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As AcWriMo rolls into its second week, we expect this contribution from two incredibly productive bloggers -Tseen and Jason – will inspire you to arrange your own no-fuss, low cost writing retreat asap!

Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development at La Trobe University. She is one half of the Research Whisperer team.

Jason Murphy works as a communications professional at RMIT University and is a part-time PhD candidate at La Trobe University. He is the founder of #MelbWriteUp.

 

The first #MelbWriteUp started as an experiment, to see if momentum from a 3-day writing retreat at La Trobe University (where Jason is a PhD candidate) could be sustained.

In his own words, here is what #MelbWriteUp is, and what it’s for:

“An initiative of Jason Murphy, but founded on the power of writing socially, #MelbWriteUp is a monthly, intensive, weekend-based writing day that uses the pomodoro method. Researchers at all levels of experience and from many institutions are using #MelbWriteUp to work on book chapters, journal articles, conference presentations and doctoral theses.

Photo:Jason Murphy

While writing is the main focus of our activity, researchers are also using the event to perform any research related activity, such as coding, transcription and data analysis. The day gives you the opportunity to dedicate intense, distraction free focus to your research – and to meet other researchers during the breaks.”

Jason has written about the project twice in the Research Whisperer, from its early days 5 months after beginning (May 2016) and 18 months later (August 2017).

How is #MelbWriteUp run?

The main factor is getting a venue, and finding one that is cost-free. This is important as the logistics of handling money and payments changes the whole game by adding a layer of administration. That is to be avoided: it would require a lot of additional time. By having the venue cost-free, organisers only need to book it and ensure it’s accessible on the day. The other significant parts of the event workload are managing a mailing list, posting email reminders, and using a system to manage registrations. In this case, the system is Eventbrite, which is free, user-friendly, and works reasonably well.

Initially, we had a cover charge and organised catering. This quickly proved to be a very complicated exercise after dietary requirements were met and catering booked. It took too much time away from the organisers’ own writing focus on the day. Given that the impetus for setting up #MelbWriteUp was Jason’s need to do PhD work, this was a big negative. So, this was cut after the first event and instead everyone was encouraged to use the breaks to take care of food and refreshment needs. The essence of the event is to make sure it’s as lightly managed as possible, thus freeing up time for everyone for the main focus of the day: writing and research.

Who goes to #MelbWriteUp?

Jason’s PhD candidature is based at La Trobe University, thus the main participants in the first six months were PhD candidates and early career researchers from La Trobe. This has gradually changed, however, as the event has matured and its profile has grown. Now, participants from every Melbourne university attend, and they are a mix of PhD candidates, academic staff, and creative writers (who may or may not also be Creative Writing PhD candidates). Most of the monthly sessions book out early, often within a few days of the registrations being opened. This means that the cohort that attends can be quite variable, depending on who managed to get their place booked in time.

What resources are needed?

#MelbWriteUp does not, and has never had, any funding. It is reliant on the labour of the convenor (Jason) to run the event, available university space to hold the event, and the good will of the participants (who bring contributions to the snack table for all to share). That’s it.

How do you sustain interest in participating long term?

Because there is no funding that goes into this event, there is also no need to prove its efficacy. The only risk to the event would be if participation rates fell below a certain level and made the idea of a writing community unfeasible. There is a steady change in the demographic of attendees that may be more to do with where they’re at with their work (e.g. if they’re doing their fieldwork and gathering data, they probably won’t attend until they’re doing analysis). Occasionally, the connections made during #MelbWriteUp lead to other writing groups forming and developing their own rhythm and processes.

What have you learned to do – and to avoid?

Getting bogged down in logistics is certainly something to avoid, so charging money for participation or organising catering adds a significant layer of work that’s undesirable.

In a large institution, giving the security team what they need up front and in plenty of time to arrange access is highly recommended. This can avoid complications when you’re trying to get into your space, especially because #MelbWriteUp is held on Saturdays.

There’s also a risk associated with changing venues frequently. Participants like to know where they’re going so they can plan ahead; changing frequently can lead to anxiety and a lower level of participation.

Sharing event duties during the day is also really recommended. Most people are happy to help out, so distributing the time-keeping duties for the pomodoros and asking people to make a small food contribution has been a nice touch. It increases the ownership of the event among the group. For a very small food contribution from each of our average of twenty participants means that we have enough snacks to graze for the whole day as a group. This avoids everyone needing to make multiple trips outside (and saves everyone money!).

One thing that that hasn’t been solved is the matter of participants leaving early. While it is stressed that it’s a whole day of writing and commitment to that, some folks tend to leave early and this is disruptive to others and a little disrespectful, as it can introduce a snowballing effect. One person leaves early, then half a dozen or more decide it’s too hard and pack up – it can be hard, but the day is also about working through that as a group and gaining a sense of achievement at the end of it.

Photo: Jason Murphy

Tell us why you think the retreat works so well.

The aspects of #MelbWriteUp that make it work well are its:

  • Recognised regularity – Having it on the third Saturday of each month makes it easy for everyone to know the dates of the year (with only a tweak here or there for major holiday periods like Easter or Christmas).
  • Organic, collegial nature – As mentioned above, the connections that researchers make during the sessions lead to other friendships and groups forming that then meet to do writing. If these other session opportunities are open and become regular events, they’re often shared with the broader #MelbWriteUp group by Jason.
  • Facilitated but also flexible format – The day is structured around a series of pomodoros and breaks. It’s like a full day of #shutupandwrite, and writers can follow the sprint/break model or work all day at their preferred pace. It’s up to the individual.
  • Low threshold requirements – #MelbWriteUp is free to attend and you just need to turn up with the work you want to do and snack contribution for that day. Venue and facilitation is already sorted.
  • Productive day – It’s a really productive day. Jason is the first to admit that it’s really very hard to work for an entire day on his research, particularly as a full-time worker with other commitments. Because we’re all in it together, there’s a shared sense of commitment to getting work done. And it works!
  • A sense of community – Friendships have formed and there’s a nice sense of community for those of us who are part-time candidates. For Jason, as a part-time candidate and full-time worker, it can be really challenging to access university facilities and groups during business hours, so #MelbWriteUp partly makes up for this.
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