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Published: 2023-05-30

Shut up and write!

FEATURE In one of the Library's conference rooms, some doctoral students have gathered, and on a screen on the wall, a few have joined remotely via Zoom from different parts of the world. They are all doctoral students at Umeå University but at different stages in their doctoral journey.

Text: Susanne Sjöberg

Annika Bindler, a writing instructor at Umeå University Library, begins the session by asking everyone what they plan to write during the two-hour session ahead. Once the round is complete, the next step is five minutes of free writing to get warmed up. Then, everyone starts working on their writing projects in complete silence for half an hour.

Chama Mulubwa from Zambia, a part-time doctoral student in Epidemiology and Global Health at Umeå University, participates via Zoom. She divides her time between Zambia and Sweden, where she teaches, mentors students, coordinates a project, and pursues her doctoral studies. Chama Mulubwa joined Shut up and write! when she was in Umeå but wanted to continue participating even from Zambia. She was told that it wouldn't be a problem, and now she connects via Zoom every week. Through this setup, she has learned to secure time for writing during her doctoral studies.

"By following the rules set by Annika, she has helped me focus. No matter how much I have to do in a week, I know this time is dedicated to my writing. Since I am quite scattered due to multiple tasks, this writing group serves as a reminder of my doctoral work, constantly bringing me back to it," says Chama Mulubwa.

Clear guidelines

Another short break is taken before the final writing session of the day. Annika Bindler, who keeps track of time, concludes the session, and everyone shares how it went. Mareike Guthenson, a doctoral student at the Department of Chemistry, has been part of the writing group for a year and has only two weeks left until her dissertation. Today, she is using the time to work on her presentation for the defense:

"I'm not super organized, so having this predetermined time every week has been very helpful. The regularity has been great for me; it's the best part of this," says Mareike Guthenson.

During the intense last three months before the defence, Mareike Guthenson shares that she starts her day by writing intensively in the morning and uses the writing session at the library to refine the details. This method has been effective for her to manage the stressful period leading up to the completion of her dissertation.

Writing instructor Annika Bindler has facilitated three writing groups over three semesters, two multidisciplinary groups, and one with the Department of Nursing, where some researchers also participate with the doctoral students. She emphasizes the importance of clear guidelines. Before each writing session, she sends a reminder email to the participants, asking them to confirm their attendance.

"It's important for me to see the participants. Do they establish routines for themselves? Do they procrastinate? By checking if they will attend or not, they gain insight into how they work as writers. These groups also serve as a way for the Library to gauge what doctoral students need on their path to completing their dissertations. This helps us better understand the support we should provide," says Annika Bindler.

Annika Bindler has no contact with the doctoral students' department or supervisors. She emphasises the importance of providing an environment where they are not judged solely on their scientific achievements, allowing them to focus on developing a writing routine.

Good focus

Two other participants in today's writing group are Luz Maria Gonzalez Castrillon from the Department of Integrative Medical Biology and Karsten Meier from the Department of Molecular Biology. Both have similar days, spending much of their time in the lab conducting experiments. Writing often takes a back seat.

Luz Maria Gonzalez Castrillon is pleased that she joined the group:

"I value the time. Most days, I come to work, and my tasks keep me occupied. But during the writing session, I have to focus on writing and set a goal each time. It becomes a commitment. I have continued using the method even outside the group. Taking dedicated breaks, for example, is something I didn't do before, and I've noticed it improves my focus," states Luz Maria Gonzalez Castrillon.

"It's also helpful to share experiences with others and see what's normal, that others also face challenges. It provides a realistic picture of what it can be like for everyone, making it feel a bit easier."

Karsten Meier appreciates that the time is blocked out every week in his calendar:

"The time is just right. It wouldn't work for me to write for an entire day. Additionally, it's good not to be in my usual environment because then no one can reach me during the writing group time."

He mentions that colleagues at the department sometimes wonder what he does during these hours every week:

"I tell them the truth, that it's not teaching or a course but a dedicated time and place for writing. It may sound silly, but it works!"

"We are a small team in our silence, focused on producing text."

Gunilla Dahlgren, a doctoral student at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine - Sustainable Health, participates in one of the Library's writing groups with doctoral students from various disciplines. With many years of experience as a physiotherapist and ergonomist, she recognises that producing text is a crucial and central part of a doctoral student's and researcher's work.

"For me, it has been very helpful to set aside this time every week. It has increased my endurance and focus on writing. The more times I have participated, the quicker I get into the writing flow. And now, I find it easier to write even on other occasions," says Gunilla Dahlgren.

"It also helps to be in a group. We are a small team in our silence, focused on producing text."

She likes the structure of the writing session led by writing instructor Annika Bindler, with a brief beginning, brief ending, and scheduled breaks.

Gunilla Dahlgren shows me a book where she has written down the short free writing exercise that everyone does at the beginning of each writing session. She can refer back to the book and reflect on her progress, and now she appreciates that she wrote it down.

"It feels nice that we also have a brief reflection on how the writing went, without any judgment. We can also get ideas from each other at the end, sharing strategies for overcoming obstacles when we get stuck."