Struggling to write? Start your own writers’ retreat!

by Dr Jessica Watson
NIHR Doctoral Senior Clinical Research Fellow
Centre for Academic Primary Care


Have you ever planned to do some writing, only to find yourself distracted by emails and ‘urgent’ tasks? Do you find you have a growing list of unpublished papers and grant proposals to write? Does it feel as if there is never enough time to get going with your writing?

As academics, writing is arguably our most important task. The mantra ‘publish or perish’ is not just a matter of prestige and a means to academic career progression. Nor is it simply about keeping our University rankings within the Research Excellence Framework. It is an ethical imperative.

Most medical research is funded either through taxpayers’ money or through charitable donations and relies on the trust and goodwill of voluntary research participants. This is both a privilege and responsibility. We must ensure that money is used wisely, yet no matter how carefully planned and well conducted our research project is, if it is not published it has ultimately failed. It has failed not only to add to current research knowledge, but more worrying still it may make the body of research which is published biased, and therefore less trustworthy. This because the studies we fail to publish tend to be those with negative results; meaning the overall evidence base on which doctors make clinical decisions is skewed, so-called ‘publication bias’. With estimates suggesting that a shocking 50% of medical research may be unpublished, this is a major problem.

So, what can we, as academics, do about this? How can we overcome the challenges of multiple distractions, writers’ block, anxiety and competing demands?

As a GP and a first year PhD student, writing is an area I was keen to focus on, so I was intrigued to see an email advertising a ‘writers’ retreat day, run by Pam Lock on behalf of the University of Bristol’s Doctoral College. I signed up, curious, and blocked the day in my diary, free of distractions.

The idea of a ‘writers’ retreat’ sounds wonderfully evocative, suggesting an escape to a remote highland location. The reality was much simpler, and fantastically easy to replicate. It looked a bit like this:

9.15: arrive and enjoy a tea or coffee. Plan your writing for the day. Do a short ‘free writing’ warm-up exercise

9.30: write

11.00: have a break – go outside for some fresh air, enjoy a tea or coffee

11.30: write

12.30: lunch break and a walk in the fresh air (no emails!)

1.30: write

3.00: break

3.30: write

4.30: wrap up – summarise what you have done and plan for the next session.

And that was it. That is literally all there is to it. Yet for me it has been a huge breakthrough. Not only do I find these days productive, I actually look forward to them.

So, what is it about this format that is so successful? Well, for me, there is something really powerful about being surrounded by supportive colleagues who are all committed to the same goal. Speaking about and sharing these goals at the start of the day solidifies them, making them real. Choosing to focus on writing frees me from the need to keep searching for more references, and often after writing I can see more clearly what is missing from my research. Spending a day in a physically different building gives me new energy and focus and helps me set these days apart. Scheduling long breaks throughout the day helps me to maintain a sharp focus and concentration during writing. But perhaps the biggest thing of all is escaping the addictive tyranny of emails.

I now diarise a writers’ retreat day every month into my calendar. I book a room in a different department, and invite friends and colleagues to join me. Sometimes it helps me to start writing a thesis chapter. Sometimes it is rewriting a paper which has gone through yet more hurdles towards publication. Today it’s been a blog, amongst other things. There never seems to be a shortage of things to write, so making the regular commitment means I don’t wait until the ‘to-do’ list of writing tasks has grown too long.

These writing days certainly feel like the most productive day of my month, yet they are also enjoyable. I’m sure lots of other people have found other useful writing tips – some might prefer a fortnightly writing day? Or a weekly afternoon dedicated to writing? Or an hour daily before breakfast? Whatever you do, as academics we have a responsibility to write and publish our work, so make sure you devote and protect regular time to your writing.

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