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By Susan Carter

I am at a desk overlooking trees soaking up misty rain. This post represents a spasm of procrastination from the article that I’m writing on what is for me a new area of research interest.

Beside me I have an ambitious stack of reading for the week; I need to get my head round recent literature. In front of me, the laptop, currently showing my resurrected Endnote library—somehow I have lost a more recent version so need to move on and recreate. Around me, other women academics are also writing, including a couple of them finishing their PhD theses, and a couple who are newly graduated and now pumping out articles to meet their post-doc grants’ mandates.

It’s the third day of one of Barbara Grant’s writing retreats for academic women. I have read five articles and skimmed two journals—two books and another five journals sit waiting. I have also written 3,749 words, a bit boring and disjointed, but first draft material certainly enough sitting in a document. I know that by the end of a fairly blissful week I will have accomplished a draft of an article to fine tune later, and may have almost caught up with this batch of reading.

Robert Boice (1987), who is foundational in research on research writing, suggests that what he calls ‘binge writing,’ in days given just to writing, actually handicaps academic writers, because it encourages procrastination. He recommends instead making space for short bursts daily. I have to say that writing briefly and daily is how I usually meet my own publication deadlines. It works for me. It also means avoiding fetishizing writing or making it like a sacred ritual requiring trappings, place, silence, atmosphere…. Instead, I find it helpful to see it as part of the ordinary pattern of each day.

Boice has been influential: other academics supporting dissertation writing propose sustained daily short bursts of writing to produce what Joan Bolker describes as the dissertation written in 15 minutes per day. Alison Miller (2007), for example, produced a blog post citing Bolker and endorsing ‘the 15 minute rule.’ But there are many approaches to productivity, and it is maybe best to work across all of them.

So what do writing retreats give participants? The writing retreat offers a dimension I do not get in short snatches at my office desk. It’s the business-class luxury approach. Most conspicuously, it offers a quiet space allowing real thinking. This is the oasis that I keep ahead of me through all the times I write at a desk cluttered with folders relating to committee work, teaching work, reviewing work. I’m always able to write at my desk, but I cannot immerse myself in the same level of thinking. At the retreat, there is just a desk, my reading and laptop and no other demands.

And there is the social dimension of writing with others. Having others around working and obviously deep in thought is somehow energising, as though we mutually thrive on each other’s absorption in their writing. Inger Mewburn’s ‘shut up and write’ taps into the energy of critical mass, an energy that is somehow prompted by writers working together in a shared congenial space.  The tapping of fingers on other people’s keyboards motivates Inger.

Encouraging doctoral students to write daily makes sense; if there are sometimes writing retreats established for them, they are likely to find clarity of thinking, energy from others—and likely to shift their writing forwards. Do you have experience or thoughts about writing retreats?

Boice, R. (1987) A Program for Facilitating Scholarly Writing, Higher Education Research and Development, 6:1, 9-20.

Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day : a guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis. New York: Henry Holt

Grant, B. M. (2006). Writing in the company of other women:exceeding the boundaries, Studies in Higher Education, 31: 4, 483–495.

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