“The collective energy makes it work”
“You are responsible to the others during that time – even if you don’t feel like writing, you will”
“It gave me the needed spark to get back into the writing mode after a long break”
“An excellent way to actually get myself to sit down and write, something I keep pushing further and further ahead in my diary because of ‘real’ work”
(feedback from writers on our online retreat, 4 and 5 June 2020)
Times are [insert hyperbolic adjective of your choice], and that’s changing how we write
In the last three months, some people have more time to write than ever, but some have a lot less, especially women (see Nature), and early career researchers (see Vitae). How can we help each other through this? We can make time and space to write together online. And we did.
As soon as lockdown started in Finland (16 March) all teaching, from primary to postgraduate, moved online. That week I moved my weekly writing meeting from the library to Zoom. Gradually, a few more people joined us. Later, it was clear the writing retreat I wanted to run in June would have to go online. I don’t like to call this “virtual” because in the process, real things happen.
Online, every writer has to create the retreat in the space where they are. The lovely setting and uninterrupted quiet of an offline retreat are not a given. It might mean ordering food in or preparing meals in advance. It might mean writing out the programme for people you live with and putting it on your kitchen table. It might mean working harder not to “just go and check” on other things which are most definitely NOT writing but are within much easier reach. The boundary between dedicated time and working as normal is blurred.
You won’t get “Zoom fatigue” if you structure things carefully
Despite the challenges of being online, I wanted other writers to see what they could achieve on a good day. This meant starting punctually, together, to respect other people’s time. We wrote in four hour-long slots, two before and two after a 90-minute lunch break, with two half-hour coffee breaks morning and afternoon, and two half-hours at the beginning and end of the day to discuss our plans and progress. I do weekly drop-in writing sessions on Wednesday mornings which are more flexible; the schedule depends on who’s there that day. And we have a closed Facebook group to stay connected. But this retreat group wanted two whole days to get their teeth into big projects (a novel, a PhD, a new blog). It was tiring, but with a sense of achievement, like after long or intensive exercise.
If the group is small enough, online is still in person: you can have a conversation on one screen. The smaller the group, the more likely everyone is to speak. At the beginning of breaks, everyone has to get up and move, but we can come back to talk about anything and everything. When it’s time to home in on what to write next, we do.
Think hard about when you need to use video, audio, and chat
This group decided to write with our audio and video switched off. We only turned our cameras and mikes on when we were speaking to each other. The chat was open if people wanted to message the facilitator privately at any time, but not for group conversations while we were writing. We created a quiet and focused space with very clear boundaries. Respecting each other’s energy levels is important. This way, when it was time to, we were ready to see and hear each other, to talk and listen.
Writing online can make goal setting easier
We put our goals for each session in the chat, so everyone could see – ourselves included. At the end, we wrote an assessment to “close off” that block of writing. Formulating what you want to write for the next hour – or what you wrote in the last one – in one sentence is challenging, but focuses the mind wonderfully.
Does it work? Yes
You can create a retreat atmosphere, even on a platform famed for fatigue, if you set it up well and respect people’s time, space, and energy.
In the last few months, I’ve found that you can get to know people you’ve never met on video link; it’s not the same, but it’s possible, if you’re engaged in a common endeavour. You can create an online writing community. We’re still working out how to do that best, but putting writing first together works online.
Ask people how they write, and you’ll have a goldmine of writing strategies
Here are our top ten from our June retreat:
- If you have to cut, but can’t bear to throw your words away, put them in a “cut file”: you might never use it, but it hurts less than deleting.
- Or move what you have to cut into comments, so they are connected to the relevant part of your writing.
- Or use an ideas file – even ten years later you can combine ideas you didn’t use then, to write something new.
- Use prompts and plan carefully, so you don’t generate text you will need to cut later.
- If you’re stuck, step back and think – how much do you want to write, can you break it down into mini goals, subsections, or questions to answer?
- Try the comment technique in reverse – if you add something but aren’t sure how to fit it in or don’t have the reference to hand, put a comment where you think it should go.
- Try having one session (e.g. the last-but-one) when you do something other than your main project, so you can finally return to it fresh.
- Stay offline during breaks and your brain will rest – you might have an idea you wouldn’t otherwise have had headspace for.
- Think about who you are writing for – who is going to read it?
- Aim for the sky and you might hit the top of a tree!
If you want to join us next time we’re doing a writing retreat online, sign up here. I can’t promise rainbows every time, but this was the view from my office window in the evening after our June retreat. Who knows what we’ll discover next time we meet to write…