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My work bridges graduate writing instruction and professional development, so I spent a recent fall break leading a two-day writing retreat for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars across disciplines. Twenty-five participants made progress on dissertations, theses, grant applications and article manuscripts by working in sprint-like blocks, setting goals and connecting with guest speakers from the writing center for long-term feedback.

Writing retreats, sometimes called bootcamps, give graduate and postdoctoral writers dedicated time, community and emotional support to complete the milestone documents that propel their careers. These retreats are often multiday events that consist of writing time in a shared physical or virtual space, presentations from guest speakers, meals, and time for informal conversations among writers. Piggybacking on Katherine A. Segal’s recent writing productivity tips and on the advent of Academic Writing Month, I will explore the benefits of writing retreats for practitioners of graduate career and professional development and offers insights for planning a writing retreat on your campus.

Why Career and Professional Development Leaders Should Care

In addition to helping graduate students complete degree requirements, writing retreats serve as sites for cultivating transferable skills that trainees with advanced degrees need to be successful in a variety of careers. When the scope of the retreat extends beyond completing dissertations and theses, writers can create equally important documents that achieve their professional goals and demonstrate membership in professional communities—such as journal publications, reports, white papers, grant applications or materials for job searches. Likewise, writing retreats provide space for practicing other transferable skills identified by the Council of Graduate Schools, such as data literacy, analytics and scholarly ethics. For example, a writer who uses the retreat to annotate sources for a literature review and to organize an outline develops analytical skills in addition to making progress on a paper.

Likewise, as Kerry Ann Rockquemore put it, writing retreats that model how to “shut up and write unpack the transferable skills behind that seemingly simple advice. What does shutting up and writing actually feel like? What skills are needed? How do you prepare for it? By experimenting with different writing techniques and reflecting on these processes, retreat participants define what focus, goal-setting, productivity and time management look like to make the best use of their time, set realistic goals and feel satisfied with their progress. Indeed, research by Nadine Fladd and colleagues has shown that participating in writing retreats can decrease trainees’ writing anxiety and boost confidence, equipping them for success in future endeavors.

Participating in writing retreats might even allow trainees to practice their elevator pitches as participants meet scholars from outside their departments and labs. Due to the cross-disciplinary makeup of retreat participants, these writers must explain their research to audiences with varying levels of expertise—for example, during meals or short breaks—thus giving them low-stakes practice for speaking about their research at formal networking events.

Lastly, from a programmatic perspective, writing retreats provide additional opportunities for graduate career and professional development leaders to collaborate with other campus units on wraparound support for graduate and postdoctoral trainees. In the words of writing scholar Steve Simpson, retreats can be “quick, low-cost first steps in developing larger networks of campus graduate support” and foster cultures of professional communication that transcend specific departments, units or initiatives.

For example, writing retreats at my institution, North Carolina State University, have included representatives from the writing center, libraries, grants office and graduate school to help participants see the broad network, or “Pack,” of people to support them at each stage of their writing journey. Writing retreats can ultimately help us to extend our networks of campus collaborators and raise the visibility of our professional development initiatives.

Planning Your Own Writing Retreat

Ready to plan your own writing retreat? Here are some tips to get started.

What activities should we include? Dedicated, structured writing time is the heart of any successful writing retreat, as participants are choosing to devote time away from their daily routines to make progress on a writing project. Rather than encourage binge-writing, however, you should use productivity techniques like Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro technique to structure working time and turn the hours into 30-40 minute blocks, which allows participants to focus on a concrete task, set manageable goals and take breaks to pace themselves. Patricia Goodson’s Write at Speed exercise, which encourages writers to separate content generation from editing, is another great way to help participants overcome writer’s block and combat perfectionist tendencies.

A writing retreat that is oriented toward professional development should likewise include sessions that introduce writers to campus writing resources. Invite guest speakers to present about their respective areas during optional, concurrent sessions alongside writing blocks or as “lunch and learn” talks to help graduate and postdoctoral writers build a network of support. Feedback sessions, where participants briefly discuss their writing project with consultants or among themselves, can also break up long writing blocks and provide opportunities to connect with peers outside one’s discipline. Remember to allot time for participants to set goals for the session or day and to reflect on how they will apply what they learned to future writing projects. For example, you can build in short meetings at the beginning and end of the day for participants to set goals and debrief their work.

Writing retreat participants might want to discuss questions or challenges that come up while they are writing, so time for ad-hoc writing instruction is another important feature of these events. For instance, while leading virtual retreats on Zoom, I have gathered many times with writers in breakout rooms to discuss topics such as organizing concept maps, writing abstracts and structuring masters’ theses in response to real-time feedback. Similar breakout discussions have spontaneously occurred in the hallways during in-person retreats. The key to a successful writing retreat agenda is to balance structure to support writers’ productivity with flexibility to adapt to specific writers’ needs.

Whom should we invite to speak? Given that a writing retreat oriented toward professional development is an opportunity to collaborate across campus to support graduate and postdoctoral scholars’ success, possible guest speakers might include: writing center directors, writing center peer consults, librarians, educational technologists who specialize in citation management apps, the electronic thesis and dissertation coordinator, representatives from the grants and fellowships office or faculty from the participants’ disciplines. While such partners will vary by campus, the goal is to introduce graduate and postdoctoral writers to a range of people and programs that can support their writing and professional development. If you host a live writing retreat, consider inviting a campus marketing professional to take photos and interview the participants for testimonials to create outreach campaigns for future programming.

What is a good modality for a writing retreat? Now that we’ve returned to in-person teaching and learning, a live writing retreat rebuilds campus community, bringing together writers across disciplines to work in the same space and break bread. Based on my experiences leading in-person and virtual writing retreats, however, I can appreciate the affordances and drawbacks of each modality. While a live writing retreat increases interaction, it can be costly in terms of logistics and expenses (i.e., food) and can only serve a small number of writers (20–25 participants). A virtual retreat is more cost-effective and allows for more participants, but this modality can decrease interaction and accountability as writers become distracted by their disparate environments.

When choosing a modality for your writing retreat, consider the needs of your student/postdoc populations, guest speakers, campus facilities and budget. For example, in response to participant feedback, I turned week-long writing retreats into two-day retreats, alternating live and virtual sessions throughout the year to reach different populations. Experiment with several iterations of writing retreats—live, online or hybrid—to determine what works best for your campus partners and the populations you serve.

In short, writing retreats can do more than help participants complete milestone documents to obtain academic credentials. By approaching such events through a professional development lens, we can help our graduate and postdoc trainees develop transferable skills, build networks of peers and resources, and enrich our campus partnerships by holistically supporting those trainees’ success.

Katie Homar is director of academic and engineering writing support with North Carolina State University’s Graduate Professional Development Team initiatives, and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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