On Monday we organised our first writing retreat. Seven colleagues from the University of Exeter came out to the 'Edge of the moor' so that we could spend a day together. Each of us was aiming to improve our writing practice and to make progress on a specific piece of writing. The fine summer weather provided the opportunity for individuals to experiment with writing outside as well as in the converted barn-space that forms the main room of our home.
The structure of the day was based on the concept of creating a ‘community of practice’ – Rowena Murray has written extensively on this, and describes the benefits of coming together to write simultaneously with other people.
In advance of the retreat I had a brief call with each of the participants, so that I understood what they find difficult about writing, and could ensure the retreat would be as helpful as possible. One of the recurring themes was that academics find it difficult to set time aside for writing, particularly given the widespread belief that writing requires large blocks of time. Getting started and staying started was a struggle, and several people commented that first drafts are more enjoyable than the process of editing and ensuring a piece is in the right format and the right length for academic publication. All of the participants are published writers, and yet during the day many people shared feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in relation to their writing – that it is not academic enough or not ‘theoretical’ enough. One conundrum is that people are often given the advice that they need to know what they want to say before they start writing, and yet until they go through the process of writing they don’t know exactly what it is they want to say. This can add to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, which in turn get in the way of getting started and staying started.
However, on a positive note, people also reported that once they get going they often enjoyed the process of writing; there can be a sense of achievement in figuring something out through writing. As one participant said ‘My own writing surprises me’. Conversations before and during the retreat, and my own recent experience of writing, has led me to recognise that writing can serve (at least) two purposes. First, it can help to clarify our own thoughts - for the academic this can be about helping to move from a concrete, narrative description of a phenomenon to a more abstract or theoretical understanding. Second, writing is the process by which we communicate our ideas to others.
I am not the first person to come to the realisation that writing is not only a tool for communication, but also a process through which we form and shape our own thoughts more effectively. For example one of the participants alerted me to a book by Stephen King called ‘On Writing’, where King reportedly observes ‘I write to find out what I think’. We may need to go through a process of 'thinking through writing' even before we begin the process of writing a first draft of an academic journal article or book chapter.
What does this conceptualisation of the distinct uses of writing mean for my future writing practice? It has made me aware that I need to give myself permission to write in order to think rather than rushing into writing as communication. It also underlines the need to set aside time for this process of thinking through writing. What was striking in the retreat yesterday was just how much it was possible to achieve in just three 50 minute blocks of writing, but the crucial thing is to build this into my schedule. At the end of the yesterday's workshop participants reflected on how successful the day had been in terms of what they had achieved, and shared some ideas and tips for better time management to ensure that there is more time for writing …and that is worthy of a separate blog post.