Make Writing Work: 5 tips about planning your writing retreat

People often ask us how we stay productive in our writing. The answer, hands-down is that we make time for it. While we make time throughout the week for writing, we also schedule two major, in-person, writing retreats a year to focus on in-depth writing and planning. Here are some tips for productive writing retreats:

1. First and foremost go ahead and schedule it. No time will be perfect, so chose a time and put it on the calendar.

Our team meets weekly via the Zoom video-conferencing system. As we near August and January we put an item on the agenda for our weekly meeting to find a date that works for all three of us. Generally, we will know our travel schedules for the following 4 months by then and can identify one or two sets of travel dates. Once we’ve checked with spouses to make sure child care is covered we will pick a final set of dates (two to four days depending on travel), book a place to stay, and make travel arrangements if we need to fly.

2. Away from the office is best. Go ahead and schedule it in a place that isn’t your “norm”. Pay for the plane tickets or put a deposit down. Do whatever it takes to make you accountable to get away from your regularly scheduled life and make it happen.

We choose a location that’s either in the middle of our two states or a direct flight for one side or the other. We’ve gone to Iowa three times (Ames, Mason City, and De Moines) because it’s a good halfway point between Kansas (Cheryl and Lauri) and Minnesota (Hikaru). Other times we’ve met away from the office, but in-state (Kansas City, St. Paul). The key is to be far enough away from home to be able to focus on the task at hand and enjoy each others company without rushing home to help with household needs. [Inexpensive flights also play a key role.] We find that we’re most creative when we’re together in person and have the freedom to brainstorm whenever and wherever, which is always fun for us!

Think about resources you might need, as well. While the farmhouse in Mason City, Iowa was certainly “away” and was physically a good set up, it also didn’t have a great internet connection. We can do a lot of brainstorming and writing in the absence of the internet, but at some point we will need to be online for resources.

3. Create an agenda. Having a plan for what you will work on at a specific time will help you use all of your time wisely. This also helps you know if you have enough time scheduled to complete all of your writing tasks. You can stray from the agenda if some things take longer than expected, but make sure you keep track of what doesn’t get done so you can get to it at a later time.

Make a list of all upcoming projects, components or pieces of these projects, and if there are other people who need to be involved. It can be productive to meet with other collaborators when we’re together and there are slots on the agenda to bring them into the discussion. By the end of the retreat, you’ll be able to report on progress for each of your goals. We are often ambitious with what we’d like to accomplish on these retreats, but even if we don’t meet all of our goals, we always move things forward significantly.

4. Give everyone an assignment. Writing has some collaborative parts, like brainstorming and outlining, but everyone needs a specific job to make action happen.

These tasks can differ by the project and the particular focus areas of team members. Grant proposals, refereed (peer reviewed) journal articles, trade magazine articles, presentations and other creative works require different skill sets at each stage of the process. Fortunately for us, our team strengths dovetail nicely and we’re able to work on pieces that speak to our strengths before passing off to the next person. Tag–you’re it!

Divide up these responsibilities at the beginning stages of each part of the agenda. That way each participant can choose the task they’re most prepared for and interested in. Once they’ve completed or passed off their task they can choose another from the list or ask if anyone needs help. We’re never bored.

5. Leave time for team building. Writing works best when you are comfortable with each other and recognize what things you’re best at and what someone else may be better at than you.

A good example for this is how we’ve written this blog post. Lauri is great at getting things going while Cheryl dislikes starting from a blank slate. Lauri drafted the outline of this post and detailed the five tips and Cheryl filled in the details with examples. This often happens in our writing work. Since we are such close friends and colleagues, we easily follow each other’s train of thought. The variety of our backgrounds and scientific specialties adds just the right amount of diversity to our team thought processes, which results in strong writing productivity.

While we have fun together no matter what we’re doing, it also helps to go off site for some exploration and adventure. In Mason City, we visited Birdsall Ice Cream. In Minnesota this last spring (during the historic snowstorm in April) we braved the weather to have dinner at an authentic family Italian restaurant, and later, we hauled our computers around the Mall of America while hunting for the Amazon delivery lockers (out of the blizzard!). Fun can be mixed with work, as is often the case for the CREE team. When professional interests, purpose, and drive blend well, it’s a recipe for a satisfying and enjoyable work life. What works for you? Have you found “your people”?

Leave a Reply