The benefits of writing sessions

Sally Bailey, PhD student rep and researcher at Birmingham School of Art, discusses the benefits of regular writing sessions, and offers some valuable advice on becoming a more confident writer.

A woman taking part in a writing session

Overcoming anxiety

Birmingham City University’s PGR Studio organises regular writing sessions called Shut Up and Write, short and sharp group writing workshops in a relaxed environment.

I attended my first workshop in 2016 and felt I needed all the help I could get. I felt I wasn’t producing academic writing and that I’d never get the hang of it. Plus, the thought of reading my work aloud terrified me.

However, our host, Dr Helen Kara, proved to be a master at taking the anxiety and pain out of writing.

She regularly shows us how writing should be a fun and sociable experience, and that writing in a shared environment can be beneficial in growing a community, friendship and support networks.

It doesn’t matter what your research area is – there’ll be times when we all have the same worries about our writing. There’ll be periods where no words can be coaxed out and we begin to doubt whether we can ever get the hang of thesis writing.

However, Helen immediately puts you at ease, mixing chat, fun exercises and sharing strategies.

How do these writing sessions work?

You are asked to bring some writing that you wish to work on, along with any material you might need to help you in that endeavour.

After introductions and a short warm-up exercise, it’s down to business. Helen encourages a short burst of free writing to get the words flowing – simply five minutes to get down on paper what you hope to achieve from the session.

If you get stuck, you keep on writing. It doesn’t matter what you scribble down, as long as you keep writing at some point the right words will appear again. It’s a practice I do every day.

For 45 minutes, it’s heads down. No talking, just writing. Once the timer goes, you are encouraged to share your word count with the group. There’ll always be people that typed thousands and some that struggled, but it’s never about quantity.

I have had to master academic writing, and the Shut Up and Write sessions have shown me strategies to help. While I have always considered writing an art form, it’s also a discipline. And good writing requires a disciplined approach.

Thesis writing during a pandemic

With Birmingham School of Art closed during the lockdown, we lost the camaraderie that comes with working in a shared space with other researchers.

Writing my thesis at home on my own was a struggle. However, Helen set up some online Shut Up and Write sessions. Even though they were different, I still came away feeling energised and refocused.

From these sessions, myself and two colleagues set up our own mini-sessions. Each Monday from 2-4pm, we met on Zoom. PhD life can be lonely at times, so these writing sessions helped both my writing and my mental wellbeing.

Alongside improving my academic writing, other benefits are sharing ideas with likeminded colleagues and realising the commonalities across our disciplines are many.

As I have already said, writing is a discipline, and should be approached as such.

Think of a scenario where it’s raining, and you should be going out for an early-morning run. You’re tired, you’ve got no energy. So, you go back to bed.

Had you agreed to meet a friend for that run, things could have turned out very differently – not wanting to let your friend down, you would have dragged yourself out, and five minutes in you have completely forgotten how miserable you felt when you saw that rain.