What makes a successful writing retreat?

When it comes to structured writing retreats, Rowena Murray is the person to look to.

With decades of experience in academic writing and hosting structured writing retreats, Rowena is a Professor of Education and Director of Research at the School of Education at the University of the West of Scotland. Much of her research has been focused on academic writing, and she has published books like How to Write a Thesis and The Handbook of Academic Writing (co-authored with Sarah Moore).

Rowena’s own early experience of academic writing was stressful and competitive — so she spent years researching and doing practical work to address this. Now she is one of the leading researchers on social writing, structured writing retreats, facilitation of writing for publications and much more.

From research to retreat

The structured writing retreats tap into different elements of Rowena’s research.

#1 Containment theory

This theory stems from social work, where social workers might have to restrain children to keep them from hurting themselves or others. Applying this theory to the process of writing, it turns into managing anxieties people might have about writing, as well as the related stress and negativity. Containment theory can be applied as a tool to manage — contain —writing anxiety, and to create a space where writing is the main task and anti-task behaviour and thinking is prevented. Simply said, it is about creating a time and place where it is very hard to do anything but write.

#2 Social Writing


All participants sit and write together in the same room during the retreats. This gives the feeling of support and positive peer pressure. At the same time, if any participant feels stuck or experiences writer’s block, they can get Rowena’s attention and support — she has a variety of tools and prompts to get writers back into writing. Being physically together with others and being able to share ideas and processes, struggles and successes during the breaks has proven to be hugely valuable.

#3 Structure

The third key ingredient for success is structure. The retreats are based around very specific times for writing without any disturbances. There’s a time for planning, a time to write, and — importantly — a time to stop and take a break. Rowena plays an important role to keep participants working within the structure, and therefore maintaining a solid writing energy for the whole retreat.

Ready to turn Rowena’s extensive research to your writing success? Join the Helsinki Writing Retreat!

Professor Rowena Murray

Professor Rowena Murray