The Writer at Work

A lot of writing about writing is about you, the writer. Which is understandable, and done well, incredibly useful, but can shift the focus away from the broader structures that keep you down and hold you up. Who helps you write, and who hinders you? What needs to change, what can you let be, and what are your sources for knowing the difference? bell hooks gives some answers in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, as she looks back on her writing life.

Every time I facilitate a retreat, most of us are women and White people of different sexualities, different linguistic and class backgrounds, writing together. I’m aware that this is partly because of who is facilitating – me, a queer, middle-class, immigrant, White, multilingual woman. But it is also is because of the structures at work, in writing, in academia, in publishing, in society. And bell hooks has plenty to say about those structures.

She grew up knowing that stories are essential, and storytelling, powerful. But writing those stories down was not for everyone. Keeping a diary was ok, for a teenage girl: nobody was going to read it and she’d grow out of it. Elder members of her family could not read or write, because of structural racism. But using those skills to make a living was not realistic. Jobs came before careers and being a teacher would provide a secure income. Writing would not. Anyhow, who would want to read what she’d written? Publishers are not willing to sell a Black woman’s ideas, unless they fit into a narrow “marketable” category. She is scathing about the publishing industry, particularly how it commodifies writing. Writing at the end of the last millennium, bell hooks is wary of “inclusive tokenism” and asks a question that still needs an answer: how many Black women writers of nonfiction are there? Who publishes them? Who takes them seriously as authorities on any topic other than, perhaps, “being a Black woman”?

bell hooks revels in the form of the critical essay, a chance to “talk back” to the writer she’s been reading. She has harsh words for critical theory however; it is too “colonial”. We need to acknowledge our identities – to be conscious about our biases – as much as we need critical rigour. But for her, academia was a censor, forced careerism, and a hindrance. Her “day job” teaching at institutions like Yale encroached on her time and space to write, but also paid for it.

Writing, for bell hooks, is sacrament and vocation. She describes her process in terms of spiritual practice, encounter with the divine, and “remembered rapture” of that encounter, when the words go right. If male poets in the past could have their muses, she can have her spirit to sustain her on the hard road to publication. She believes we are called to love, but this call is not just personal: it is political and intellectual, and leads to action.

Public, free spaces where writers can meet readers and share ideas without cost were few and far between when bell hooks was writing Remembered Rapture (published 1999), and they are even rarer now. Libraries and bookshops need us more than ever, and we need them. Women still need rooms of their own to write in. Some of the women hooks writes about in this book shared solidarity through that solitude, from their own rooms, like Emily Dickinson. Others – like Ann Petry, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, and Toni Cade Bambara – came out of their rooms to support other writers. We need to create and sustain more spaces for those conversations to happen.

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well (King Lear, Act 1 scene 4)

Shakespeare said it first, but it’s worth saying again and it’s probably every editor’s or reviser’s biggest fear. If revisers are like doctors, aiming to make a text better, should they be bound by the Hippocratic oath – or at least “first, do no harm”?* If in doubt, don’t change it. If you do change something, be prepared to justify it. That is the main message of Brian Mossop’s revision course, hosted by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (I did it this February, it’s rerunning this July but already sold out).

The key question we asked on the course was: what level of readability do we want? Quality is not absolute, but relative to needs. It is the “degree to which a set of inherent characteristics of an object fulfils requirements” (ISO 9000, 2015: 3.6.2). So what do you (or your client, author, and most importantly your reader) need? Do you want the text to be intelligible, informative, publishable, or polished? People like me, who mostly work with publishable and polished texts, can find it hard to accept that for some readers, intelligible is just fine. Readers often care more about the subject and content of a text than the language and style. Of course it makes a diffference whether you’re revising your own work or someone else’s. While it was wonderful to see colleagues on the course, to discuss these issues and compare our own revision techniques, I felt that we could have interacted even more (even on Zoom).

Which prompted me to return to the book.

Brian Mossop’s Revising for Editors and Translators (4th edition Routledge 2020) is an essential handbook for any translator editing monolingual texts or revising bilingually to compare a source to its translation. For students and early-career translators, it is a map of everything you need to know, with plenty of examples and an exhaustive reading list. For experienced translators and teachers, it updates you, shows you how to turn the content into a course, and reminds you not to be overconfident in your own trusted solutions and habits. For everyone, it offers useful parameters and procedures – what are you actually doing when you revise or edit, and how do you measure that?

Two new chapters have been added to the fourth edition, one on post-editing machine translation (much discussed elsewhere) and the other on trans-editing. Trans-editors are journalists who transform news in one language into stories relevant for readers in another language. This involves prioritising, maybe adding information for the new audience, and taking a lot out. While the techniques mentioned are interesting, in Finland at least, translators have been very concerned about how journalists actually do this. Recently the biggest Finnish daily literally translated then Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow,** telling Mr Stewart that he “didn’t give a flying flamingo” about something (let’s face it, it could have been anything). In another lanaguage, without the alliteration or connotations to an idiom and a swearword, airborne pink birds make NO sense. A reviser’s or editor’s job is to notice things like this before they get to print.

Two new appendices have been added to the book, too. One is on grading revisions. Are the changes Good, making the text Worse, Retranslation, Unnecessary, Inadequate, or didn’t the reviser Notice something that should be changed? (good, worse, or ruining it, GWRUIN, is the best acronym I could get, let me know if you can do better). Once you have a number of these types of changes for a sample text, you can grade it.

The other new appendix is about research. Bilingual revision is not a natural reading process – reading two texts at once makes it doubly hard to stay focused and spot problems. Empirical research on this process falls into four types – think-aloud, keystroke-logging, video-recording and eye-tracking studies. I have participated in research like this – the researcher videoed me revising and talking about my choices. Because of the volume of data they generate, these studies usually have less than ten participants, and not repeated. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about procedures that work on a larger scale. Mossop suggests investigating why revisers miss and introduce errors, what leads them to make unneeded changes, how they relate to others, how much revision costs, and how useful it is. He has done some of this work himself in a brand new book he co-edited with Maarit Koponen, Translation Revision and Post-editing: Industry Practices and Cognitive Processes (Routledge 2021).

In practice, a good reviser’s rule of thumb is that if you need to read a sentence twice to understand it, something needs to change. If you don’t have time for the book, or the course, you could ask yourself three questions and try three things.

Three questions to ask when revising or editing others’ work:

  • Can I justify 9 out of 10 of the changes I made?
  • Can I make a small change that is less invasive than a big one?
  • Have I imposed my own preferences?

Three things to try on your own and others’ work:

  • Save a draft separately, and revise the same draft six months later; did you make changes in the same places? If not, you might not be very systematic and may need to change your procedures (I am definitely going to try this).
  • Change the font to make the text look different so you can spot errors (I’ve not tried that one, but I have tried plenty more: start reading from the bottom, or get Word to read it to you, or print it out, or open it in a different programme, or leave it to ‘sit’ overnight; anything that will make the text feel new to you).
  • If you don’t do it already, read the translation first (before the source).

After all, a reviser or editor is a reader looking for things that might need changing, to make it easier for all the other readers that come after them.

* And what about “first, do no harm?” Turns out it isn’t in the Hippocratic oath at all, although Hippocrates said it in his (newly-apposite) Epidemics. You could translate part of the oath a bit like that, but that is not exactly what it said. As Robert Schmerling MD reminds us, doing no harm might mean doing nothing at all, and that won’t make anything better. You need to know why you’re intervening: assess the risks and benefits before you act.

** updated on 14 June 2021 with thanks to Isabelle Weiss, who spotted that Bercow said this, not Johnson.

Air and Light and Time and Space

A sort of wood between the worlds,* Helen Sword’s book helps you jump in and out of academic writers’ minds, to see if their way of doing things could be yours, and why (not). Sometimes it’s like looking in a mirror – I recognized my own processes and enthusiasms in theirs. Sometimes it’s like browsing a library – this book undoubtedly leads to more books, and I ordered a few while I was still reading it. Sometimes it’s like a attending a conference – you’re meeting lots of people, buzzing with ideas, but it’s only after its all over that you’ll know what’s worth remembering.

Air and Light and Time and Space (Harvard UP, 2017) is already a classic. Sword surveyed a thousand people who attended her writing workshops and interviewed a hundred “successful academics.” Yes, many have published prolifically, but Sword also measures success as taking the field in new directions, representing underrepresented groups, helping others to write, and balancing writing with the rest of life. She’s as interested in creativity as productivity, in the pleasures of writing as much as the pain.

Sword’s ideas are not just beautifully expressed, but clearly structured, which makes her easy to read. In four sections, she covers the behaviours, artisanship, social side and emotions of writing (the obligatory acronym: BASE). The behaviours (time, space, and ritual), come first: when, where, and how do academics write? The artisanship (learning and honing your craft), come next, with a chapter on what everyone can learn from academics writing in English as a lingua franca. The social section asks who you are writing for, with, and among (which writing retreatants will know a lot about). And the emotional end is about pleasures, pains, and metaphors to write by. Each chapter is broken up by one-page portraits of individuals, ending with further reading and practical things to try.

Things to try: write at the “wrong” time for you; write where you read; discipline yourself with or; leave Word a while for Scrivener; write as a letter, not a diary; find – and be – a critical friend; restory your metaphors; dance as you write. Taken out of context, this is random list of tips; taken in context, they can turn your reading about other writers into strategies for your own writing.

The voices of people I edit, translate, and facilitate retreats for resonated through the pages of this book. I especially enjoyed their metaphors. Academics writing in English as a second, fourth, or fifth language describe the process as “like making pizza for Italians.” Writing a PhD is like “trying to peel an onion layer by layer while it’s rolling around on the floor and then reconstructing it layer by layer and then offering it to people and saying, ‘here, take a bite.’” A co-authored book can also be a party, with “a variety of people,” sharing “incredibly good food,” and everyone feeling “welcome and at ease.”

If you are looking for new ways of writing and would like some company, this book is for you. There’s no need to read it straight through (though I got caught up in it, and did). You can dip in and out of it, diving into the writers’ different worlds. For sure, you’ll want to come back to it at a different time in your writing life, to see whose voices speak to you. It’s a rich book: as rich as plum cake.*

* Image from my 1981 edition of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

New year, new skill: copywriting

In a “normal” year – remember those? – I would go to Helsinki about once a month and abroad about every other month to meet colleagues and authors. Not doing this has been an enormous loss, professionally but above all personally. But it’s been good for my carbon footprint, and in 2020 I had time to try new kinds of writing, from fiction to poetry.

Including copywriting.

Six months ago, I joined an accountability group with six colleagues doing the College of Media and Publishing Copywriting Course. Since I mostly work with academics, I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. Even researchers have to write short snappy texts to “sell” their findings though, so I thought this might help.

If you have never done any copywriting, the CMP course is a good introduction to the basics. In 20 lessons, you cover everything from industry codes of practice to SEO to finding work as a copywriter. You write a wide range of copy from headings and tweets to press releases and brochures. Some I’d never tried before and may never use, like pay-per-click ads. Others were directly relevant, like newsletters, as I’d recently begun editing the ITI Polish Network newsletter. You can only start the next lesson when you’ve passed the previous one, so you can’t skim or rush.

The course materials point you to some useful resources but you get out what you put in. Our group felt that it’s up to you to write to your own standards. We found some of the course materials could have been more clearly related to the end task and that all of them were pitched at people with less writing experience than we had. As Andrea put it, you might not need an accredited copywriting qualification, but if you do, the CMP course is for you.

What I enjoyed most about the process was the accountability group. Every week without fail, Jane posted on our forum asking, “what did you do this week?” If I hadn’t had to account for my (lack of) progress on Fridays, I wouldn’t have finished. We learned from and helped each other.

The greatest strength of the CMP course is the tutor support. Within three working days, someone will read what you’ve written and give you graded, constructive feedback. Nobody has done this for me since I was at school. The sheer discipline of writing a few hundred words (or, even harder, a few hundred characters!) on wildly varying topics every week for half a year and knowing someone will cast a critical eye over it is worth the investment. Justine Holman was extremely responsive and able to show me what was missing (or perhaps shouldn’t be there) in my own copy.

If you’d like to try that for yourself in 2021, you can sign up to the CMP course here.

How to grow your own poem

Don’t run away from that title – stay and see what Kate Clanchy has to say. She absolutely knows her stuff. She’s spent decades teaching people how to get their poems into and out of their imaginations, up to standard and down onto paper. And just because she teaches in high school, which is quite likely the last time most adults including myself even attempted to write anything one might dare to call poetry, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t got something to say to you.

A lot of Clanchy’s writing advice is as good or better than many abstract academic analyses of approaches to articulation. She won the 2020 Orwell Prize for Political Writing for her book about teaching, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. This book tells you some of what they taught her – and what she taught them.

Read work by people you admire, people you’ve never heard of whose experience is very different from your own, people who are acknowledged stars of their craft. And join the conversation about what you’ve read. It’ll help you get ready to start a conversation about what you’ve written.

Don’t hang around with the gerunds (the title of just one splendid practical section sprinkled throughout which is useful for many kinds of writing).

Give your work time to rise like bread, come back and see what’s happened to it while you were away.

How to Grow Your Own Poem shows you how to do this and more by sharing brilliant poems that world-famous, not as well-known as they should be, and written by Clanchy’s students, many of whom were learning to write in English. She shows how particular poems work and how you can make them work for you. Not by too much analysis of literary terminology, but by getting you to try the forms and patterns and strategies. Following each poem is another poem or two modelled on it, some pointers as to how it works, and then a “your turn” section. The pairings are startling and effective:

This is a book to get on paper and work with on paper. I know I still draw like a twelve-year-old, because that’s about when I stopped believing that I could draw anything that was “any good”. I’m sure I’m not the only one who believes the same about poems. But these holidays, I’m going to try more of Clanchy’s exercises in a notebook, with a pencil, in my own time. Even if they never see the light of day, it will help my other writing.

Clanchy stresses what has become something of a mantra for me: you need to fiercely protect the space and time to do your own writing. How and where you do that is up to you, but with this book, you can do it, and take some steps to opening up that space to share what you’ve written.

Writing in a Winter Wonderland

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but writing is so delightful… in good company, that is. This time last year, I facilitated my first in-person retreat and since then, a lot has changed. We had no idea then that if we wanted to meet to write, we would have to do so online. But now we’ve realised that our collective energy makes it work.

A small group of writers has been meeting online every Wednesday morning since the beginning of March. We wrote through the first lockdown together. In the summer and autumn, others joined us to write together all day. Some writers came for just one day, others wrote a four-day marathon over two weeks. This year, writers in the group have performed plays, given conference presentations, edited books and defended PhDs they wrote with us – and much more.

Writers who came to my all-day retreats this autumn said:

This works really well for me. Knowing that other people are writing “with” me, and disciplining myself to sit and write. Kate you are an excellent facilitator – just the right mix of chatty and firm. Anyone who writes should join your retreats!

It was really good, I’m glad I didn’t get that “zoom fatigue” that I do in lessons and things. I was quite exhausted at the end of the day but it felt like I had got a lot done.

The facilitation was great. The material that was shared with us was fantastic. I really love the list of writing tips we all came up with during the retreat that was emailed to the participants at the end. It’s so great I am thinking about printing it out and keep it on my desk for emergencies!

A wonderful experience where I can truly say I got something done! Having others there to share your goals with really helps you to achieve them.

We will be writing together again on Thursday and Friday 26&27 November and 3&4 December. All-day writing retreats run from 10 am to 530 pm EET.

A facilitated day retreat includes four hours of writing with plenty of breaks to talk to other writers, share strategies, and take time away from the screen to exercise and re-energise. Writers who come to an all-day retreat can join our online community Facebook group and Wednesday writing sessions. And I’ll send you a resource pack to support your writing.

Numbers are limited to 12 writers. Not sure yet? Sign up here to find out more. Looking forward to writing with you!

Pitch perfect

Writing is a long, hard process; but even if you craft the perfect manuscript, you still need to persuade people to read it! That’s a very different skill, and the opportunities come and go suddenly: in a hallway, over tea or coffee, even in an elevator.

Can you sum up months or years of work in a moment? To do so, you need a pitch. It has to sound natural; these situations are conversations, not speeches. Take some time to write what you want to say, test it on someone to see how it works, and tweak your message as needed. Finding the time and space to do all that isn’t easy.

A few weeks ago in the co-working space at Crazy Town Jyväskylä, we got pitch perfect. In collaboration with Dave Sayers, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä, we are developing an independent training service to help organizations refine their communication skills. Our launch event was a short training session on persuasion in practice, called “Pitch Perfect: 30 seconds in 30 minutes.” Dave started by showing everyone how to use voice, pace, and gesture to deliver a message effectively. Then I got people to write, practice, and hone their elevator pitch.

It was constructive, productive, and fun as you can see.

How did everyone write and deliver a 30-second elevator pitch in just 30 minutes?

We did snack writing. This is Professor Rowena Murray’s term for writing in short sharp bursts. In this case, everyone “snack wrote” in two slots of just five minutes: first to brainstorm ideas; then to home in on the key message. I set the alarm on my phone, and when it rang, the time was up! You can do this for yourself at home, but it might work better in a group of people racing against the clock.

Once everyone had honed what they wanted to say, they tested it in pairs or threes. After just half an hour, everyone had a crafted, tried-and-tested message to deliver.

Participants said:

“This clarified my thoughts about pitching, that it’s not just about you but what the other person needs and why they would be interested in you. Very enjoyable short course.”

“We had a short time but it was very effective.”

“I think the session was really informative and engaging, and gave one the opportunity to use the language and to learn performing.”

“It was good to get out of my comfort zone and try to create an interesting elevator pitch in a short time. For me it worked and gave confidence. Useful training! I’m now more aware of my speech tempo and I’ve learned to make an interesting pitch in a reeeeally short time. Thank you!”

One group got into the actual elevator to practice. But you might need to seize the moment in any situation, including online meetings. A Zoom breakout room is actually quite similar to a lift – close quarters, limited time. And probably for some time to come, many of us will be meeting more new people online than off. So, right now Dave and I are working on ways to deliver this training both in person and through the internet. If you’d like to try either one, let us know.

Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Check your privilege is easy to say, but are you doing it?

When you’re a queer immigrant woman like me you can get complacent, until you – I – remember that you’re a white, middle class “native speaker” of the language everyone feels they have to communicate in, which gives you power. To put it another way, if history is written by the winners, the “winner” at any meeting is the minute-taker, and believe me, I’ve taken a lot of minutes.

It’s time to think hard about how to use the power you have, including in your writing.

You could look for a style guide. Many groups have their own, like the US Trans Journalists Association. Following the killing of George Floyd, the big US style guides (APA, then Chicago, then AMA) woke up to Black Lives Matter, but the wordsmiths are still wrangling about the rights and wrongs of capitalizing not only Black, but White. Or about how to say People of Colour in Finnish without an English acronym (“poc-ihmiset” won’t make sense to most). The UK equivalents, like the Oxford Style Guide, change much more slowly, but will get there.

You could get some training. Sarah Grey has been offering inclusive editing courses for years but seen a surge of interest. She frames the case for inclusive language impeccably, in terms of ethics, etiquette, and customer service: who could possibly object? Her ACES webinar series, while US-focused, pointed me to some great resources. The one I’ve used most often is the Conscious Style Guide. And I took her advice in writing about her here; if you aren’t sure how to describe someone, ask them.

You could read a book. Because it’s the English I write in, I make a point of looking for British resources like Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. You can see why half a million people want to make it a set text (sign their petition). Reading it, I learned from Reni Eddo-Lodge that there was a bus boycott in Bristol, UK, as well as Montgomery, USA, and from Darren Chetty that the catch-all Black Asian and Minority Ethnic could be replaced by better terms like racially minoritized or – my favourite – global majority.

There’s an awful lot of books to choose from, but if you read one, read this. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragaya Agarwal. What I loved about this book is that it breaks down big biases around gender, race, and sexuality but doesn’t stop there.

Using her expertise as a behavioural and data scientist, Pragaya Agarwal attacks the algorithms and calls their programmers to account. Did you know that when YouTube started letting users upload videos, a tenth of them were upside down? It took them a while to realize that left-handed people were holding their devices the “other” way round. Did you know that in 2017, when iPhone introduced facial recognition, it couldn’t tell Chinese faces apart? In the country with the world’s largest population, everyone could unlock everyone else’s phones. You can see why using this technology in policing could cause problems, and it does.

You might think that ageism, colourism, dialectism, or heightism are less important, but are they? “Paradoxically, people who value their objectivity and fairness are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, mostly because they are not on guard against subtle bias” (Sway, p. 239). Pragaya Agarwal tackles this from all angles.

Take names. When I, a Wilson, married a Vuorinen, we both had highly ethnonormative names for our contexts, but wanted to take our mothers’ maiden names. Our maternal grandfathers gave us Szczepanik-Sotejeff. Try saying that without sneezing. Try spelling that on the phone. So we compromised, and Sotejeff-Wilson it is. None of it is easy for everyone, but bits of it are easy for some. And part of me hopes that the social and health care reform deal in Finland (sote-uudistus) never gets sealed, because it’s a lot easier to say “Sotejeff as in sote reform” in Finnish. It usually raises a smile, at least. It shows the person you’re spelling for that you’re one of them, you know what’s going on, you can speak the language. And it makes it easier for people. They have to do less work.

I don’t have to do this sort of thing much, but too many people do, every day.

So unravel some biases – you could go to Harvard first and test your unconscious biases in an online implicit association test. Your results might surprise you. As Pragaya Agarwal says (Sway, p. 349), “there are biases that we can control once we are aware of the way they influence our decisions.” With that awareness, we’ll all write better.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

Steering the Craft

Lockdown is the time to write your first novel, they say, but I missed the boat. I spent the beginning of it finishing the CIEP Medical Editing Course – and then needed cheering up because I missed the crew I did it with, and though we weren’t locked down anymore, by that point EVERYTHING was cancelled. So I did the CIEP Fiction Editing Course, just for fun.

What fun it was. Tinkering with texts to see how they work and how you could make them work better is like being a ship’s engineer. After decades of working with academic style guides, it was terrifying and liberating to be out on the sea of story with the maps ripped up. A bit like starting out as a freelancer. Until I discovered a whole new set of conventions that not everyone agreed on, but were certainly entrenched in a lot of places (a bit like… you get the point).

I’d absolutely recommend CIEP courses if editing is your thing, and this one gave me the tools to become a ship’s engineer for fiction. But what I needed next was a treasure map.

Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula le Guin was that map. It is very short, beautifully written and reinforced a lot (but not all!) of the fiction editing course material. The advice is very clear and backed up with solid evidence, part of which you create yourself.

Each chapter ends with exercises. You launch by writing one paragraph and navigate towards drafting a whole story. Then you go back into ship’s engineer mode to block leaks, to correct list and trim.

Le Guin gives examples from her own work and that of a host of other greats from Neale Hurston to Woolf, via Twain and Tolkien. She shows you how to work through this book in a writers’ group (you could write together online or offline) but stresses that if you’d rather go it alone, that’s fine. Even if you’re sailing through it in splendid isolation, her clear voice accompanies you throughout, asking difficult questions, reassuring, giving glimpses of how you could approach things from a completely different angle if you ran aground or got caught up in a storm.

I set out to work through this book to get a new feel for storytelling from the inside, to help me in my own work with writers. I ended up with a dozen story stubs that, if I kept at it, could expand into a whole novel.

If you normally do a very different kind of writing (copywriting, technical translation, academic research?) this book would be an investment. Not just because narrative nonfiction is becoming such a big thing, but because it will get you right down to the nuts and bolts of how you write, and how you could write.

If you’re starting to write fiction, or work with fiction authors, get hold of a copy. I found Steering the Craft difficult to put down because I wanted to find out what happened next – in the new stories I was starting to write.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

The collective energy makes it work

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. Or move what you have to cut into comments, so they are connected to the relevant part of your writing.
  3. Or use an ideas file – even ten years later you can combine ideas you didn’t use then, to write something new.
  4. Use prompts and plan carefully, so you don’t generate text you will need to cut later.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Stay offline during breaks and your brain will rest – you might have an idea you wouldn’t otherwise have had headspace for.
  9. Think about who you are writing for – who is going to read it?
  10. 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…