Writers Locked (Down): Supporting Academic Writing Virtually

Whether you are a writer yourself, or involved in providing support for academic writing, 2020 has been a challenging year! When the global pandemic hit, and the campuses closed, we had to find new ways to motivate and facilitate writing communities and provide meaningful support for individual writers (including students, academics and professional services staff).

There are a number of different initiatives which can be used to support writers: shut up and write sessions, writing retreats, writing workshops and critical friend programmes, to name but a few.  More often than not, these are facilitated face-to-face and have a crucial community ethos – indeed this is the key to their success.  But what happens when the ability to meet physically and socially is taken away? Is it possible to achieve the same aims in a virtual environment?

Following a recent twitter conversation, I invited a group of fellow writing ‘enthusiasts’ from the UK and Australia to share their experiences of supporting academic writing initiatives virtually.  I asked them to explain the approaches they were using and reflect on the benefits/challenges they had experienced, thinking ahead to the future (if that is possible). Because everyone is coming at the challenge from a slightly different perspective – Tess as a PhD student, Jason an established Shut Up and Write Facilitator, Laura a professional academic developer and myself as a retreat participant-then-facilitator – the different stories build a complex picture of what it means to write, connect and support each other when we are physically dislocated and reliant on screens.  You can read each of the accounts by clicking on the boxes below to expand the text.

Common to them all is the use of the Pomodoro technique. Something we are all learning is that virtually connected work needs to be bitesized, not binged, so the use of short writing bursts (usually 25 minutes) is a really effective technique where writing is concerned.  How you connect the pomodori with opportunities to reflect, chat and refresh (synchronously or asynchronously) will depend on the needs of the community members and the time frame for the initiative. But the stories suggest that this approach certainly does translate well from the physical to the virtual space.

The other key theme, and perhaps one which needs more reflection over time as these initiatives develop, is the ability to create and maintain a writing community in the virtual space. In Tess’ case, the community is unstable yet reliably ‘there’ for anyone who needs it; Jason describes how the community is strengthened because people are no longer having to travel; Laura’s case highlights how the ‘in it together’ mindset has allowed for the community to try new tools and take risks; and my own reflections reveal how being part of a virtual writing community demands greater flexibility and opportunities for creative collaboration.

There are lots of great ideas contained within the stories and these can be used in a range of different contexts. Thank you to all who contributed and if you also have a story to share please let us know!

Tess Whitton (PhD Student at Melbourne Law School)

I did a whole day shut up and write session once. I’ve done quite a few actually, but that was the only one I was completely alone for. I didn’t particularly mind. I got enough done to justify my choice, although I felt strangely guilty, waiting for someone to discover that I was taking up the fancy board room. Sometimes, SUAW makes a difference because when you’re ‘one’ of ‘some’, you’re accountable to them. But that day I realised it doesn’t matter if you’re alone. With SUAW you’re also often in a different space. I don’t know why this is motivating but seems to be, and it removes distractions. And, at least for me, I come committed to write for a spell, and with something in mind to write about. I never leave with less. This is my only goal: sit, commit, attempt to write some words.

With the onslaught of CoVID, the bizarre exhaustion, and the challenge of the never-ending day at home, I missed sharing the difficulty of writing, and commitment to write. With encouragement from Helex@Melbourne, I decided to ‘Natasha Taylor’ the hell out of it, and make it work on Twitter: Shut Up and Write/Work Together #SUAWTogether. I’d never used twitter before… I wanted to acknowledge our shared challenge and create a habit of writing in a world messaging isolation, on top of the usual PhD seclusion.

I needed a platform where an ‘attendee’ didn’t have to sign-up or sign-in, could attend at last notice, lurk without needing to say anything, or not even attend at all but just know that at that time they weren’t the only one working. For me, it meant I also committed to be available for writers who wanted to tweet/ message or email, and to write myself, for a bit over 2 hours a week. I copied other twitter models that make two short writing sprints. The format is two blocks of 25 minutes and a 10 minute break in the middle. And I/we wrote on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s starting at Ten AM. I note the timing on twitter, but most people time themselves. Compared with the whole-day in-person SUAW it might seem minimal. But people told me these hours were the most writing they got done in the whole week.

To be honest, from the public twitter account, it looks like #SUAWTogether has pretty low attendance! And I was actually going to stop it. But behind the scenes, when I asked, more people seem to be writing along than those who participated actively on twitter. This was, and remains my hope, but it’s difficult to know for sure. At the start, I broadcast my writing journey like an aeroplane announcing a mayday distress hoping someone would hear and respond. Now, I just think of it like mentioning to someone that you’ll be eating your lunch outside should they wish to show up. If one person writes and it helps me write, that is enough. It’s not for everyone, it’s low contact, and doesn’t provide the face to face motivation, or the virtual accountability of zoom. But that’s why it’s good. It’s low stress and low expectation, and no one knows, you’re still only accountable to you. Lots of people can find one hour, twice a week. That was my goal, just to help create a space regularly designated as writing time, and a habit of sitting down to write to keep going for the rest of the week. I was surprised by who has joined me. I don’t know how successful twitter was for the student-peer group that I had in mind when it began. I think there has been less uptake than I hoped, but I know a small group of people use it. I believe many students have fallen back on whole-day zoom writing (of which I’ve also taken part).

But new colleagues across institutions, that I’ve never met, have let me know they’re writing and it’s been a good way to connect with them. I was also delighted by those who I’ve met over the years in various areas of academia (scientists as well as lawyers), as well as friends with nothing to do with research using the prompt for designated concentration time in the calendar. If you’re considering this approach. Don’t expect much back on a daily basis. It’s pretty one-way in terms of connection (and conversation). But I managed to reach a range of people, and it’s helped keep me motivated too. It works for me because it’s inclusive (my goal) and not intrusive (my preference). It is habit-making and fosters some forgotten self-reliance that needed re-kindling in the out-of-office working environments.

Jason Murphy (RMIT and host of #MelbWriteUP)

The group I’ve been involved with, #MelbWriteUp, began running at RMIT in 2015 as a face to face gathering for PhD candidates and researchers. Starting as a monthly, all day Saturday event, it quickly evolved into a bi-monthly, then weekly meetup. It is structured around pomodoros, with ten spread over a day. While writing is the main purpose of our group, it emerged that it was also a safe space for people to connect and feel part of a community. A recent study into the group (conducted by Dr Lisa Hodge and myself) found that the breaks between writing are an important part of this writing group by facilitating a sense of belonging and a platform to discuss writing and find solutions research challenges.

When, in February 2020, things started to look like a shutdown was inevitable, our #MelbWriteUp co-op starting thinking about moving online as a way to preserve our group and keep up the support for our research community. It was new ground for us. While we had heard of other online groups that had been running successfully for some time, there were a few hurdles and questions. Technology was an important consideration, but also, how would a sense of community be preserved without face to face contact and interactions?

One of the challenges at the time was the security issues with Zoom. Our organising group come from multiple organisations, and although we do not support Zoom at RMIT, the overall preference was to stay with this platform given its popularity with the academic community. Our meetings are hosted via Melbourne Uni’s Zoom system, but we were very concerned by reports of malicious individuals were leveraging from its inherent security vulnerabilities to disrupt online meetings So called, ‘Zoombombing‘ was getting reported on in the media and some in our group had experienced it first-hand. We overcame this by fine-tuning the security settings in Zoom and implementing a password for our meetings. We also disabled some of the standard features, like screen sharing. The open nature of our group – anyone can register and join – needed some careful thought, too. We used the Eventbrite system to manage the meeting links and password, which still allowed new people to join, but not without registering first, when the meeting details are automatically emailed. This streamlines and reduces administration, and thankfully seems to have worked as we haven’t had any breaches or issues.

A great outcome of meeting online has been the access to the group over large distances. In the past, researchers had travelled from as far away as Bendigo to join our group in the CBD. These days, the physical distance barriers are no longer an issue. This year, we were able to invite those who had attended in the past but have now moved elsewhere, and we’ve maintained the wonderful diversity of researchers from different levels and institutions.

For others thinking about the online approach, I would say just start it off and be consistent in your arrangements and communication. Make sure you reach out to those who can help spread the word, such as directors of research and your local graduate research schools. Having a collective, all driven to get words down on the page is the most inspiring thing.

In the spirit of full disclosure however, it has been difficult to work Monday to Friday, much of it in online meetings, and then work all day on Saturday in front the screen. Unfortunately, both myself and others in the organisation group have experienced this, and it has been reported by others.. There has been a particular level of exhaustion associated with being isolated and on the screen all day during the week. Ultimately, this has resulted in lower levels of personal attendance, but I’m hoping to find a better way to balance my work and research, which I do in my own time.

Laura Stinson (Academic Practice Adviser at Nottingham Trent University)

My colleague and I at NTU had been discussing the idea of moving to a blended approach for our Writing workshops and then boom Covid-19 arrived and set us all off planning how to run everything online! I think some of the first thoughts that came to mind were how to run something similar online without being in a physical space and how to get that collaborative experience for users. What elements work well in a face to face environment and how could we replicate these online?

We decided to use Microsoft Teams to do this as it was something we had started to build on (little did we know how much we would add to it and also to our skills!). Microsoft teams has allowed us to continue running our Writing Workshops online both synchronously and asynchronously. We have done this by building a step by step process for people to work through (which they can do at any time) and also offer the option to join us for a Live workshop where we work through the steps on a specific day and time with dedicated themed drop-ins throughout the session. This has allowed us to offer some of the activities we would normally do in a face to face environment such as sharing and mapping practice and having themed discussions around CPD, Impact and Pedagogy. The technique we continue to use for writing is the Pomodoro Technique (Francesco Cirillo). This gives users the chance to have short writing bursts and then either engage with the asynchronous material or join us for the live sessions. We have also established drop-in sessions for staff which have been a huge success. These normally take the format of one to ones where people perhaps have a chat through a case study or bounce around some ideas but having the open meeting format on teams has meant that staff have been able to share practice and learn from each other in a group setting. This has been a real benefit of teams and the move to the new normal. People have been really supportive of each other and not only helped each other through their writing but also through the trials and tribulations of what this new world means. It has really built a sense of community.

As we all know, new ways of working don’t always go smoothly! Moving our Writing Workshops and support online has been a challenge but an achievement as we have learned along the way. I think most people will agree that we have all experienced the ‘can you hear me’, ‘Oh look at the cat’ moments during their online sessions. There have been a number of work arounds and also googling of how to fix things to get our way around making the teams space a workable space for us and users. This is perfectly normal and I think people expect the odd mishap. It also sometimes makes the workshops more interesting!

If you are considering using Teams I would suggest to try things and see if they work. Ask for feedback and make sure that you still create that collaborative space for people to feel involved and engaged. Keep it simple and think of the user experience. Using the asynchronous and synchronous options has really improved the experience for our staff and has allowed more people to get involved.

For some more information about our approach, please take a look at this blogpost by Kate Cuthbert!  

Natasha Taylor (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Adviser at RMIT)

Early in the first period of lockdown, back in March, I was really excited to have the opportunity to join a Stay-at-Home Writing Retreat organised by Prof Helen Sword. Sword is one of my academic heroes and I have never managed to get to one of her sessions, so this was, for me, an absolute gift!

The writing retreat was intended to be a week-long commitment but there was flexibility in that, recognising that finding an empty week in the diary is very difficult for most of us. I had a relatively clear schedule, some key writing projects and that was enough to get me started. Out I went to buy a new pencil and notepad (yes really!).

Once you signed up the to the retreat, all the communications and instructions came via email. In the mornings, you received a link to a short YouTube video recorded by Helen – this covered goal setting activities for the morning and reflection prompts for the end of the session. Each day a different theme or aspect of writing (all drawn from Helen’s research) was used to underpin the goal setting activity:

  1. Setting a social goal – find someone you can talk to about your writing goals
  2. Get physical – body related goals to get you moving
  3. Aesthetics of writing – appreciating your writing environment and your writing style
  4. The flow of writing – being mindful of the eddies and currents of cognitive energy in your writing practice
  5. Emotions – putting the joy and satisfaction of writing first

The activities often included an invitation to share and discuss ideas with others via the YouTube channel. So, for example, on Day 3 you were asked to photograph your writing space and share it with others. This made the whole experience feel a lot more real, interactive and more human.

Overall, I did find the retreat a really rewarding and immersive experience. I managed to write for a couple of hours each day, and convinced my 11 year old to join me a few times! I loved the shift in emphasis each day – as a habitual over-thinker this did make me scrutinise my writing rituals in a different way each day. Changing tack meant I didn’t get overcome by my writing demons – procrastination, guilt, feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. I managed to find pride in small achievements and beauty in my words, and that made for a really satisfying writing experience. I even tidied my desk!

The aspect that didn’t work so well for me was connecting to the community – and that was my own fault.  I didn’t really make enough time to engage with others via the YouTube channel – lockdown was very new and I was distracted by the stress of being dislocated from my team and the workplace. I think it would have been better if I had a few local connections who were also taking part – people I knew – then I would have been quicker to share and undoubtedly would have sparkled as a result.

Inspired by my experiences, I have gone on to use some of the approaches in the work we do at RMIT to support applicants for Teaching and Learning Awards. Working with my colleagues Camilla Brown, Juliana Ryan and Sam Fearn, we hosted a week of half-day writing retreats live in MS Teams back in June.  These were really successful – if I am honest, more successful that the F2F versions we usually offer – and I am confident that this will transform the way we do things in the future.  Participants really liked the pomodoro approach and we experimented with some of the goal setting activities to enrich the retreat experience; some worked and some didn’t, so we will need to think hard about what we offer next time. Ensuring there are a range of options so that people can join in, but opt out if they prefer, seems key. But we managed to get people drawing, playing music and walking outside and that has to be good for well-being in writing practice! 

One thought on “Writers Locked (Down): Supporting Academic Writing Virtually

  1. I love the clear and practical advice in here, and the idea Natasha moots (inspired by Sword) to include creating a writing space, and bringing in reflective activities – beautiful! Thank you Natasha for sharing all of these examples of remote writing retreats. Jen x

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