Do writeshops work…?

By Jon Lawn

Do writeshops work…?

…this was my first thought when the idea was floated! Do we really need to take people away to get them to concentrate on their work? I soon found out we do!

Despite my initial scepticism, the DECCMA Northern Team Writeshop has been a great success.  We have gathered colleagues from around the country (and some from further afield), who would’t usually have the time to sit together for three days. Situated in a picturesque village in the New Forest, we are surrounded by delightful English countryside and autumnal colours. Stick your head outdoors and you hear birdsong and smell the rustic smell of an open fire.  Look around and you see ponies, cattle and birds. Peace at last!

The silence in our meeting room is unnerving.  I am so used to DECCMA meetings being full of talk, presentations, lively discussion and debate – this eerie quiet reminds me of an exam hall.  All I hear hour after hour is the gentle ‘tap tap’ of fingers on keyboards and occasional hushed whispers of collaborators discussing how many words they’ve written and the order of paragraphs. ‘Are they really working’ I think…?

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Regular gatherings and updates from the team prove my continued scepticism to be unfounded.  Thousands upon thousands of words have been written, entire papers have gone through multiple reviews with ‘track changes’ an essential companion.  Thoughts have changed and evolved, analyses have developed and clarity has been sought.  The amount and speed of progress is amazing.  Papers have gone from being a mere idea and structure to almost complete.

We punctuate our writing sessions with forays into the damp countryside – some fresh air to revive frazzled brains and to invigorate the soul.  Topics of conversation enlighten each other on progress and share trains of thought – with valuable contributions and insightful comments received in return. Even the drizzle doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm for ploughing on, both with the walks, and with the writing.

I will admit to be unnerved about the lack of agenda items going into this meeting.  With the majority of the sessions titled ‘Writing Session’ with the instruction ‘Self-Organise’ next to it – my usual planning and control of meetings is removed. There are no presentations to prepare and no minutes to write! When asked in our introductory session about my goals for the meeting, my reply is simply “to make sure you guys write stuff!”

The dedicated time given to writing is key. Providing an environment where academics and researchers aren’t disturbed by the busyness and demands of an office environment is proving efficient.  Email is not banned (although I contemplated withholding the WiFi password!) – but self-control and discipline is displayed, and even encouraged, by the participants. They have grasped and bought into the ethos of the writeshop, and in many cases appear to crave the quiet, uninterrupted time to put their head down and focus solely on one area of analysis.

So what’s the key to an effective writeshop?

Planning in advance – there is no point having people sitting around for three days with nothing to write!  Participants must come with goals in mind, and a clean schedule to devote time and effort to the cause.  We asked the team to complete templates, stating the papers they would be working on and with whom they needed to collaborate – both on writing and reviewing.  This planning forced the team to focus in advance, and not just turn up with no idea what was going on.

Variability is also important.  I found you should not overestimate the concentration span of a person – to get someone to focus on one activity for an entire day is unrealistic! More than an hour is pushing it for the average person.  Hence we built in times where we went for walks, ate lunch together in a different location and generally made purposeful attempts to switch our focus to different tasks to provide intervals and a change of pace.

Within the variability we also provided flexibility. I was amazed on Day 1 that these grown-ups kept asking me for permission. ‘Can I work on this task Jon?’, ‘Can I not go for the walk now as I’m in the zone Jon?’, ‘Jon, can I pop out and get a coffee/go for a run/phone home?’. It was obvious I was the keeper of the meeting!  But, in all reality, we aimed to provide an environment that was best for people to work, and this would be different for different individuals.  My response to (virtually) every request was ‘sure, whatever works best for you’.

We have seen a real step change in the amount of writing achieved during these three days. Plans have already been mooted to continue the momentum next year.

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