Shut up and write! Eight tips for hosting a writing retreat

by Maartje De Meulder and Joseph Murray

Writing for publication is something all academics need to do, and many of us have to fit our writing within a tight schedule of teaching commitments, meetings, answering emails and balancing work and family life. And that is without the never-ending distractions of our phones and social media. Added to this, writing is often a lonely activity and many academics struggle with starting up their writing, finding a good writing routine, and the solitary nature of the writing process.

This is why we decided to set up a writing retreat for deaf academics: to write together – not necessarily collaboratively – but in the same time and space. Thirty people registered from a variety of disciplines (mostly humanities and social sciences with some STEM participants) and from various stages in their academic careers, from Master students wanting to publish parts of their theses to full professors needing time out to focus on writing. We prepared and facilitated the writing retreat, which took place at the Ål folkehøyskole and workshop center for deaf people. Ål is a mountain village three hours travel time from Oslo. In this post we share eight tips we learnt from facilitating our first writing retreat. 

Tip #1: The main aim of a writing retreat is to write

A retreat is called a retreat for a reason: it is a space where you can pull back from the world, get away from it all, and your focus (in this case writing) is not distracted by mundane things such as grocery shopping. The aim of a writing retreat is to write. Write some more. And write even more. This should be the main focus of activities. At this retreat, we scheduled approximately five hours of writing time every day.  We also offered three optional workshops and one mandatory training on how to give feedback. But the focus of the retreat was not on training people how to write, it was giving people time and space to write. Don’t clutter your retreat with too many different activities – the focus should be on writing. 

Tip #2: Make sure there is a schedule. 

Every day we had a more or less fixed schedule: we opened with 15 minutes of practical announcements and gave people time to ask questions. Every day we divided participants into new groups of 7-8 participants. We intentionally mixed up the groups each day so people could meet new colleagues throughout the retreat. Our daily schedule after the morning meeting was as follows: 

  • A Morning Shut Up And Write (SUAW) session at 2,5 hours
  • A one hour lunch break
  • A second SUAW session at 1,5 hours
  • A 30 minute break and review session. We found it useful for participants to stand (so they could move around a little!) in a circle and briefly summarize 

1) what they just did 

2) what roadblocks, concerns, progress they experienced and 

3) what they planned to do at the next SUAW session.   

  • A third SUAW session before dinner at 1,5 hours. 

On three of the five days we also provided 1,5 hour optional workshops on academic writing techniques, academic publishing and ‘promoting your writing’.  Our workshops were aimed at a general academic audience, but depending on the participants at your retreat and the number of facilitators you have, you can organise specific workshops for e.g. PhD students, ECRs, or junior and senior academics separately. The last two work hours of the day were dedicated to reading and comment time (see further in this blog). This schedule helped people to stick to a routine and organise their time and writing. 

Tip #3: Take SUAW time seriously

We had a total of 5 hours SUAW per day, with each session lasting from 1 to 2,5 hours. During these sessions, we recommended turning off phones and email. In every room there was a sheet of paper with a bright red ‘Shut Up And Write’ sign.  Once the red side was turned up, the session started and participants were not allowed to talk (i.e. sign). At first this felt weird, especially on the first day, because often deaf people who haven’t met yet are inclined to sign away! But quickly this became the new normal and participants who broke the rule were asked to continue their conversations outside the writing room. Participants could walk out of the room at any time to get tea or coffee or have a quick chat in the hallway. 

During  SUAW sessions we provided optional writing exercises for some sessions.   For example ‘copy paste time’ was when participants could focus on copying and pasting their notes from conferences, conversations, literature reviews and the like to create a rough first draft. We tried a ‘screen recording time’ wherein participants screen recorded their writing time to review and discuss later. One popular exercise was the ‘no back space writing exercise’ where participants were told to simply write, and not to use the back space on their keyboard. This allows people to get over one of their main fears – the idea that one must write perfect sentences.    The point of these exercises was to vary SUAW sessions so people had some external prompts within these sessions, if needed. 

Tip #4: Organise feedback sessions

The idea of a feedback session is to give and receive feedback on writing projects from other academic peers. Even those not in your field can give valuable feedback on your writing. These sessions were among the elements of the writing retreat participants found the most useful. The sessions were an opportunity to discuss writing projects in the signed modality (mostly International Sign), which was a welcome break from the written modality. It was also important for participants to realize that you don’t need a full perfect draft before you can ask someone for feedback, and gave people more confidence in asking for and giving feedback. 

This is how we worked: participants had to indicate before lunch if they wanted to participate in a feedback session that evening. The rule of reciprocity was in place: everyone who wanted to receive feedback also had to give feedback. We asked participants not to approach people for feedback outside these sessions to respect each others’ writing time. Depending on who wanted feedback, we made feedback groups of three participants each, mixing up disciplines and career stages to emphasize that everyone at the retreat was on an equal footing and all could benefit from each other. Participants could not choose who to get feedback from, but we did allow for language specific groups for those not writing in English.

These sessions were highly structured, with strict time limits for each paper. At 16.00 every day, participants sent their drafts to the other two people in their group. Those who wrote in a language other than English had the option to send video summaries of their work. Due to the time limits of the feedback sessions, we asked for drafts to be maximum 10 pages and for videos to be a maximum of 10 minutes length. From 16.00 to 17.00 people sat alone to read each other’s drafts and make comments. At 17.00 each group met at a designated place, with the stopwatch app on their phones ready to go. The first author then got two minutes to give background on their paper, highlight specific concerns and areas they wanted feedback on. Then each commentator got 5 minutes to give comments (signed), during which the author was not allowed to interrupt and only could take notes. After the 2 x 5 minute comment time was over, the author then got another three minutes to respond to both commentators. Thus, at this retreat, each paper got 15 minutes of time and total feedback time for each group was 45 minutes. For your retreat, lengths can vary according to the needs of the participants. What is most important is keeping to the agreed upon time limits and – crucially – no interruptions during the feedback session. 

Tip #5: Don’t underestimate the value of an all deaf space

The writing retreat was an all-deaf, signing space. This was much appreciated by the participants, especially given the knowledge that we could possibly be meeting and working together for some years. Some had gone to hearing writing groups or retreats or mixed deaf-hearing ones, and for many participants it was the first time writing with other deaf academics. This deaf space was especially significant in the feedback groups because most participants commented on the fact that most of the time they had only received feedback from hearing academics. The deaf signing space allowed for unmediated (no interpreters) conversations in International Sign on academic work and because there was no need to explain the ‘deaf aspect’ of our work this often led to more rigorous feedback on precisely that aspect. Participants commented that an all-deaf environment simply felt different- there was no need to do the constant management of cultural differences that are a regular part of deaf academic lives in hearing academic spaces. Being all deaf also led to deaf space dynamics and a deaf community feeling, with participants pitching in to help out with an evening outdoor cookout at a llavo and one participant (thanks Naomi!) offering optional morning yoga sessions.  

Tip #6: Have fun

Nobody wants to write for a full day and then go straight to bed, especially not deaf people meeting for the first time!  Make sure there is enough room in your schedule for people to socialize, get to know each other, exercise (alone or together) and have fun. We were lucky to host the retreat in wintery Ål, with the school on a mountain with stunning views.  Participants could have walks in the snowy woods, do some sledding in the evenings, or use the sauna. Every evening we had a designated location where participants could gather and socialize and we scheduled a trip to town midway through the retreat, as a way to break the inevitable cabin fever from being cooped up all week. And, of course, we had the obligatory closing dinner and party on the final evening.

Tip #7: Retreat facilitators should write as well.

Even though we facilitated the retreat, we also wanted to SUAW ourselves! This was possible, but not to the same degree as participants, since facilitating meant taking care of a hundred different practical things each day. Nonetheless, participants said that they were glad the two of us also SUAWed and participated in feedback sessions, commenting they felt this reinforced the spirit of the retreat to see facilitators also taking their own writing seriously. So if you decide to facilitate a writing retreat, do plan to participate as well, but perhaps bring a writing project that can tolerate interruptions.  

Tip #8: Organize your own retreat and/or writing groups!

We hope to organize a second Dr. Deaf writing retreat, but there is no need to wait until that happens! Seek each other out in your university/city/region/country and set up a retreat or regular writing groups, in real life or online.  

And now, shut up and write!


Maartje De Meulder is lecturer and senior researcher at University of Applied Sciences Utrecht.

Joseph Murray is Professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.