For the last week I have been away on a holiday/writing retreat in the Highlands, a chance to get away from Edinburgh and my usual daily routines, and focus on getting some solid chunks of writing done. In this post I am going to talk a little bit about the benefits of planning your own writing retreat, how I have found the experience, and finding the work/life balance when the thesis word count isn’t rising as fast as you would like it to. Spoiler alert – I am writing this by the fire in a little cottage near Loch Ness surrounded by a couple of sleepy dogs as snow (ok, sleet) falls outside the window – so it is safe to say I am generally a fan of this writing retreat business.
As previously mentioned I am now in the final year of my PhD, but for various reasons I do not have as much writing done as I would have liked at this point. Some people measure the progress of a PhD by word count, and though in the past I have let this worry me, I increasingly try not to compare myself with others. Yes, I would like to have more words on the page, but I would not sacrifice my museum internship, conference planning or social life in order for that to have happened. I would also add that the time I have spent planning, researching, re-planning, scrapping and starting again has not been time wasted, and I have learned not to feel guilty if at the end of the day if I haven’t achieved all I’d hoped. However, with my deadline looming a little larger, in January I decided it was time to kick the writing up a gear. Planning this trip was part of that process.
Planning your own writing retreat
The idea of a writing retreat is, I think, quite romantic. For me the words conjure images of Austen-worthy writing desks, unlimited productivity and total isolation (in a good way) from the outside world. There are a number of official writing retreats across Scotland which all sound lovely, a very useful list can be found on the website of the Scottish Book Trust. I imagine these kinds of trips would be a great way to tackle a chunk of the thesis, and would love to know if anyone has tried this while working on their PhD. It is also nice to plan your own trip, whether with other PhDs, friends or family, always knowing that there will be at least one other writer there so that you can keep each other motivated.
I’ve been away this week with my friend and fellow SGSAH PhD student Maxine, plus our partners and dogs. This was perfect, as the boys could enjoy exploring the beautiful surroundings of Loch Ness and tiring out the dogs, while we got work done. This has mostly worked out well, with most days following the routine of timed writing sessions interspersed with meals and quick trips into the village for a change of scene. The Forest app – which I wrote about in this earlier blog post – has been crucial to keeping us focused and also documenting how productive we have been each day. (This could be subbed for another timer/Pomodoro style app – see the ‘stay focused’ section of this blog post.) This week we’ve had to been strict with ourselves when we’d rather be out looking for Nessie, visiting Urquhart Castle or reading Harry Potter by the fire – but have managed to keep each other in check. It should be noted, this style of trip would be much harder without someone there to hold you accountable!
We have also – and this is really important -given ourselves breaks. We took the whole day off on Sunday and went on an epic 11km walk ending up in the Dores Inn for a pub lunch, and this afternoon will be spent visiting the Black Isle Brewery and Glen Ord Distillery. (I’m also keeping everything crossed that we’ll be visiting Glen Bogle, AKA the Ardverikie Estate – Monarch of the Glen fans will understand – on the way home on Thursday.) This has meant that despite the total word tally, I also feel rested and like I’ve been on holiday. One of the best decisions I made was also to do as little admin as possible while away. I put out of office auto-replies on my various email accounts and have checked Twitter just once or twice a day. This has allowed me to feel far more focused on my writing, while simultaneously giving myself a bit of a break: my admin has reached something of peak lately with the conference and managing this blog on top of the usual stuff!
Finding the work/life balance
The work/life balance is a subject endlessly bemoaned by PhD students and ECRs, primarily because it is very difficult to truly escape from your research when you need a break. I am all for actual holidays and I think they are incredibly important while working on a PhD, whether you simply take a day off or head somewhere sunny for a couple of weeks. I do not feel guilty about taking holidays, or time off, because I am human and I need a break now and then. This week has, however, been a really nice mix of work and pleasure. I have managed to visit a new part of the world, work in a nice relaxing environment, avoid my inbox, eat my own body weight in cheese and whisky and write half a chapter. I’ll be heading back to reality with a little bit of a bump next week, but will try and keep up my focus and get less distracted by admin and social media while writing.
If you are able, I would definitely recommend a writing week away to any PhD students, particularly if you are well into the writing stage of your thesis. I’ve written between 1000 and 2000 words a day, so well over half my chapter is done. It’s certainly something I’d like to do again before I finish. My advice to anyone planning such a trip would be to plan in advance and have a set writing project lined up. Max, for example, had a large chapter that needed to be finished up, while I had the bones of a new chapter that I wanted to fill out as much as possible. We’d both done the research part, so it was simply a case of getting our heads down and doing it. It is also nice to treat yourself to somewhere comfortable to stay, with some distracting activities nearby for when you need to clear your mind. For me the writing holiday feels like the perfect work/life balance activity for the PhD student in their final year with a very long to-do list…
I’ll be back next week with a post about the SGSAH third year event, which takes place this Friday in Edinburgh. In the mean time, please get in touch if you are interested in contributing a post to this blog!