Imagine the following: Tuesday evening, moody Welsh weather, plates on the table are empty, the glasses half full, and a bunch of food geographers are writing random phrases on small pieces of paper. Why, you ask, as well you should, would they do that? The fact is, this was the warming-up exercise for the first writing retreat organized by the FGWG of RGS-IBG. Our hideaway was in Bangor (Gwynedd) and for one day (and a little bit more) we shared our thoughts and knowledge on matters of academic writing.
Before the writing retreat, each participant was prompted to deliver a text. The submissions included journal manuscripts, Ph.D. dissertation chapters, book chapters in preparation and conference proceedings. The variety of writings and the different experience of participants in writing/publishing resulted in content-rich and intensive discussions. Each participant gave feedback on a fellow’s writing following a feedback sheet specifically developed for the writing retreat by Imogen Bellwood-Howard (Institute of Development Studies). The reflection on the reviewing process made participants think about the intricacies of providing constructive feedback and the variety of unintended messages that can sometimes arise from such comments. For example, the question “What will you take from this for your own writing?” proved to be particularly fascinating. Not only because everyone found something interesting to take into their own writing but also because such question predisposes constructive feedback and a healthy discussion.
Here we summarize some resolutions that came out of the lengthy discussion during the writing retreat.
- While writing one should think about what debates the written piece is contributing. Structuring and argumentation work differently if the author is writing a book chapter, an original research article or a chapter of a Ph.D. dissertation. Choosing what goes in and what does not in a piece of writing is crucial not only in terms of selecting an appropriate publishing outlet but also in terms of how exactly the manuscript is contributing to overarching academic debates.
- The author should be aware that he/she might be using terms, concepts, and jargon that are unfamiliar to the reader. Assuming knowledge can be dangerous, especially when you are locked in your own writing zone and expect that your readers will know all about what you are writing about. The solution is to be transparent and clear in your papers. (It is almost as if you are explaining your research to your grandparents but in an academic way).
- Writing a title can be political, and working with co-authors can be a challenge’. It turned out that choosing the right title could turn into a storm in a tea-cup. A title gives expectations for the rest of the paper, but what if your co-authors are not happy with the title, and want to change it? Even worse, what if you are requested to effortlessly include an additional co-author who has little-to-nothing to do with the actual writing process? These issues revealed that different authors collaborate in different ways, and there was no common approach to the questions of power relations between authors: it remains a grey area
- I will read my work out loud.
- I will shorten my sentences.
- I will share my work with others to increase my motivation (clarity and fresh eyes, to enhance your motivation)
- I will consider the outlet, i.e. the specific journal targeted, from the outset.
- I will reread my text both from editor’s and the reader’s perspective
The writing retreat was an opportunity to break the monotonous routine of writing, and to share your work in a friendly and supportive environment. Such platforms provide constructive peer feedback in an unpenalized manner, and can help to reduce the hostile feedback one might receive from blind peer-reviewers. As Judith Symister, Ph.D. Management candidate at Birkbeck College, University of London shared:
The gathering at a social was a great idea. It was a fantastic way to meet everyone and chat about our research areas in a relaxed fashion. The word games (free-writing) were good exercises to take part in over dinner and drinks. The workshop was full of variety, discovery and helpful opinion. The one-to-one sessions were invaluable. The group work in the afternoon was informative and thought-provoking.
The writing retreat was the first one of its kind we organized. We shared a lot. We learned a lot as well. We can only hope that it will become a regular event in the series of events sponsored by FGWG-RGS.