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PhD journeys at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health

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Writing retreats and groups

Kerry A Kite15 March 2019

Written by Caroline Fraser

I am a final year PhD student in the Child Health Informatics Group at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. In my project, I am using data linkage to evaluate rates of neonatal bloodstream infection in England. In my free time, I enjoy art, cooking and volunteering.

Twitter: @cfraserepi

What is a writing retreat?
A writing retreat is a great place to write without distractions and though the word retreat might sound very luxurious, unfortunately all the ones that I have attended were in UCL meeting rooms. Mostly they follow the format of a “shut up and write” group where you… shut up and write. They can vary in structure and length – some are a few hours, others a whole day and sometimes even spanning multiple days. At the more formal writing retreats (and usually the longer ones), you sometimes set a goal at the beginning of the day. You can then “check in” with your goals throughout the day to see how you are progressing. PhD students can use writing retreats to work on their upgrade reports, thesis chapters or papers. It is useful for writing from scratch, working through comments from your supervisor on a draft, or even reading papers and making notes.

Why should you consider attending a writing retreat?
There are some real benefits to a writing retreat compared to trying to write at your desk in the office or at home. First, there are no distractions – it is best to avoid opening email and to keep your phone on silent in your bag. There will be nobody asking you if you want a cup of tea or popping in to ask you a favour. Second, everyone else around you is also working in silence. There is definitely something to be said for the social pressure when you can see everyone else typing away. You don’t want to be the one person sat staring into space or scrolling on your phone.
All the retreats I have attended use a time schedule that helps ensure you take breaks and that you return to your work after a break. The schedules vary – some use a variation of The Pomodoro Technique – write for 25 minutes at a time with short breaks in between. Others have longer writing blocks, maybe 60-90 minutes with longer breaks in between. Either way, the structure helps if you know you will have a break in 20/40/60 minutes it is easier to just keep writing until that point. Also everyone breaks at the same time so you are not distracted by people chatting next to you while you are working. Another benefit, less academic but still appealing, is the promise of free lunch, snacks, or hot drinks. Depending on who is organising the event and the length of the event, but most at least have free hot drinks – and what student does not appreciate a freebie!
Even though I have not finished my analysis and I am not yet in full “writing mode”, I have found it useful to have some time set aside to write up what I have done so far so I won’t have to do it all completely from scratch at the end. Because my main focus is still my analysis it can be hard to find motivation to write while I’m sat at my usual desk. Having time set aside a few times a month has been incredibly valuable to me to get started and my thesis. As I am currently at the stage where I just need to get words on paper and I will worry about editing later. I have found that I can write at least 1000 words in a 2-3-hour session and I don’t believe that would be possible sat at my desk.

How can you find a writing retreat?
The ICH postgraduate society in collaboration with the PPP early career researchers group organise 2-hour writing sessions that include 3x 30-minute writing blocks. These are usually organised twice a month, subject to demand. Outside of ICH, the Doctoral Skills Development programme are running a “writing co-op” with 2x 1 hour 15 minute writing blocks – you can sign up as you would for any of the other PhD courses. There are also opportunities elsewhere, for example, I attended one organised by the Early Career Network that was advertised via email. You could also ask around if you have friends in other departments as they may know of groups that you might be able to attend.
Otherwise, organise your own! If there are a few of you in your team/programme/friendship group who need to write and you can’t find anything suitable then get together and organise your own. All you need to do is decide on a time, a quiet place with plugs and preferably some access to tea and coffee facilities, and set up a schedule.

How to prepare for a writing retreat?
One of the most important things to do before your writing retreat is to plan! If you are planning on writing your thesis or a paper, you can find great writing courses through the Doctoral School Skills website organised by a company called Think Write. One of the most useful takeaways for me from the thesis writing course was to plan your headings, sub-headings and paragraphs. It is a lot easier to write when you have this planned out. You don’t have to have planned the whole thesis beforehand but having an idea for the section you want to write is really useful.
Another key part of preparation is reading. I find it most productive to just write at the retreats and not waste ages looking up references. If you have a reference manager this should be fairly easy as long as you have already done the reading and saved the references. I also have a spreadsheet of papers I have read briefly summarised and separated into categories so if I want a reference and I can’t remember which papers are suitable, I can look it up in there and not do any extra searching.
It is also useful to have some goals to achieve in mind for the day. I find these are best if they are quantifiable, for example specify “add 1000 words to chapter 2” not “work on chapter 2”. If you are unsure of how many words you can estimate based on what you write in one session. For example, if the day is broken into four 1 hour sessions, note how many words you write in the first session then multiply it by 4 for your goal for the day. Inevitably, I find I write more in the earlier sessions than the later ones but I think a challenging but achievable goal is really useful. Personally, I find 500 words in one hour is a good ball-park figure – but more is definitely doable. Of course if you are editing a document it is much harder to have a goal. If you are working through comments from a supervisor or co-author you could aim to address all the comments.

Bonus: who to follow on twitter for writing tips and motivation

I have found two really useful accounts on twitter that give tips with regards to academic writing that I want to shout out
1) Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco)
2) Academics Write (@academicswrite)
They both post tips and tricks for academics, particularly PhD students, so I would definitely recommend checking them out.

Child Health Informatics Group website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/child-health/research/population-policy-and-practice/child-health-informatics-group