Friday, January 24, 2020

Writing Retreats


This last fall, my students organized a writing retreat at the McGill University Gault Nature Reserve on Mt. St. Hilaire. We all had such an amazingly positive and productive experience that I wanted to tell all the PIs out there about it – and all the students too – so that they can lobby their Profs for something similar.


In the hopes of creating a shared experience, we decided that everyone would, then and there, start and (ideally) finish the draft of the introduction to a new paper that they needed/wanted to write based on data they had or were collecting. To further generate a shared narrative, I started by presenting my baby – werewolf – silver bullet metaphor for writing papers: detailed here. We challenged ourselves to – within 15-20 min – each come up with a single sentence for the baby (what people care about with respect to the overall topic of your paper), a single sentence for the werewolf (something that is not well understood about, or is a problem with, that topic), and a single sentence for the silver bullet (how a study can fill that understanding and therefore kill the werewolf and save the baby).

Each student then quickly presented their baby-werewolf-silver bullet sequence to the group for rapid feedback. Then it was off to the races. Each student worked on expanding their ideas into a true introduction while I circled around the room from one person to another to provide help and advice and to quickly read over what was being written. Babies came and went to be replaced with other, more adorable, babies. Werewolves were found to be not very scary – or unkillable – and so were replaced with other werewolves. Silver bullets were polished and refined. Introductions took shape.
 
Then it was time for an awesome chilli dinner and then trivia (biodiversity related) and scientific karaoke (each student randomly presented the research of another student based on 1-3 slides provided by that student). Then we told war stories from the field until late in the evening (early in the next morning). Ticks. Bears. Snakes. Cliffs. Bear attacks. Deer attacks. The next morning we continued our work, had a good walk and headed back to the real world.


We all really liked this writing retreat. I had a great time working with everyone on the formative stages of their papers. The students enjoyed hearing how each other student’s work could be interpreted in the context of a baby-werewolf-silver bullet context. Several students noted that it was hard to get writer’s block because quickly exchanging ideas with me or the other students would immediately allow them to progress down new avenues. We all felt excited about writing and invigorated about our various writing projects.

This enthusiasm has continued to the implementation of follow-up mini-writing retreats. Now, every Friday, we reserve a room in the graduate student house at McGill and continue the process. Students sit around at table or on couches and – simply – write. I walk around, have a seat by one or another, read their work, discuss their ideas, and just all around enjoy the process.

Perhaps it isn’t too late to teach an old professor new tricks. My normal way of writing was to have meetings with students individually to discuss things, then they would go off and write, then I would receive the paper and edit it intensively by myself at home, then I would send it back, rinse and repeat. Now we will write papers – or at least parts of them – together. I can’t wait until next Friday afternoon. But, in the meantime, I had better get back to editing this MS that a student sent me.

How to Write a Thesis

 [ This piece is, supposedly, originally by one A. W. James, who seems to have been a professor in the Dept. of Biology at Canisius College ...