Turn off email, put your phone into airplane mode, and write

Steven Vaughan has been experimenting with a new way of writing, and despite the odd bit of cheating, it's going very well

July 5, 2016
Person writing letter with metal quill

I am currently writing this in the final "pomodoro" of a one-day writing retreat. Earlier in the year, and from Twitter, I had seen that my friend John Flood was on a two-day writing retreat with his Griffith University Law School colleagues.

It looked fun, and, and perhaps more importantly, like he (and his colleagues) actually got some writing done. It’s a funny time of year. Exams and marking are done, the exam boards are (sort of) over and there is, ahead of us, an expanse of time over the summer (greater in theory than in practice) for "research".

I’d been chatting a lot with colleagues who were anxious about starting writing, who didn’t know where or when or how to start.

I knew I certainly had one or two (or a dozen) things I was putting off doing. And I thought that our own writing retreat might be a good place to get that lead. 

This is the email I sent to colleagues in February: 

The purpose of this email is to gain a sense of potential interest in a Birmingham Law School writing retreat. The idea is that those who wanted to would go 'away' (on or off campus) for a day or two to focus on a specific bit of research writing they wanted to get done. This could involve formal and informal feedback sessions on drafts or bits of drafts, sharing/pitching ideas to each other, working on intra-BLS research collaborations (our own Law School 'sandpits'), gaining insights from writers/other outsiders etc.

About 15 people came back to me, mostly early career researchers. The director of research was supportive and found money for a one-day, on-campus (but away from the Law School) retreat. 

At the start of the day, our colleague, Karen McAuliffe, Skyped in from her home in Germany to tell us about Shut Up and Write Tuesdays – a virtual group of academics she is part of who meet up (virtual-like) every Tuesday to get a bit of writing done. Those taking part tell the others what they are going to work on, they then work on it over the course of an hour (in two 25 minute pomodoro blocks) and then, once done, people tell each other what they managed to achieve.

This might be anything from a couple of sentences to a full page of text. The point is not about who writes the most, or the best, but about writing in a community with some sense of accountability (telling people what you are planning to do, doing some work, and then saying what you managed to get done). 

After Karen had explained the method, and we’d told each other what we were going to work on for one 25 minute block, she set a timer and, as a group, we had a go. Twenty-five minutes of silence while a room of 12 worked separately, together. It was, to be frank, a bit weird at first.

My natural way of working is to do a bit of cutting and pasting in Microsoft Word, check email every five seconds, tweet about RuPaul/baking/legal ethics (delete according to the day/hour), go for coffee with friends and so on. I am a natural born procrastinator.

But, for 25 minutes, I turned off email, put my phone into airplane mode, and ignored Twitter. And in 25 minutes I got something done. Not loads, not by any account. But I did manage the first(ish) draft of an introduction to an article.

When the timer went off, it was interesting how others had experienced the passage of time. I felt the 25 minutes had gone on and on and on; for others it was if only a couple of minutes had passed. But we had all accomplished something (and we all clapped each other for our achievements, which felt a bit like Snaps for Elle from Legally Blonde, but was actually really nice and warming). And then we had baked cake and drank coffee. 

We took the view that we would carry on using the same sort of method for the rest of day. This is now pomodoro number eight. Eight sessions of 25 minutes working in silence.

We abandoned the verbalising of what we were going to do in each session (perhaps a mistake) and I know I "cheated" at least once and looked at Twitter, but today I have managed to do about half of the rework of an article I have been putting off for ages. And that is great. But what has perhaps been the best bit has been the sense of community, of a common endeavour.

I loved being a corporate lawyer. I just loved it. And one of the many things I loved (first-class cross-Atlantic travel, and a six figure salary excluded) was the sense of camaraderie, of working in a team. So much of what I do now as an academic is incredibly lonely. I write and research by myself. Even when I write with a co-author, the loneliness is still there (but ameliorated somewhat). I plan and deliver lectures by myself.

Today has been lovely in large part for the fact that I have been in a room with my colleagues, all of whom I really like, all working together, but separately, and have had occasions (every 25 minutes or so) for coffee, for chat, for cake, for talking to each other and feeling part of a community. I can’t recall the last time I felt like this.

Away Days often have agendas that are about the whole school and its direction of travel (the REF (research excellence framework), a curriculum review etc). Such days are important. But today has been about us as individual scholars, about our own individual intellectual curiosities, but done in a way that has been inclusive, supportive and together.

I’m already planning my cake for the next one.

Steven Vaughan is a senior lecturer in the Law School at the University of Birmingham.

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