Prepping for a writing retreat (Tseen Khoo)

Image by Mark Olsen |

It's the tail end of Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo) and we've just held our regular, much-anticipated 3-day writing retreat. 

Over these days, about fifty researchers gathered to focus and write. Many were working on sections of dissertations or drafting papers and book chapters, others were responding to reviewers' comments or editing first drafts, still others were rewriting grant applications or final project reports. It's usually an extremely productive time for participants and many returnees declare it the highlight of their year for writing momentum. 

Three days is a long time to devote to writing and it really helps you make the most of it if you prepare well. There are several necessary elements that will determine whether you'll be making the most of your retreat time. 

I canvassed various researchers who are RED Writing Retreat stalwarts and fans, most of whom were at the one we've just completed. I asked what kinds of preparation tips and strategies they'd suggest for others who are wanting to make the most of the retreat. They very generously offered the following gems. 

If you're thinking of attending a writing retreat, these are excellent points for reflection and wise ways to take action! 

Phil Maude, a Professor in the La Trobe Rural Health School, says: 

"To make the most out of the writing retreat do some pre-preparation. Have some goals set and think about what you need to do in preparation for writing. That might be gathering literature and critiquing it, or setting out an outline for your writing. If it is a journal article, make sure you have identified beforehand the journal you intend submitting to and know the submission requirements. This will save you a lot of time. You want to be able to write during the retreat and the more prep you put in before, the more you will be able to focus on writing. 

The other thing to know is that the retreat is fun, inclusive, and supportive but it can be tiring. So, do reward yourself with snacks, keep the fluids up, and take the opportunities to break, stretch, and even dance a little during the retreat activities."  

Ilan Abrahams, a PhD researcher in the School of Psychology and Public Health, responded with this succinct list:  

  • Respect the way your brain works and go with it (regarding snacks, naps, start times end times etc.). You will know the difference between when you are going with your flow and when you are avoiding your wholehearted path.  
  • Don't be afraid to ask for what you need from other writers and the RED team. Chances are,  they'll be more than happy to oblige or might want it, too. 
  • Complex, good work takes a long time. Three days is not that long, so be realistic about what you might achieve. 

Lael Ridgway, a PhD researcher in the School of Nursing and Midwifery's Judith Lumley Centre, had a wealth of advice to share and I'm questioning why I didn't just ask Lael to write me a whole post! Here's her take on how to prepare for a three-day writing retreat: 

1. “Book it in, Danno!”

  • Waiting only gives you an opportunity to fill the free spaces the way we always seem to do

2. Protect the time and recognise its value

  • Treat it like a conference you’ve paid for and are presenting at – you’ve really committed to it now, so you’ve gotta do it. 
  • Remind yourself, the retreat is work/study time and it’s appropriate for you to be there. 
  • Make it official – tell colleagues you’re participating in a university-supported retreat and won’t be available for three days. Put an out-of-office response on your email if necessary. Invite your colleagues to make it a department ‘thing’.
  • Tell your family and friends that you’ll be available in the breaks but they might need to call on another person instead of you while you’re ‘away’. 

3. Prepare

  • Find work you’ve had trouble completing or getting started on but is always in your head. A paper, a chapter, an application, data analysis? Doesn’t matter. The protected time for focussed work is what you’re looking for. 
  • Find a dedicated space that you don’t have to pack up at the end of the day (if you can). Make sure it includes the tools and resources you need to get – and keep – going.

4. Set goals

  • What’s realistic for you to get done in this time? It might not get finished but you can make a big dent in it and getting started can get the ‘elephant’ off your back. 

5. Bring your enthusiasm (and snacks)

6. Don’t forget self-care. Move and hydrate regularly

7. Celebrate all achievements

You too can be the eminent/interesting/enlightened writer your emails think you are!


So, there you have it - three wise views on making the most of writing retreat time. If you want to read more about the whys and wherefores of writing retreats, here are a couple of links to posts about the idea of writing retreats in academia - one is very practical and the other is excellent stimulus for justifying your retreat planning: 


Dr Tseen Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in research education and development with the RED team at La Trobe University. Melbourne. She researches in the field of critical university studies and has published on early career researcher experiences, digital academic identities, and racial diversity issues. 

Tseen created and manages the Research Whisperer with Jonathan O'Donnell. She's on Mastodon at and not really on Twitter at @tseenster.