WriteFest 2022: creative spaces for Academic Writing

By Dr Jennifer Boyle, PGR Writing Adviser

A desk ornament - a white ceramic cube that reads 'write without fear, edit without mercy'

‘WriteFest’, a month-long celebration of academic writing, takes place every November. It began at the University of Sheffield in 2015 (as part of global Academic Writing Month), but has since expanded, and is offered by many universities across the UK. Although these universities will take many different approaches in terms of how they engage and what they offer in support of writing, the four broad themes of WriteFest are as follows:

  • Habits: Build a strong and flexible writing practice
  • Block: Analyse blocks to figure out what’s causing the problem, and then address the challenge
  •  Protect: Protect writing time
  •  Social: Write alongside others

The University of Glasgow took part again in November 2022, producing our biggest, most versatile and most collaborative programme ever! We themed each week, providing our own take on common barriers and concerns with writing, to help participants take an intentional and structured approach to the experience. We offered a range of ways to engage, with time built in throughout and afterwards for participants to reflect on what they had taken from each class or event and how they could use this to adapt their own writing practices and their broader relationship with writing.

The weekly themes were tied into the broader WriteFest themes and were as follows:

  • Practical matters – tech and time-management techniques to both build a healthy writing practice and address any challenges or hindrances to writing.
  • Self-reflection – time and space to reflect on habits and patterns, how these might impact writing, and to consider how outside pressures might impact writing time.
  • Specific genres and skills – different genres and skills which might not be explicitly ‘taught’ but knowledge of which can play a role in feeling integrated into the wider community of research writers.
  • Alternative approaches – different genres of writing allow researchers to try different means of expressing themselves and discussing their research.

These themes were explained and explored in an online resource created for PGRs which introduced the topics, outlined the workshop programme, provided resources, pulled together plentiful on campus and online spaces (using Zoom, Discord, and padlet) for writing, and  offered alternative spaces for sharing writing goals and progress.

Our festival included a central spine of workshops on, for example, using new techniques to inform writing practice: ideas from creative non-fiction writing; using tech and apps to structure writing time, academic blogging, and much more. As we anticipated, demand was very high for all kinds of writing support. The embedded workshops, related to each theme, proved popular throughout the month. Sessions were fully booked early, packed to the rafters, and several participants contacted us independently afterwards to both thank us for arranging the sessions and to request and discuss materials from the sessions.

This year we combined efforts and collaborated with other WriteFest universities across the UK! In addition to our on campus writing spaces, a programme of inter-university online ‘writing retreats’ (collective, social writing sessions) was running throughout the month, offered by Ulster University, University of Cambridge, University of Surrey, University of York, King’s College London, Brunel University London, and University of Brighton. Institutions offered sessions of various size and duration, some of which were open to research staff as well as to postgraduate researchers. These sessions, providing protected time and space to write, were popular, and almost every session was fully booked only a couple of hours after having been advertised.

Both on-campus and online retreats for PGRs did, however, suffer from the perennial problem of all writing retreats: high enthusiasm beforehand, but then low attendance on the day, as other tasks become prioritised over writing. This is by no means unique to the varied and flexible sessions offered throughout WriteFest, or at University of Glasgow alone, but wasted spaces are always frustrating.

Thanks to the brilliant idea of Misha Campello Gramelius (one of our fantastic PGR Interns in the Research Culture and Researcher Development Team) a Discord server was created to allow UofG researchers to create their own online writing spaces. This idea has a lot of potential, and it aimed to provide a resource for creating writing spaces in the longer term. There are many possibilities here for PGRs who might particularly value the opportunity to create their own online space for writing, and this concept will definitely be revisited as we plan for WriteFest 2023. In addition, using Discord as a breakout space, or a forum to continue conversations and build communities after the various events could also be a valuable enhancement. We definitely intend to make more of Discord moving forward.

Looking forward there were many new aspects of this year’s WriteFest that will be adapted and adopted to become part of our regular writing development programmes. The most important of these is a series of regular, online, inter-university writing retreats. Although these present administration challenges and require us to proactively engage and encourage attendance to avoid wasted places, there is a core audience who benefit greatly from regular social writing spaces.

Importantly, as a team we are taking time to reflect on the experiences of our researchers, not only to support them, but their supervisors, their PIs and other supporting players operating across the researcher development space, such as our postdoc Thesis Mentors and our partners in the College Graduate Schools. Embedding tried and trusted technique into regular supervisions, into mentoring conversations, and into local support all makes for the embedded and aligned approach which is central to thriving and productive writing cultures.

To discuss any aspect of our UofG WriteFest, please get in touch with Dr Jennifer Boyle at the University of Glasgow, or to run your own festival next year, join the ‘WriteFest’ mailing list at https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/.

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