The Week-Long Dissertation Writing Retreat: Notes from the Consultants
We just finished our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University Writing Center. During the week of May 19-23, 14 writers from nine different disciplines took part, meeting every day to write and talk about writing. While some writers were in the early stages of their project and others were close to finishing, they were all provided with time to write and feedback on their writing. Each day the participants had several hours set aside for writing and then time for a one-hour consultation about their writing with a member of the Writing Center staff. In addition there were daily writing workshops on topics such as organizing a large writing project, writing a literature review, and working with committee comments.
The consultants who work during the Dissertation Writing Retreat are experienced writing teachers who are also PhD students currently working on their dissertations. Here are some of their thoughts about the work that took place during the week.
On developing writing strategies, aside from just making time to write:
While the dedicated writing time is often the benefit participants say is most helpful, another important benefit that I think often goes unnoticed until after the retreat is the development of writing strategies. Aside from developing dedicated writing time, it is important to have a plan, and more often multiple plans, for approaching writing and approaching the different tasks of a dissertation. The writing consultants work with retreat participants to practice and develop different techniques and strategies and for thinking about others that might work. For example, this year I worked with one participant on creating outlines both before and after writing. Starting with an outline can help you identifying which pieces fit into a chapter, but sometimes when we’re writing we get stuck thinking about what fits or not and end up not writing anything. In that case, it’s a good idea to just write what you have and then see what needs to stay, what needs developed more, and what belongs in another chapter or maybe even a different publication. So, while the retreat’s immediate reward may be time and more words produced, we hope–or I hope, at least–that the more beneficial reward is the writing strategies that can be applied to the dissertation and future writing projects. ~Ashly Bender
On remembering to take care of yourself while dissertation:
Last week, I worked as a consultant at the Dissertation Writing Retreat. We were all at different stages of dissertation, but, by and large, we all started to see that the biggest challenge we faced was to remember that we needed, first and foremost, to care for ourselves as we dissertated. That we needed to give ourselves moments of rest. We needed to acknowledge even small victories. We had to remember to ask for what we need.
In other words, we all realized that there could be no dissertation without self-care and self-advocacy.
It seems to me that this is true of all writing situations. s important to remember self-care actions, such as:
- Set small goals (100 words per day), and then provide small rewards when you meet them (one episode of a favorite TV show; one hour to do absolutely nothing school-related, etc.).
- Always schedule in time for real rest. Schedule at least one, free weekend day per week. Or one full week during the summer. Take time away from the project. Allow yourself to recharge and incubate ideas.
- Take time to visit your notes, and “throw-away” pages. Show yourself how much work you really have done.
On how academics really manage to complete projects:
During a late morning workshop on Thursday, I talked with participants about ways to maintain the habit of writing after the retreat. What they said reminded me of several important principles around completing academic writing projects. Many of the participants appreciated how the DWR structured a set time and place for writing. Committing to this routine meant that writing would not be an irregular event, but rather a habit. Participants also mentioned how they appreciated the group dynamic of the retreat as a form of accountability. Surrounded by other academic writers who were similarly working toward a set of goals provided motivation to continue – and at least one small group in the retreat committed to maintaining regular writing together in the weeks to come. And finally, several participants noted the value of talking to others about their writing. In reference to the daily afternoon meetings with writing consultants, the participants said that talking one-to-one about their projects became an important strategy for addressing challenges and setting goals. This rewarding discussion reminded me that completing academic projects has much less to do with how “smart” we are as academics, and much more with committing to working on a regular basis, developing and using strategies when we get stuck, and making sure to build in time for regular discussions with others about our work.
On project planning and the early stages of dissertation work:
I worked with two math education dissertation writers. Both were working on their proposals, which are due in August. I liked working with them at this stage as they are still making their way through the literature and methodologies. This was different than past retreats which participation stipulated a defended proposal. I liked this earlier stage in the process because I could help talk them through the lit review as well as scheduling out short and long term goals. The proposal stage is all about getting your bearings and this is what they needed help with most. As someone who is in the same boat as them, the beginning stages of writing this document, I learned a lot just from talking with them about their writing fears and challenges. And I think that talking helped them get writing.
On writing in a collaborative atmosphere:
This past week at the Dissertation Writing Retreat has taught me a surprising amount about the collaborative side of dissertation writing—a concept which I think contradicts what many of us think about writing, and especially in this rather peculiar genre. As a consultant, I began the week with few assumptions about the work ahead of me, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself paired with two students who had remarkably clear ideas about what their projects entailed, and what thoughts would need to go into the writing to get their arguments across. These students, it seemed to me, didn’t need a lot of coaching to get the work written, or even a lot of effort to make their writing read easily. Both brought that to the table on the first day. What they did need was just someone to receive those ideas as an uninitiated reader (uninitiated, at least, to their specific fields and projects), who could then bounce back the most salient ideas to them. I’m fond of automobile analogies, and to me this process felt very much like taking these projects for a “test drive” every day—I would take up whatever new ideas they had presented for the day, do a spin around the block in them, and then report back to their authors what was working and what might need more tweaking.
As a student currently working on my own dissertation, this test drive process was both enjoyable and informative. I was always happy to take a break from my own project for a few hours; to get out of my car and try a new one for a bit. I also learned quite a bit from seeing the process play out in someone else’s shoes. When,–after a day that saw a lot of suggestions on re-organization of points with both of my clients–I met with my own director and was given the same feedback, I realized pretty quickly how necessary it is to have a “test driver” on your team, who can exist outside of your project until you bring them in for specific testing.
We often think of writing as a solitary practice, and I feel like the drafting of a thesis or dissertation often feels even more so. But this week has made it abundantly clear to me that we all need a team to help us out from time to time; that we are, in fact, engineers who are designing a kind of textual machine that needs to work on the road, or in the field. I was happy to serve on two such teams this past week, and going forward with my own project, I feel more certainty about how to use my own.
On the joys of the retreat:
One of the best things I saw this year at the Retreat was how much the graduate students enjoy interacting with each other. I loved to see them share their advice about how they handled certain steps in the writing process, from organizing all of their research to how to structure certain chapters. We do a lot as consultants, but I think a lot of the benefits of the Retreat for graduate students is how much they can learn from each other’s experiences as well.