tisdag 16 januari 2018

Our writing camp (workshop)


I participated in my department's "writing camp" last week. For 48+ hours (lunch-to-lunch from Wednesday to Friday) me and two dozen of my colleagues lived together, worked together and consorted together. It really was a great event and a special thanks goes to Kia Höök (and Henrik Artman) who organized the event!

We were at a hotel/conference center near Stockholm (Skogshem & Wijk) and were consequently pampered from the minute we arrived (lunch) until we left (after lunch). With food, coffee breaks and everything else provided to us, we could fully concentrate on working together with our own and each others' texts. We had been prepared in advanced by Kia sending use these instructions:

You might wonder what to bring to the Writing Camp in January? From last year’s Writing Camp, I think we learnt what to bring: 

1. An abstract that you aim to turn into a short or full paper - that is, the research is done, the analysis of the data is done, but the paper is not yet in place. 

2. A semi-finished or rejected paper that you aim to polish to make it perfect


For those who did not come last year

We use the same method as for agile programming. In the morning, you set yourself some goals that you declare in front of the whole group. You then work in pairs, checking in with one-another repeatedly during the day, getting feedback on your writing. We reconvene in the afternoon, checking which goals were met, discussing how to work even better the day after.

The next day, you might end up in a different pair. But otherwise, same procedure. All in all, you write loads, and you get to know a couple of people really well. We’ll also add some fun stuff in the evening.

Some worked on the same text for three texts while I personally worked with three different texts during the three different days (a paper that has been submitted, an application and a brand new paper). I was paired up with a post-doc the first day (someone I didn't know at all before the writing camp) and a ph.d. student who is finishing up her thesis the second day. We basically spent a number of 120-minute cycles as follows: 80 minutes for individual writing, 20 minutes for reading/commenting each others' texts and 10 minutes each discussing and providing feedback on each other's texts. In this case, 2/3 of a two-hour block is used to produce text and the last 1/3 is set aside for feedback.

Me and my colleague Elina worked together on the third day and got a lot of work done; first by brainstorming and developing an idea we'd hatched a few weeks earlier and then by creating a structure (for the short paper we plan to submit to Computing within Limits in February).

I can see that it could be beneficial to be paired up with the same person if you are going to work on the same text for three days (no start-up phase during subsequent days), but I think it's much better to be paired up with different persons each day if you plan to spend time working on different texts - if for no other reason than the fact that you can work with and get to know three different persons.

To be totally honest, I believe I'm quite disciplined as a writer and that I could probably get more high-quality text written if I block the time and sit by myself (for example at the Royal Library - where this text is written). But I didn't go to the writing camp to maximize the quantitative output of raw text but first and foremost because it's a fun thing to do and because I (presumptuously?) believe I have something to contribute when it comes to writing academic texts. The general rule at the writing camp was that "seniors" (faculty) were paired up with "juniors" (ph.d. students and post-docs) and that people from different research groups were paired up so that you got to work with people you usually don't.

I definitely think that the writing camp was one of the more meaningful activities we have done together at my department for a long time. I'd say that we otherwise usually gather in larger groups only to discuss various administrative matters. A writing camp - where finishing a paper and honing your writing skills is the only thing on the schedule - instead goes to the core as it improves a skill set we are all supposed to master. This is what we are supposed to be able to do as researchers. Writing is for all of us intensely meaningful - as apart from taking part of the latest statements about the organizational goals that the president of the university wishes to communicate to her underlings. To be clear: I'm not saying that the organizational goals are unimportant, just that they are not as intensely meaningful (for example for a ph.d. student or a post-doc) as the latest text or the writing skills are for us as researchers. These are our tools; we use them on a daily basis, we need to master them and the fact that there is always more to learn is simultaneously a blessing and a curse.

And then there was the outdoor pool with 32-degree water, the sauna, the bar, the excellent food, the invited surprise guest and so on. My impression was that everybody who attended the writing camp was really happy about it, and, we have since (already) decided to organized "Funding Proposal Writing Days" in March. That will be a less costly event as we will not be at a conference center and the only extracurricular activity the department has to pay for is a dinner. Still, the timing is great for those who plan to hand in an application to The Swedish Research Council's annual open call. I  haven't planned to do so and I'm on a sabbatical so it might be that I will skip that event. But I still fully support it!

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