How Virtual Writing Retreats for Academic Women Improve Productivity and Mental Health

Written by
Nicole Janz and Rowena Murray

Mar 1, 2021

Mar 1, 2021 • by Nicole Janz and Rowena Murray

It was in the early weeks of the COVID‐19 lockdown that Charlotte stopped writing her dissertation. “Our family had been separated,” she says, “I lived alone with my son, home‐schooling him and teaching at the same time—and I had three months to complete my Ph.D. thesis.” On some days, it seemed impossible to even open the laptop.

Charlotte is not the only academic who has struggled during the pandemic. Women academics worldwide have taken on the bulk of child care and virtual/home schooling while also trying to teach and meet their administrative obligations. Consequently, many journals, for example, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, have seen a dramatic drop in article submissions from women authors. At least one journal, Comparative Political Studies, reported a 50% increase in submissions from men during the global health crisis.

Online Writing Retreats

Academic women are now counteracting this depressing trend by organizing virtual writing retreats. These are mostly run and attended by women. We find 90% of the retreats are organized and attended by women. These online retreats provide a safe space to write. Participants log into Zoom or Microsoft teams for an hour or two a day, set concrete goals together and then write silently alongside each other on their academic manuscripts. We are part of a group of women academics who have offered free virtual retreats during the pandemic, which have helped hundreds of international scholars to boost their writing and improve their mental health.

Women who attended noted five key benefits:
  • Setting concrete goals together creates accountability.
  • Timed sessions help writers focus and keep writing.
  • Seeing each other on Zoom is highly motivating and avoids procrastination.
  • Feeling part of a writing community benefits mental health.
  • Sharing successes and frustrations with each other relieves stress.

Two factors, however, were most crucial. First, women academics used virtual retreats to fiercely protect their writing time. Many of our participants joked that they labeled their writing sessions as “Zoom meeting” in their calendars to avoid colleagues or students interrupting their flow, or they told their families they were “on a call” and could not be disturbed. Second, writing in a group gave structure to at least half of the day. This structure boosted productivity and helped them to battle low mood caused by social isolation.

In our own virtual writing retreats during lockdown, we have seen women academics taking action and coming up with tips for other writers in the group on how to juggle writing and home‐schooling. Many logged out at the end of the day satisfied with their progress, commenting:
  • “Love the community! It makes a difference to be able to vent, bounce ideas off each other and celebrate small victories together.”
  • “This community increased my productivity and my enjoyment of writing.”
  • “I have been so impressed with the virtual structured writing approach. It has helped me immeasurably at an incredibly difficult time.”
  • “Social writing has been especially helpful during the global pandemic while we are socially distancing. … These sessions may be life‐changing!”

The pandemic has intensified many issues and blurred the boundaries between home and work, and it is not over yet. In fact, we believe that the international networks among women academics are here to stay far beyond the pandemic.

Finding the Right Group

We encourage women academics to give virtual writing groups a try. Here are some ways to start. Although not everyone uses Facebook, you can start there. Check out the “Rowena Murray Writing Group,” “Writing on the Go,” or “AWOWR: Academic Women Online Writing Retreat.” On any given day at any given time, there are writing groups run by various people in various time zones. On Twitter, you can follow @llmunro, @camwritinghub, @writingonthego, or @murray_rowena, or simply search for #virtualwritingretreat or #remoteretreat. Join a few groups and see which works for you.

Once you're in a group, note the various ways in which different facilitators start writing sessions. Is there is time for goalsetting and discussion at the start (which our participants say they really value)? Where are they all working from? Many people feel writing groups work best when they write with people from other institutions or different departments (which runs counter to the idea that you have to stay within your own discipline). Are these groups run by trained facilitators with a fee to join or run on a peer‐to‐peer basis?

Starting Your Own Group

If existing groups or their time zones are not a good fit, why not find a few colleagues and accountability buddies to start your own group? Better still, if you are faculty, set up a group for doctoral students you supervise or for undergraduates you teach. This means you do your job—supporting their writing—and you also have time to do your own writing.

Here are our top tips for starting your own virtual writing group:
  • Find people who want to write in groups and want to start writing now. Use Facebook, Twitter, or your networks to reach out—you'd be surprised how many women are looking for writing groups. Designate a “facilitator” for each session who arranges the dates and times for the sessions.
  • Make writing goals specific for each session. Define the purpose of the text you want to write, quantify your hourly goals and share them before you start the timer.
  • Stick to the set time. Start on time—hence not making time for discussing the approach, but instead, discussing writing goals at the start—and end every session on time. You can't force people to login on time or stop at the end, but for it to work, you should encourage them to do so and do so yourself.
  • Take proper breaks. This will help you clarify your thinking, and it means you are not sitting for long periods, which can have serious health risks.
  • Take stock at the end of the session. Did you achieve the goal you set yourself at the start? Thereby, we learn to set realistic goals for the time we actually have, and we develop and sustain self‐efficacy—the belief that we can achieve our writing goals.

Whichever way you decide to move forward in your writing and productivity journey, never forget that writing communities are “out there” for you to join or start. They will boost your productivity and your well‐being at the same time. And we have seen—and hope to continue to see—that they help to reduce the academic gender gap that the pandemic has widened.

It certainly worked for Charlotte. She has now submitted her draft dissertation to her supervisors and shared the good news on Facebook. She posted, “I would not have been able to do this without this wonderfully supportive community.”

Nicole Janz studied at Free University of Berlin, Columbia University and the University of Cambridge. She is a tenured assistant professor in international relations at the University of Nottingham. Website:

Rowena Murray studied at Glasgow, Freiburg and Penn State Universities and is now professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland, head of business writing at Strathclyde Business School and Principal Fellow of Advance Higher Education. Website: http://Anchorage‐