Report: Structured Writing Retreat with Rowena Murray

By Sarah Brooks, Management and Business Pathway, University of Sheffield

I recently attended a writing retreat hosted by Professor Rowena Murray and I would like to share an account of my time there to highlight the benefits that I gained from attending (more details can be found at www.rowenamurray.org).  Professor Rowena Murray has pioneered the concept of writing retreats across the UK and is widely recognised as a leader in this form of support for academic writers.  I would firstly like to mention that it was fully-funded by NARTI so I feel privileged to have had access to such an event through the University of Sheffield and NARTI.

Initially, you might be asking what is a writing retreat and why are they important?  If you consider that a retreat can be defined as the “withdrawing from enemy forces as a result of their superior power”, we can begin to understand how email, Facebook, Twitter, teaching, and administrative duties can be viewed as enemy forces which prevent us from writing up our research and submitting conference papers.  Writing retreats are known to increase and improve scholarly output and research activity.  Therefore, using this definition, writing retreats can be viewed as a necessary part of a PHD and ECR research toolkit, demonstrating the ability to regain the power and focus on thinking and writing about our research.

The retreat was held at a quirky, eco-friendly site near Lancaster (http://www.forresthills.co.uk/). We arrived on Monday afternoon for tea and cakes, in time to start our first session at 3.30pm.  There were eight writing sessions of between an hour and two hours across the three days, a half hour break after each session, and a hearty lunch with time for a walk around the lake, and refreshments, cakes and fruit available throughout the whole day.  The breaks are an important part of the retreat, providing the opportunity to discuss ideas with others and seek advice on how to move past troubling sections.  At the start of the retreat, each participant explained what they were working on, and at the end of the three days had the opportunity to explain how they had progressed according to their writing goals.  Rowena was an integral part of the group and was available to offer guidance throughout the three days.

My goal had been to submit a conference paper and I achieved my target. However, half way through, I told myself that I would not submit the conference paper because it probably wasn’t good enough.  At break time, Rowena enquired about my progress and so I explained my nervousness. After providing me with some sage advice about the importance of checking internal consistency of the paper and the need to meet goals for our self-confidence, I submitted it.  That evening, I enjoyed watching TV and eating dinner after having pushed myself to do something that only a few hours earlier had seemed impossible. On the final day, I worked on plans to turn the conference submission into a 4* paper, my confidence from the day previously buoying me onwards and upwards towards academic success.

More information can be found about the structure and benefits of the writing retreat at Murray and Newton (2009) ‘Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream?’ Higher Education Research & Development,28:5,541 — 553.