Rowena Murray
Rowena Murray
  Professor, University of the West of Scotland

I’m writing this during the last 90-minute session at a two-day residential writing retreat I organized for my PhD group – 12 students – so that they could focus on writing a journal article. I’ve been writing one too. This Writing for Publication retreat is a new idea I came up with to provide real time and support for publishing during the PhD.

Most of my students have been here before to write thesis chapters, but this is the first time they are here to write journal articles. Because it’s a new writing task for most of them, and because I have experience of students requesting pre-retreat workshops, we had a two-hour ‘Writing for Publication’ workshop last week. I wanted to make sure that they were prepared to make the best use of their time here, and they did too.

During that workshop we covered key points about (1) analyzing their target journals – I’d asked them all to choose a target journal before the workshop and to bring an article from it – and (2) working out the focus of the article, using the device of drafting an inquiry to the editor – which they said they found daunting at first but actually very useful. It made them decide what their article was going to be about – an essential first step and crucial preparation for a writing retreat.

Most of what I have to say about writing journal articles is in my book, Writing for Academic Journals, and all my students have that, but I wanted them to make a start on their articles before this retreat. A Structured Writing Retreat is one of the most productive and positive practices for academic writers, but it only works if you have something to write about. See rowenamurray.org for more information and evidence of impact.

 

Source: Rowena Murray
Source: Rowena Murray

As usual, almost all of our time at this retreat has been spent writing. However, there have also been crucial discussions of focus, giving and receiving feedback on drafts and revisions, conversations about how articles fit with theses, focusing discussions about shaping articles for specific journals and checking and comparing journals’ instructions for authors. I think what’s important about writing in this way is that you can get feedback in one of the breaks and then act on it right away in the next writing session.

As a supervisor, I can check that each student has understood my suggested revision when I see the next draft at the next break. This is not to say that we are all on a writing treadmill, but that we are having on-going discussions of writing-in-progress. I prefer this to receiving whole drafts of articles that might not be as sharply focused as they could have been if we’d had these discussions earlier on.

These on-going discussions are great for focusing, and the fixed time-slots of the retreat program help us to set goals for the time we actually have. Monitoring the extent to which we achieve these goals, as we go along, helps us to develop self-efficacy – in relation to generating writing for publication – and to set realistic writing goals.

One of the goals I encouraged them all to set was to draft a title and abstract for their articles. They all started this last week and have been revising abstracts and drafting sections of articles yesterday and today. The great thing about this for me is that I can help them sharpen the focus of their writing, and it only takes me a minute or two to read each abstract, which means I have been able to provide feedback several times during this retreat. The great thing for them is that they get feedback right away and, once they have an abstract that we’re all happy with, they more or less have the focus for sections of their articles. A focus of our discussions of draft abstracts is the last sentence, where you say what ‘new knowledge’ your article offers. Until you have that, it’s difficult to know how to focus the rest of the article.

All of this helps authors overcome their uncertainty about whether they are ‘ready to write’. We use these writing tasks and discussions to help them develop something in writing and thereby overcome this uncertainty. While we have spent some time talking about the sources of and triggers for their uncertainty, we have all managed to produce text.

As soon as I write or say ‘we produced text’, there is usually someone in the room – and I have clearly internalized this voice – who asks, what about the ‘quality’ of text we produced: surely, they say, the quality is more important than the quantity? To which I say, of course, quality is essential, but it’s not achieved in one draft. It’s not achieved at one writing retreat.

We have made a good start here, but there is still work to do. I suggest they think about producing ‘quality’ writing as a series of stages: which component of quality can they produce at any stage in the writing process? At this writing retreat, they have achieved the qualities of focus, coherence and structure. There is still work to be done on other components of quality over the next few weeks and months.

Finally, I can report that all the PhD students produced a draft journal article in the 10  hours of this writing retreat, and I did too. So, I think we’ll be continuing with this new Writing for Publication Workshop + Structured Writing Retreat next year, if not before.