By Karen Watson & Sam Nesbit
In response to feedback from the Library Staff Conference and comments from colleagues about quiet working spaces across campus, the Innovation Group approached Sussex researcher Dr Catherine Pope to facilitate a writing retreat for Library Staff. Our aim was to provide staff with a set of writing techniques that would help them structure their work, but more importantly, to provide a suitable space to knuckle-down and apply them. There were no rules about what to write: the idea was to be as open and inclusive as possible.
Part 1: the Workshop
Catherine scheduled a preparatory workshop in May, a half-day series of exercises at Jubilee, where we learned about (amongst other things): the Pomodoro technique, freewriting vs. generative writing, anti-procrastination techniques, and the sage wisdom of many professional writers (sample quote: “If you want to be a [professional] writer, you must do two things about all others; read a lot and write a lot. There is no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no short cut.” – Stephen King).
The attendees came from all sections and grades in the library, and the span seemed to emphasise the inescapable fact: writing is hard, no matter role you do.
Catherine emphasised the need to just write: it doesn’t matter what the first draft looks like, the process is the thing, get it out – all variants of the same command: stop faffing! It was refreshing to hear such direct, sensible advice – confronting the simple nature of the task made it easier to stop worrying about all the complexities, analogous to moving house: get everything in, then start to tidy the rooms.
The 5 hours flew by (most of it spent actually writing), and the group came out buzzing, and looking forward to applying what we’d learned.
Part 2: the Retreat
Following the success of the workshop, another call went out to staff about a full-day writing retreat to be held at The Keep. It was open to all, not just those who’d attended the workshop. The function rooms were opened up to create one big space comprising tables, power points, and paper and pens for the traditional among us. Catherine opened the session with a brief recap of the ideas she’d explored in the workshop, and then started us off with 2 exercises:
1 – Talk to the person next to you for 5 minutes about your project – subjects included: a longitudinal study of the Sage Scholars, RDM and RISE assessment, a public-/academic-Library work comparison, Mass Observation, Library Carpentry, and more.
2 – Write intensively for 5 minutes without stopping.
This immediately set the tone, and was followed by a tomato. One tomato is 25 minutes (also called the Pomodoro technique and named after the novelty tomato timer). The idea is to write for 25 minutes then rest for 5 minutes then start another tomato. You can set yourself goals of how many tomatoes you can do and reward yourself accordingly when that goal is achieved. 25 minutes is a long time, but the focus really helps overcome resistance.
Catherine told us that when you sit down to write, the mind rebels and tries to get you to do anything but write. This was definitely the case on our table, where I turned into fidgeting toddler and a colleague offered straight away to refill the coffee pots.
Resistance is futile
Catherine encouraged us to write in the most flowing way, be it in longhand on paper or typing on a laptop. This was a rare chance to dedicate yourself to a writing without interruption, to let your mind flow beyond its normal processes. Productivity was a part of it, but not the part of it. Turns out, if you focus on just writing, ideas bubble up from a different part of the brain.
What to do with your first draft
The day ended with a brief look at Editing. Having focussed on just writing for hours, this was a welcome foray into what would come next. A useful technique was the three stages of editing model from the world of publishing
- Editing – making high level decisions
- Copy-editing – looking at each word and sentence for clarity
- Proof reading – looking at the tiny details.
Catherine demonstrated examples of the passive voice, the strength of active verbs, some cracking examples of how not to construct a sentence, and an illuminating site called The Writer’s Diet, where you can submit your piece and have its health evaluated, from ‘Fit & Trim’ to ‘Heart Attack’. (Note: a random excerpt from The Da Vinci Code straddled the gap between ‘Flabby’ and ‘Heart Attack’, so I’m inclined to trust the technique’s validity!)
Outcomes and feedback
Following the retreat, opinions on the day were almost uniformly positive, and at least 2 attendees have already published their projects as blogs (Adam & Claire). We’re in the process of constructing a channel for official feedback, but below are some representative comments from attendees:
“It was super useful and also really, really nice to just write and get something done as opposed to staring at a screen for ages.”
“I thought it was full of really useful hints and tips to help write a variety of things. The whole tomato thing is great. I wish I’d done something like this sooner in my career.”
“It’s very hard to find uninterrupted periods of time that can be dedicated to writing about, and reflecting on, professional practice. The writing retreat provided the perfect opportunity to do just this.”
“The writing retreat was a fantastic opportunity to devote some time to an activity that often gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. I have lots of ideas for things I’d like to write about and great intentions to get it done, but I’m just too good at displacement activities. Having such a good facilitator made the retreat both enjoyable and productive.”
“I thought it was a really peaceful, calming day. It’s quite rare that you get the chance to just sit down and write without feeling like you’re supposed to be doing something else. I love writing so it felt almost like an indulgence to be ‘forced’ to create something.”
The Innovation Group has already begun talks about how / when we can organise a similar event, and we welcome any comments & suggestions from attendees (and from anyone who thinks they might benefit from something similar). Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.
Lastly, a huge thank you to Catherine for running the sessions. Her ideas & guidance were incredibly helpful, and she created a wonderful, positive environment in which to work. You can find out more about what she does here.