stay focused and on-task, it also allowed them to concretely measure what they had written (and, so, in time get more and more realistic about their expectations), which led to them feeling a much greater sense of accomplishment.

Goal setting and review also had another impact, however. By sharing their targets, aspirations, struggles, with others who they only potentially knew in the context of writing; a group of ‘writers’, those in the group began to see themselves, also, as ‘writers’.

As writers, they found that they became able to do things that ‘writers do’… both inside the retreats, and outside them – where they were still writers!

And so, they began, for example, prioritising writing as an activity, and planning, and structuring their writing approach. Breaking previously unmanageable large writing tasks into chunks, they completed them, submitted them, and published them – because, well, that’s what writers do.

Murray’s evidence was irrefutable. Since publication needs to be a central part of academic lives, writing should also be. And not just ‘writing’…

[we propose that] structured retreat[s] increase learning through participation and help academics to mainstream writing in their lives and careers… since publishing is a mainstream academic activity, it makes sense to mainstream this intervention in academic careers.” (Murray and Newton 2009: 541.)

So that’s what we do!

Rowena Murray & Mary Newton (2009) Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream?, Higher Education Research & Development, 28:5, 541-553, DOI: 10.1080/07294360903154126