If you have specialized training in a profession, discipline, or art, you have a depth of knowledge and related skills, but you may not always have the tools you need to communicate what you know in a way others will understand.
For scholars, written communication is particularly crucial.
It can also be a real challenge.
To help our scholars build and hone their writing skills—so they can finish dissertations, publish journal articles, and communicate the importance of their research to policymakers and others—we have started hosting writing retreats.
Each retreat brings together a small group of HPRS scholars for a weekend of intensive writing. During the retreat, each scholar works on a proposal, dissertation, or article manuscript and is assigned a writing coach who provides feedback throughout the weekend. Scholars also have the opportunity to read and respond to each other’s work. The constructive, supportive process helps scholars make major improvements to their writing projects and develop longer-term strategies for overcoming writing obstacles.
Following our first two retreats—held in Detroit and Austin—we asked a scholar and a writing coach to share some reflections on their retreat experiences.
Alberto Cifuentes, Jr., of HPRS cohort 2018 had this to say about his time in Austin:
I applied for the writing retreat because I knew I needed to increase my self-discipline and do a better job avoiding distractions. I also needed a supportive community of other writers who have struggled with similar issues.
My peer reviewer—a doctoral student from a totally different discipline—gave me precise, illuminating feedback that significantly improved the piece I was working on. My coach and peer reviewer both helped me see ways to improve my writing, including word choice, idea organization, and brevity.
I also learned that I can write in small chunks of time, instead of “binge writing.” Now I know that I don’t need to “find” the time to write. Rather, I need to allot the time and make it part of my everyday schedule. I am now able to set more concrete daily goals for my research and writing.
Alberto offered these recommendations for others who are interested in taking a new approach to honing their skills:
Listen carefully to the feedback offered by your coaches and peers, and welcome their suggestions with open arms.
Shed your perfectionism. Being a perfectionist has led me to procrastinate most of my academic career. At the retreat, I learned to tame that “inner writing demon” and feel more comfortable with the iterative, self-reflective process of writing.
Adeola Sonaike of Culture of Health Leaders cohort 2016 joined our first two retreats as a coach. She described the weekends as “rewarding, empowering, and insightful” and shared these reflections on her role:
As a coach, I tailor my approach to the individual needs of each scholar. I come to each retreat with an open mind, so I can support each scholar independently and they can leave the retreat having accomplished at least one of their goals.
In my experience, the most effective approach is to create a safe space by meeting scholars exactly where they are in their writing process. I work to align my assistance and support with their individual goals. I also encourage reflection and help scholars identify strategies that are most helpful in their writing process. Once we have identified what works, I provide a level of accountability for them.
The best part about the retreat is the sense of community. I often tell the scholars that I wish these retreats had existed when I was working on my dissertation. It’s easy to get lost in the literature and the dissertation process can be isolating. Having a strong support system is key. The HPRS writing retreats foster opportunities to develop those systems.
For anyone interested in being a writing coach, Adeola offered this advice:
Arrive with an open mind. Scholars are often receiving input and direction from multiple sources, especially when working with multi-disciplinary committees. This can often result in them feeling stuck. As a coach, you want to support your scholars and help them sort through all the feedback they receive objectively so they can proceed and envision a path forward.
The scholars I have had the opportunity to work with are truly skilled and highly knowledgeable in their fields. Reminding them of that often helps get them back on track with their goal in sight.
We thank Alberto and Adeola for sharing their experiences and we look forward to welcoming other scholars and coaches to our future Writing Retreats!
Please stay tuned for more information on these unique, collaborative gatherings.