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Instead of a Writing Marathon, Why Not Try a Sprint?

How to organize an on-campus meetup for a burst of progress on a manuscript

Advice books on academic productivity tell you to establish a writing routine, and stick to it. The experts say it’s a mistake to think you’ll get much accomplished in frenetic bursts. So why are we making the case here for “writing sprints”?

Because we’ve seen them work, as an add-on to a regular writing schedule. Sessions of concentrated writing over a few days can help you build and maintain momentum, create new habits, shift routines, increase motivation, and, of course, make significant progress on a manuscript in a short time.

We’re not suggesting you go it alone. Earlier this year, we wrote about how our college established a permanent writing room on the campus for faculty members to “write alone together.” Our tested group sprints have helped professors achieve their writing goals and build scholarly community — at a lower expense and with greater ease than off-site writing retreats.

Sprints, not binges. Concentrated bouts of writing have many names and forms. They are often called writing crashesbinges, or “intensive writing experiences.” An industry has arisen that offers housing and food to support them, while inventive writers have found their own structures. Peter Shankman, for example, became known for writing his book during a roundtrip flight to Tokyo. A popular community-based form of concentrated writing is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which supports writers producing 50,000 words each November.

Group-based concentrated writing tends to be called “writing retreats,” and often involves travel and a change of scenery away from one’s regular workplace. Instead, we have adopted “writing sprints” to describe collective bursts of writing on our campus.

Community adds camaraderie, accountability, focus, and fun to a typically solitary endeavor.

For us, terms like “crash,” “binge,” or even “intensive” carry negative connotations of unsustainable and unhealthy work habits. By contrast, “sprint” is a more appropriate word for a writing practice intended to motivate over a short period of time. It offers an energizing metaphor with an implied finish line.

The idea of sprints seemingly contradicts most productivity advice, which derides binge writing as an ineffective long-term strategy. Myriad literature on writing productivity (Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot, Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What, Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers, and more) insists we should be writing on a consistent schedule. We are firm believers in that slow-and-steady approach, and our co-writing program at Wheaton College (Write Now, Right Now) encourages faculty members to commit to regular writing periods throughout a semester, rather than corralling the work into weekends or breaks.

Nevertheless, concentrated periods in which we immerse ourselves in a project — in protected times and spaces and, most important, with other writers — can help people meet specific goals. These sprints can shift the rhythms of our work, create new routines, and inject energy into writing projects that have lost luster. Or they can simply be a way to build and maintain campus relationships.

Sure, you could do a writing sprint on your own (and we both have). But community adds camaraderie, accountability, focus, and fun to a typically solitary endeavor. The idea that someone might see you scrolling social media can rein in a wandering cursor.

How sprints work. We’ve experienced many of those outcomes at the 13 writing sprints we’ve held for more than 40 colleagues. Our sprints follow a seasonal schedule that aligns with semester breaks, because that’s when faculty members can devote more time to writing than is possible when they’re teaching. We situate sprints just prior to the start of semesters (January and August), following their end (May/June and December), and midsemester during spring break (March).

Sprints in January, May/June, and August have been most successful, largely because they occurred at the beginning or end of a long break, which allowed participants to clear their schedules.

Sprints in March and December haven’t worked as well. In March, most faculty members need a break from the campus (it’s an ideal time for a writing retreat, especially in a warm location that offers a change from New England winters). In December, there is limited time between finals and winter holidays, and the competing demands of grading, holiday prep, and travel tend to limit participation.

We have tried different lengths of time but found that writing sprints of three (or fewer) days work best. The risk of burnout rises after three days, which can lead to a productivity slump and trouble getting restarted.

We host sprints in our cozy faculty writing room. People arrange themselves around a large table that comfortably seats eight, in soft seating, or at two desks with large monitors and computer docking stations. We have a large screen in the corner logged in to Zoom so participants can join virtually. The lighting is warm, and a sound machine provides background noise. Coffee and tea are always available. We have successfully held sprints at other locations; our first was at the student center. Any campus room with a large seminar table would work.

During the sprint, we follow a formal daily schedule (posted in a few locations), and encourage people to drop in and out as they are able. We start the day at 8:30 a.m. with 30 minutes of coffee, breakfast, socializing, and goal setting. Writing sessions happen in four 80-minute blocks. We eat together during an hour-long lunch break, and schedule two other 20-minute breaks (one in the morning, one in the afternoon). Writing finishes at 4 p.m., and we close with 30 minutes of snacks, reflection, and socializing. Most participants stay the entire day.

Sometimes we include special sessions on writing advice. We regularly hold hour-long “plan your semester/summer break” workshops, with tips on how to reverse engineer a writing project and how to organize your calendar in ways that reveal how much (or more often, how little!) time you really have to write.

Yes, organizing these sprints can be a heavy lift. The most labor-intensive aspect is coordinating lunch. While participants could bring their own lunches or purchase them at an on-campus dining establishment, we have found that communal meals — whether potlucks or catered — work best to create community and to maintain focus (by separating writers from the regular buzz of college life).

Why plan a sprint rather than a retreat? We are firm believers in (and have written about) the tremendous value of writing retreats. But we also recognize their inherent challenges:

  • Retreats require money, not to mention substantial time and personal commitments from participants who must leave their homes and lives for a professional trip.
  • When you ask your administration for grant support to hold or attend a writing retreat, you may well encounter skepticism, despite the substantial evidence that such retreats motivate productivity and build institutional status. One administrator implied that we were planning a group vacation; another likened our request to funding child care. Such misconceptions are pretty common and can present an insurmountable financial barrier, especially in tough economic times for higher ed.
  • Travel naturally restricts retreats to a smaller number of participants than an on-campus event. Moreover, there is the question of comfort for overnight retreats with shared bathrooms (and even bedrooms).

Sprints, in contrast, are limited only by the capacity of the chosen room, and they have drawn many new faculty members into our writing circle. Retreats provide an important change of scenery, but writing in an on-campus space can be equally significant, if in different ways.

Those who study habit formation emphasize the importance of physicality and location. Taking part in a writing sprint with colleagues can transform your perception of the campus from only a teaching space into a place for writing as well. Writing on the campus can become habit forming. Retreats, in contrast, can deepen the problematic notion that writing is an activity that only happens away from the campus or during breaks.

All in all, writing sprints are as effective as writing retreats, but less costly and more flexible. We encourage faculty members, academic-affairs offices, and institutions to organize and support writing sprints as a natural complement to faculty-writing routines and as an effective way to push projects across the finish line.

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