Do academic writing retreats work?
Updated: May 31
Picture yourself in an academic writing retreat. You're surrounded by nature, out of the office, and even out of the home. Two days in front of you to just do one thing: write. Isn’t it idyllic? But something you may wonder is, do these academic writing retreats work? The short answer is yes, they do. And if you want sign up for one, have a look at the one I host!
When “I focus and write” started, I imagined myself organizing scientific writing retreats in Bali. Writing with a view of rice paddies and coconut trees, and the sound of a Buddhist temple in the background. Not to mention the delicious food we would eat. Highly inspiring. But unfortunately, it is not very feasible to start a business during a pandemic.
Now that things are going back to normal, people are craving social interaction again, but also, virtual academic retreats are also more common than ever! So here, I want to share with you the benefits of writing retreats, why they work, why virtual academic writing retreats are just as effective, and how you can create your own!
Two main benefits of academic writing retreats
You may imagine that there are plenty of benefits of attending academic writing retreats -- benefits for you as a researcher, but also for your organization. And this is scientifically proven, which we love over here! In this review, Rachel Kornhaber et al. studied the benefits, and our favorites are:
Not only the study mentioned above but also others have reported an improvement in general well-being. This can be seen as a boost of motivation, confidence, and calm. And these are things you need to be the happy, creative, and productive scientist I want everyone who reads this to become! If you are in need of extra motivation, have a look at this post!
It’s a fact. When you go to these retreats, you’ll get more writing done. But what’s also amazing, is that the productivity is not only limited to being in the retreat! You’ll stay productive longer. And you can imagine, this is a great benefit for you but also for your organization. It’s not a surprise that more labs are organizing research retreats, either for writing or to interchange and brainstorm new ideas!
Why do academic writing retreats work?
You cannot go to a retreat every week. But you can put some of the components of retreats into your daily and weekly writing -- reap the benefits! For example:
Scheduling and protecting time to write
One of the top answers I get when I ask what’s stopping you from writing is “I don’t have time”. Well, when you go on a retreat, time is all you have. You’ve blocked that time. And what’s more important, you’ll protect that time from distractions. During the focus hours, you probably will have your phone off, nobody will ask you a question every 10 minutes, and hopefully, you don’t even check your email! And this can change the way you work forever!
Focusing on a single project
Instead of having to squeeze writing into a full day of meetings, experiments, and interruptions... You can focus on one single thing -- writing. And it's even better if you can immerse yourself in a single writing project: one paper, a grant proposal, the introduction of your dissertation... This may sound like a dream, especially if you are a Postdoc or you have your own group. And something that is difficult for STEM researchers is to accept is that as scientists, we are writers. Until we embrace that part of our identity, we won't start prioritizing our writing. And being in a retreat can reinforce that idea of being a writer!
Writing in a different environment
Being in a space different from your usual office can spark creativity. And this is on top of the lack of interruptions and distractions mentioned above! Ideally, the space should have accessible outdoor areas where you can take a walk or sit in the sun to revise what you wrote or brainstorm new ideas. It should also have quiet spaces where you can meditate -- or even have a nap!
Being surrounded by a supportive community
There is plenty of evidence of how being surrounded by a supportive community can help you achieve your goals. Think of the group of PhDs in your lab, exercising with a friend, or the simple fact of co-authors contributing to the paper you need to write. When you join a retreat or a course, that community shares a common struggle. And seeing others come out of that struggle is inspiring and motivating. This is something that the students of my scientific writing and productivity courses keep reporting. And that sense of belonging and the feeling that you are not alone is highly needed in our academic environments that tend to only display the final achievement.
Learning new academic writing and productivity skills
You’ll discover new writing or productivity strategies that you can experiment with to find what works best for you. Especially in PhD writing retreats, having some short workshops can be highly beneficial. You can carry these skills on with you after the retreat, and they will have long-lasting effects! For example, in the writing retreats I’ve organized, the act of setting clear and specific goals for each session, a day, or the full retreat was one of the students' favorite aspects!
Investing time, energy, and money
These are the three currencies we invest in everything we do. And when we or someone on our behalf makes a significant investment, we feel more motivated to get that task done. It’s human nature. In his book Deep Work (an amazing book -- we’ll talk about it on another occasion!), Cal Newport calls it “The Grand Gesture”. He tells the story of how J.K. Rowling was struggling to finish writing Harry Potter, and in the end, she did it by locking herself in a rather expensive hotel room. Your Grand Gesture doesn’t need to involve money, it can be as simple as going a full day to the library while someone takes care of everything else (kids, food, lab work, supervision…).
Virtual versus in-person academic writing retreats
Labs around the world have moved their academic retreats virtually -- And not only writing ones. Here, Prof. Rob Salguero tells his experience of running a virtual research retreat for his lab. The world moving to virtual has become the new normal. And as for conferences, virtual academic writing retreats will always have a place. Let’s look at their advantages and disadvantages:
Advantages of virtual academic writing retreats
They are more accessible
This is big. Any type of event becomes more accessible when it is virtual. Academics from all over the world can attend if the time zone suits them. The fact that there are no travel costs involved also means that researchers with less access to funds can attend. And a last and important point for many people reading this: you minimize your carbon footprint.
You can adapt to what works best for you
We are diverse. For those introverted academics, virtual meetings have offered a new way of interacting that consumes less of their energy. But also, in a virtual retreat, you have more freedom to decide how much you want to interact with others, or what kind of setup and timings works best for you!
The possibility of choosing your space
This can also be very important when you cannot eat certain types of food when you cannot be far from your family, or when you don’t sleep well out of your bed. But also, for highly sensitive scientists (here, one of them!), things like a lack of natural light, certain smells, or people moving around can be highly distracting!
Disadvantages of virtual academic writing retreats
I mainly see two groups of disadvantages:
The lack of personal contact
We may miss part of the benefits that being in a community brings. However, this is something that most virtual retreats try to include. This may come in the form of co-writing sessions in zoom where you see people writing, discussion sessions, or coffee chats in intimate groups using the breakout rooms.
Staying in your usual working space
When we stay at the office or at home it is almost impossible to escape from the daily responsibilities. And it’s also harder to stay focused and stop distractions (here I have some tips to focus and write from home). A way to overcome this problem is to still go somewhere else -- Airbnb, a hotel, or a friend’s empty house. This is J.K. Rowling’s style of keeping that Grand Gesture working!
Planning your own academic writing retreat
While you think about the next retreat you’ll join, you can also recreate some of the retreat benefits at the office weekly. This can either happen on your own or by bringing your favorite colleagues on board, for example having co-working sessions! This could be as simple or as complicated as you want it. Think of renting a cabin in the woods. Or just going by yourself to the library for a week. But whatever you choose, try to include the components I mentioned above.
To help you have this at hand, you can download here a pdf version of this article where I also include links to meditations and simple yoga videos! In pure “I focus and write”. And remember to keep taking those mindful breaks that will spark your creativity! Sign up here below to my email list, and I’ll let you know when I organize the next writing retreat. Or you can always send me an email if you want me to facilitate one for your lab!