Writing alone, together: SLL’s online dissertation writing retreats 

Dr Charlotte Mathieson – School of Literature & Languages 

Writing – of any kind – can be a solitary process, but we emphasise to our dissertation students that working on an independent project doesn’t mean working unsupported: there are supervisors, module conveners, and importantly, peers. This supportive network has been enhanced through the Level 6 dissertation online writing retreats that SLL set up in 2020-21. Aiming to provide a guided and structured space for working towards writing the 10,000-word dissertation, the sessions have given students reassurance, motivation, and community-driven support along the way. 

The optional sessions (running alongside compulsory module workshops) take the form of a 2-hour Zoom workshop led by a facilitating tutor and have typically seen a core of regular attendees along with students who will drop in to 1 or 2 groups. Each retreat starts with a tutor-led group check-in identifying individual goals for the session: this could be a word-count target, drafting a specific section, or editing a number of pages. This kind of structured, guided timeframe gives accountability and helps to break down the initially overwhelming task of writing a long project, into something that starts to become that bit more manageable during the course of a short, focused timeslot. 

After the opening check-in, students turn mics and cameras off and set about writing, while the tutor remains available in the chat box throughout – allowing space for questions that students might feel less comfortable asking in person or of supervisors. At the end of the writing time, a final group check-in allows for discussion of how the time went or to ask about anything that has proved challenging. This has led to some generous sharing of brilliant tips, ideas, and strategies on topics such as starting to write different sections, editing techniques, and staying motivated in the final stages. In this, students not only benefit from the advice of others but gain confidence from finding that they have the solution to someone else’s problem – as well as the reassurance of knowing they aren’t alone in finding something tricky. 

At the end of the final organised workshop in 2021, the students swapped contact details so that they could set up another retreat among themselves: this made evident how well-embedded both the practical and support aspects of the retreats had become. We have been really pleased to run the retreats again this year and they continue to be popular with our finalists. 

Red book and pen next to a reading book

For more information contact: Charlotte Mathieson, Lecturer, c.mathieson@surrey.ac.uk