Writer development made accessible!

Teaching Fellow
University of Gent

Sarah Haas teaches at Ghent University and runs writer development courses (groups and retreats) in Belgium, the UK, Japan, and the US. Her interests lie in helping writers become self-directed, and in researching how this development happens.


This article gives a brief overview of some preliminary results of an in-progress illuminative evaluation (Parlett and Hamilton, 1972) of ‘Writer Development’ courses. The courses, which run at several European universities, were conceived and set up as a reaction to the perceived need for process-based scholarly writing instruction to complement readily available product-based courses (Lonka, 2003).

This article gives a brief overview of some preliminary results of an in-progress illuminative evaluation (Parlett and Hamilton, 1972) of ‘Writer Development’ courses. The courses, which run at several European universities, were conceived and set up as a reaction to the perceived need for process-based scholarly writing instruction to complement readily available product-based courses (Lonka, 2003).  Writer Development courses offer several input sessions (workshops) on various aspects of the writing/research process, along with the protected time of structured writers’ retreats (Murray, 2010). This combination gives participants time and space to put the information from the input sessions to use, and to advance their own research/writing projects.

The courses, which consist of two 2.5 day retreats spaced two months apart, and participant-led writers’ groups meeting between retreats, have generally been well-received, and have been successfully running for five years. Data from participant evaluations of the courses have been collected from the outset, and are now being used to conduct an ‘illuminative evaluation’ (Parlett and Hamilton, 1972; Sharp 1990; Fetterman, 2010), in this case, an investigation into what it is about the courses that seems to work for participants.  Data sources include post-retreat evaluation questionnaires (one likert-scale and one open-ended) and audio-recordings of end-retreat evaluation discussions.

The Likert-scale questionnaire asks participants to rate the components of the course from very useful to not at all useful, while the open-ended questionnaire asks for more qualitative data such as favourite/least favourite components, perceived short- and long-term benefits, and suggestions for improvement. The recorded discussions at retreats are un-structured, allowing participants to talk about anything they find important.

Although investigation is on-going, and the tentative indications below will need further validation, four themes have thus far emerged from the data. Two of these themes, ‘protected time’ and ‘social control’, serve to corroborate what has already been found to be beneficial about writers’ retreats and groups. The themes of ‘a takeaway tool for everyone’ and  ‘empathetic yet strict facilitators’ might, on the other hand, offer some additional insights.

Self-directed working hours: protected time and writing snacks

Self-directed working, where participants are all working on individual projects but are together in one room, makes up about two thirds of the course contact hours. These communal sessions combine the concepts of ‘protected time’ and ‘writing snacks’ (Murray, 2014).  They are built out of one-hour time slots (writing snacks) with goal-setting beforehand, and a de-brief afterwards, followed by a short break. The working time is unmonitored by the facilitator; participants decide individually what they will work on, and manage their own time during the hour (self-directed). The agreement is that everyone will stay seated and working: no one will leave or move around the room (unless absolutely necessary); phones are turned off; no one goes on the Internet; no one does any work unrelated to their writing/research project. Thus, the time is to be ‘protected’ for the project only.

These self-directed working hours are the component of the course that has been most consistently rated ‘very useful’ on the Likert-scale questionnaires (602 of the 625 questionnaire respondents). The agreement among participants that these hours will be protected and used only for research/writing has also been found to be important.

The contract: ‘social control’ and support

The agreement of all participants to consider not only the retreats themselves, but also the self-directed working hours within the retreat as protected time gives rise to what one participant called “social control”. Even though participants are unmonitored, the motivation to keep the agreement is created:

Anyone could easily ‘cheat’ if they wanted to, but there is this constructive pressure somehow this social control to keep work[ing] on [our] project[s]…or we would somehow be letting the others down…even though they wouldn’t know if [we weren’t] all following the rules. [Sometimes] I want to quit, but I look up and see others working, and then I realise I will just keep going (Participant, 2014).

Keeping the agreement seems to contribute to a feeling of community and trust, whereby participants find safety and common ground even if they are from completely different disciplines:

Because we’re all in this together, I feel like I’m part of a group…It’s good knowing that other people have the same struggles and how they handle it. We can [safely] name our demons and learn how to deal with them, get advice from each other, rather than thinking [the demons] shouldn’t be there and trying to get them to go away (Participant, 2014).

This feeling of community reported by the participants here supports other research on writers’ retreats that have been investigated from a community of practice perspective (Murray, 2012).

The workshop sessions: a takeaway toolbox for everyone

Although writers’ groups or retreats need no ‘teaching’ to be effective—simply writing in the company of others is beneficial to writers— the intention of the workshop components of the Writer Development course is to help participants become aware of how they themselves conceptualise and manage their own writing processes. Heightened awareness can lead writers to a better understanding of their own process; the understanding, along with strategies that can be adjusted to suit individual styles, can facilitate process optimisation, and ultimately help participants develop into confident, self-directed writers. The workshops include information on:

  • The writing process, and how writers differ (Haas, 2009, 2010).
  • Global structuring of text, using well-known patterns (Haas, 2012).
  • Giving feedback on academic output. Feedback techniques are practiced on abstracts and pecha-kucha presentations (Klentzin et al. 2010).

The focus in the course is on non-evaluative techniques as a complement to more widely known evaluative ones (Elbow, 2000). See for example: Elbow and Belanoff’s Sharing and Responding (1989); Edge’s Cooperative Development (1992; 2002); and ‘analytic discourse’ from the Action Research tradition such as highlighted in Sagor (2000).

  • Setting up writers’ groups (Haas, 2014).
  • Writers’ logs for making writing a reflective practice, and for documenting process and development (see for example Swartzendruber-Putnam, 2000).
  • Self-regulation strategies (Zimmerman and Risemberg, 1997).
  • Goal-setting (Murray, 2014, 2011, 2014)
  • Distraction awareness.

One notable thread that is beginning to surface from the qualitative data regarding the workshop sessions is that there is benefit in making the tacit explicit. Naming the things we do take can have the effect of turning general actions into specific tools that we can choose to use at certain times, rather than something that just happens without conscious thought: The following two participant reflections were taken from recorded group discussions:

Now that I have names for the things I do, I feel a lot more comfortable about knowing what I’m doing. I can make it all more manageable. I’m not scared of writing up anymore. (Participant, 2014).

None of the things I learned on the course were earth-shatteringly new. Some of them seemed just obvious, but, you know, obvious in the way that gravity is obvious to everyone after someone took the time to point it out. But making conscious the things I am doing, and having names on them, like the parts of the writing process and the [text] patterns, this really helps me think of what I’m doing and then I can manage it better…control it. Now I have some tools for that (Participant, 2014).

What is striking about the results of the perceived usefulness ratings of the varied workshop sessions is that not all of the ‘tools’ work equally well for everyone; everyone seems to have different loves-and-loaths. There was almost always something from the course content (but never everything) that resonated with almost every participant (only three of the participants who responded said they found little value in the course), but what resonated with one participant did not necessarily resonate with the next.

While many respondents made comments on at least one component of the course being along the lines of ‘eye-opening’, for every person who found one input session particularly useful, there seems to be another who did not see the point of that same session. In the same cohort, comments such as:

The session on the writing process was a real eye-opener for me. I work so much more efficiently now. Naming the parts in the process is like magic (Participant, 2014).

Are almost invariably contrasted with,

I really didn’t get much out of the session on the writing process. It was too much stating the obvious and I don’t really see the purpose for it. I would have rather have spent the time working on my research (Participant, 2014).

This polarity was true of all the input sessions: Some people found great benefit in the feedback training; others found it a waste of time. Some found that the writers’ groups “changed their li[ves]”, others “didn’t really get anything out of [them]” (Participant, 2014). Other than the self-directed working time, there is not one component of the course that stands out as essential to all.  Neither is there one that was found useless by all, and thus obviously needs to be eliminated. The disagreement in perceived usefulness of input sessions made for interesting end-of-course evaluations. Participants were often surprised at what others found useful (or useless), and discussions on what was or was not good about the input sessions became quite rich because of the contrast.

Perhaps this simply underlines what is already known about writing (but we sometimes forget when we are teaching writing)—that it works differently for different writers. A tool or strategy that seems useless to one writer can be used to great effect by another. It might therefore be a good aim—rather than striving to give information that will be useful to everyone—to make the course pliable by providing a wide range of information and strategies so that we can be more likely to ensure that each writer “go[es] home with a box full of tools that will be useful not only for writing, but for all research [activity]” (Participant, 2014).

Synergetic contrast and flexibility are two concepts that might be useful not only when considering what input to include in writer development courses, but also when considering how to facilitate those courses.

The facilitators: knowledgeable yet flexible; supportive yet strict

It is always emphasised on retreats that a “teacherless writing classroom” (Elbow, 1998), with no facilitator, is at least as useful as one with a facilitator; that writers’ groups and retreats without a leader are indeed effective. A few participants supported this theory, stating that “having a facilitator can serve to take responsibility off the writer—and make [us] dependent on a leader when [we] should do it [ourselves]” (Participant, 2014). However, the presence of a facilitator seems to contribute somewhat to the success of the courses. From the open-ended questionnaires’ ‘other’ section were comments on the necessity of a facilitator, as well as what qualities a facilitator ought to have.

The sentiment that it is better to have a facilitator was expressed by comments such as:

I know in theory we should be able to book a place and go away for a few days and have a writing retreat. A [leader] shouldn’t be really necessary. But I doubt this would work the same way without one.  It almost gives you an excuse not to have your phone or check email if there is some authority telling you you can’t. Otherwise you’d feel guilty not doing it. Or people wouldn’t accept it as easily as they would if you say, ‘[they] won’t let me.’ (Participant, 2014).

Along with a ready-made excuse to break current social norms, a facilitator who knows about writing and writers also seems important:

[The facilitators] seem to know everything there is to know about writing a PhD thesis, yet never present anything as absolute. It’s always “you could try this, or maybe you should try that, or give this a try and see if it works” and then you can decide yourself if it’s going to work. Usually something does. But it’s important to me that I’m never told “this will work” because then if it doesn’t I feel like I’m doing something wrong, or there’s something wrong with me if it doesn’t[work] (Participant, 2014).

The facilitator, then, should be knowledgeable yet flexible: flexible in recognising that what works for one writer might not work for another, yet having access to a wealth of knowledge about writing, so that enough different strategies can be suggested, and participants can find something that does work for them.

The participants have also expressed a preference for a facilitator who can be strict as well as sympathetic:

I’m not sure this course would be as good without [the facilitators]. [They] seem… to know… when we need a pat on the back and when we need a kick up the backside. It’s like a Russian Olympics coach one minute…and your [agony aunt] the next. It’s whatever seems to be needed at the time. This… made me realise that sometimes what I want is comfort, and sometimes I need hard love, and both were provided here—and always exactly at the right moment (Participant, 2014).

The compromise that the Writer Development course has tried to strike is to have knowledgeable yet flexible, strict yet sympathetic leaders to start participants out on the right track (at the first retreat) and then send them off on their own in the writers’ groups, where they can take full responsibility for their development as writers.


In conclusion, what seems to be working about the Writer Development courses is what has been found by other research on writing retreats: protected time and a community of practice to help writers get writing done. Points of further investigation are the idea that in order for a writing course to be optimally useful to advanced writers, it needs to take into consideration that every writer is different, and offer an array of tools, thereby ensuring that there will be something that resonates with each participant. Finally, although writers’ retreats have can certainly be successful if there is no facilitator, a facilitator who knows about writing, writers, and the writing process can contribute by creating an atmosphere that is safe, yet rigourous, before leaving participants to their own devices to continue to develop themselves into confident, self-directed writers.


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