Online Writers’ Retreats… what you do when you can’t meet up!

If you search the Internet for writing retreats, you’ll find all kind of images that involve groups of people sat, with laptops, around a table… like this:

group of writers around a table, each with their own laptop

There’s a very good reason for this. When Rowena Murray did her initial work on structured retreats back in 2009, she found that key to success was the ‘doing together’ that comes from all being in the same place at the same time.

Writers on our retreats have told us the same.

“It helps me push through, when I get stuck and I might get distracted and give up, being with others who are also writing means I don’t stop… I keep trying, and eventually I work out how to get past the problem and I can move on.”

What do you do, then, when – like now – you can’t be in the same room?

One answer is to move them online.

Moving the retreats online

The idea of an online retreat isn’t entirely new. With space for about 16 people in a room, and at least twice that who want to attend, we’ve been thinking for a while about how we might stream the retreats that we do for wider participation. We’ve even tried it once: perching a webcam on the top of the whiteboard in the room and using YouTube to live-cast the workshop.

It worked, but it was very one-directional.

With no choice but to move online, it seemed like a good time to try something else.

And so… after a bit of testing, we went with Zoom.

screengrab of zoom online meeting with 12 panels, each showing an individual writer. A chat stream is on the left.

What we changed

Physical writing retreats run to a timetable that intersperses periods of writing with planning, discussion, stretches, breaks, and feedback. The structure is designed to draw the room together as a community, and then demonstrate and share good writing practice.

Obviously some things can’t be the same online. It’s hard to simulate small-group discussion unless you have a system that will allow breakout rooms. And it’s impossible to provide healthy snacks, drinks, and a group walk… But differences were also useful. Writers were more at ease to eat, to listen to music. They were also able to leave the group when needed (to interact with children, partners, answer the door, etc…) and then resume writing again. In fact, the online group became a ‘writing space’… almost like a meeting going on in a secret room inside your home, that’s always available, that you can just walk into as useful.

Given that our structured retreats are about encouraging people to find ways to quickly enter a writing ‘flow’ even in the midst of their daily busyness, that’s a really interesting find.

Interestingly, too, many things ran just as they normally would. I was able to share my screen to talk through the introductory PowerPoint presentation. The free writing slot at the start still worked (although some people found they felt less free to ramble when not surrounded by others doing the same, and started editing spelling and grammar). Individual planning exercises still worked though, and discussion potentially worked even better than in a physical room, as people took turns with everyone (because of the lack of a physical group?) able to share. Muting controls allowed me to create a silent writing period, and by un-muting myself at the end, I was able to use music to bring writing to an end as I usually would.

I was even able, using chat, to interact with one or two of the writers directly, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in a physical room.

Things we noticed

The biggest thing is, obviously, that you’re not all in the same room… and so all of those environmental signals that tell you that you’re part of a single-purpose writing group are missing. Peripheral noise was not the sound of other people typing and shuffling papers, but rather the sound of whatever environment each person was in. (The sound of my neighbour using a pneumatic drill to lift his patio – for example!)

(Addition – 3rd April 2020 – one of those attending directed us to, which simulates environmental noise from cafés, libraries and other ‘writing’ spaces… one or two of those on the retreat used this during the writing periods to backfill their environment, with considerable success)

Breaks were different too. Even with each person un-muted, and chat enabled, people tended to drift away from the keyboard (understandably), and so away rather than toward interaction with each other.

The lack of physical togetherness also shows up in the technology. Several people muted their video for bandwidth purposes as soon as we started writing. Which is entirely understandable, but does leave you with a pane of greyed-out windows. Most laptops point their webcams at people’s faces – so you can’t actually see them typing. And we found that – when the zoom window was minimised into a corner to allow people to actually type on the same screen – everyone but the group facilitator disappears… creating added pressure on the facilitator to be busy!

These things added together make for a feeling of ‘voluntary commitment’ to a time of writing, rather than the kind of group practice that comes from a physical retreat.

But those attending said that the knowledge that they were meeting up at the end of the writing sections to stretch (I’ll never be Joe Wicks, mind), and for break-time, was enough to keep them focused and on-track.

And again, if the purpose of these workshops is to encourage strategies for improving personal writing practices… perhaps empowering people to ‘choose’ to write is actually not a bad thing.

The future

Clearly, there’s still a very good case for physically meeting up to write. In a poll that I took just as things were locking down, about 50% of those asked said that they’d still want to attend in person even if an online solution was offered.

However, even if online retreats aren’t going to replace physical ones, what a good online tool shows us is that an ideal solution might just be to run retreats both physically, and online. This is particularly the case when you consider that something like Zoom will allow up to 100 people in a meeting (and more, the more you pay).

You could also, potentially, set up an online writing space as often as you like, without incurring any extra cost… which means that you could – if you can devise a set of guidelines for how to manage the room – open up an online writing space that anyone can come and use at any time.