By Alice Hague
Alice Hague recently submitted her PhD at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She is interested in faith-based engagement in politics and the public sphere, and her thesis investigates faith communities and environmental activism. This is the first of two posts from Alice, and here she describes her own challenges with writing, and her moves to do something about them.
I had heard all the advice: write 500 words a day (but what about?); find a writing group (how?); go on a writing retreat (where? And yikes, they’re expensive!). I started following twitter accounts that seem to know what they were talking about (thanks @thesiswhisperer, @DocwritingSIG and @researchwhisperer). Heck, I even read books about writing (Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing; Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers, and Kamler and Thomson’s Helping Doctoral Students Write among others), as if I didn’t have enough reading to be doing for my PhD itself. But I was still waiting for the magic to happen. I felt I needed to find the right space. Or needed the right desk set-up. And I needed to find the time to write: there was always something else going on – another paper to read; coursework to be done; teaching to be prepared; a twitter feed to scroll through…
And so I decided to stop looking elsewhere for spark of inspiration, and make something happen. Along with a colleague, Coree Brown Swan (@Coree_Brown), I applied for, and received, a grant from the University of Edinburgh’s “Researcher Initiative Fund” to organise two residential writing boot camps – one in the fall semester; one in the spring of the second year of my PhD. We built our case for funding on evidence that shows the benefits of social writing (Murray and Newton, 2009), and set about booking a retreat centre in the middle of the countryside, organising transportation, and trying to recruit participants from across the school. We charged a small deposit to ensure people were committed to attending and to try and avoid no-shows or late drop-outs, and successfully ran two, three-day boot camps, each with sixteen attendees from across the university. The residential part of the plan was important: we brought unfinished chapters and articles, notes and outlines, and found the time to focus on writing away from the concerns of everyday life. Writing sessions were interspersed with relaxing walks in the forest, and catered meals meant we could focus on our work.
To keep up momentum between boot camps, Coree and I took the initiative to organise an informal monthly writing session: we simply booked a room in the department and agreed on a regular time (first Friday of the month). There was suddenly no need to arrange transport or catering, and no worrying about chasing up registration payments: the idea was simply to turn up and commit to a day of focused writing sessions. Attendance varied, and once or twice I wondered whether we should keep going. But we kept at it, and developed into a core group of about ten people, from different schools and departments in the university. All it took was the ability to book a room (not always easy, but the admin staff were willing to help once we explained why), to send out an email inviting people to participate, and a commitment to turn up. I blocked off dates in my calendar, and looked forward to the opportunity to come together with colleagues, to sit together in silence, and put words onto a screen.
These monthly gatherings became a life-saver for me during my PhD. The boot camps were fun and enabled big chunks of progress on a sticky chapter or a blank page, but it was the monthly writing group that moved the PhD forward steadily towards completion. The commitment to writing time meant that writing got done, even in the busiest weeks. The conversations during writing breaks (which occasionally extended slightly beyond the allotted 15 minutes) were a wonderful and important source of peer support. And importantly, the friendships that grew helped break down the isolation of writing up, and provided laughter and fun in the midst of a stressful period of life. We continue to meet on a monthly basis to write, and continue to share the journey together. Early outlines and chapter drafts are gradually being converted to edited theses which, one by one, are being submitted for examination. I did not set out to start a writing group, but I can honestly say that doing my PhD would have been a lot tougher without it.
Murray, Rowena, and Mary Newton. 2009. ‘Writing Retreat as Structured Intervention: Margin or Mainstream?’ Higher Education Research and Development 28 (5): 541–53.
Mewburn, Inger. 2014. Drop and give me 20,000 (words)! The Thesis Whisperer. https://thesiswhisperer.com/2014/10/15/6589/ Accessed 23-08-2017