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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. Earlier, Alice described how she set up a variety of social writing supports. In this post, she provides some great advice about light and space, time and co-hosting – perfect tips for anyone wishing to DIY their own writing event. 

Alice Hague

When I started my PhD, I had never heard of writing retreats or writing groups. I certainly never expected to find myself co-leading residential and non-residential writing retreats and a monthly writing group at my university. Yet, as I started to come across resources like @DocwritingSIG, I increasingly felt that my thesis-writing would benefit from some form of structured, communal writing experience. I was struggling to find opportunities however, and eventually came together with a friend and colleague, to try and create something.

The writing group that followed became an important part of my PhD experience. It contributed not only to words on the page, but also to a sense of community, something that was critical in helping me to turn pages of field notes and interview transcripts into a completed thesis. So, if you feel that a writing group might help you make progress, I encourage you to try it out. Even if it is just commitment to a morning writing session with a friend, give it a go – you never know where it might lead. Here are a few things to think about, as you try and find what works for you.

  • Think about space: can you book a room in your department, will you work in a café, or do you want to try and have a ‘retreat’ off-site and away from your usual routines? Do think about the suitability of desks/tables and chairs, and make sure that there is space for people to work comfortably (I participated in one writing retreat where there were simply too many people for the room. Personally, I like to have a few notes nearby to work from, and on this occasion we were pretty much working elbow-to-elbow). Thinking about space also means thinking about noise – the ambient noise of cafes often seems to include baristas banging things VERY LOUDLY, coffee-grinders grinding, and background music that (actually) doesn’t always stay in the background. And that’s before we talk about the busker outside. Also – check you have enough electric sockets nearby, and think about the lighting too – if you’re staring at a screen for an extended period of time, even with breaks, the right lighting can make a big difference.
  • Be a good timekeeper. Set the alarm on your mobile phone, turn it up loud enough so that everyone can hear, and then get to writing. This way you’re not distracted by looking at the clock (or the phone), or having to be the one to say ‘break-time’. I found it slightly odd how people wanted to rely on someone else to be the timekeeper, and it felt weird to be telling a room filled with competent, grown adults that they could take a break and/or should get back to work. But someone needed to do it. So if you find yourself being the regular timekeeper, do it with pride, and happily take responsibility for stopping the chatter and telling people to get writing again.
  • Turn off wifi/phone notifications etc. If you feel you need to look something up online, note it down, but keep writing. You can check at the break. Turn off phone notifications, and consider investing a small amount in a website blocker (I use Freedom, but others are available). We’ve become so used to being permanently connected, that some of us (that’ll be me) need to re-learn that we can survive for a short time without connecting to the internet. Yes, even if that’s where you save your files (save to desktop for the writing session; re-connect to the web during the breaks to save elsewhere).
  • Find a co-host. In my case, the writing retreats and subsequent writing group would not have happened without a co-host. It was great to be able to share organising responsibility for the residential retreats with another person, both before and during the event. As we transitioned into a monthly writing group, knowing that at least one other person would turn up provided an element of accountability, and having a co-organiser also meant that if one of us had to miss a session for any reason, the other could be relied upon to keep the commitment to the wider group. As with (2), and considering we were all PhD-peers, at times it seemed odd how people often seemed to look to us to lead the group. But having a buddy definitely meant that we could laugh it off together.
  • Stick to the agreed schedule and take your breaks. Whatever you decide works for you as a timescale, stick to it. We found that sessions of about 75-minutes followed by a 15-minute break were best, with a full hour for lunch. That seemed to give people long enough to get into something with substance, but not too long that energy levels fell. Also, while it’s tempting to keep writing when the alarm goes off and you’re ‘in the zone’, take a break when it’s time. This helps to keep the sessions working for everyone, and gives your eyes and brain the break they need. Get out of your seat, stretch, go out for a short walk, and come back ready for the next session.
  • Create and keep writing time in your schedule. There is never enough time, and always something else to do. Create time in your calendar for writing, and stick to it. Committing to time with others created a sense of accountability for me. We aim to get together on the first Friday of the month, and that date is blocked in my calendar all year (booking a room at the university was also easiest if we simply booked in advance).
  • Have fun. Take time during the breaks to have a laugh or to share concerns. Bring something yummy to share with the team. Learn about the interesting things that others are studying. Celebrate successes (and thesis submissions) together.

So I encourage you to give it a go: find a friend with a sturdy kitchen table, book a study room in your department or library, or join others in your nearest hipster coffee shop. You can do it!