As writing retreat facilitators, we can prepare intensively, but the day the retreat starts we are invariably swept away just trying to make sure it meets our expectations.
In most writing retreats, facilitators coach several participants simultaneously, and participants want to move their pieces forward. A tool like pre-retreat coaching, when used strategically, can save work once we are at the retreat. It is designed to help participants refine, adjust, or modify their plans prior to that important first day. Since not all applicants need pre-retreat coaching, facilitators can focus their attention more efficiently on the individual needs of those who do.
This article explains how we organize pre-retreat coaching for our Professional Writing Retreats.
Hit the Ground Running
I begin by making a small list of suggestions as I review the applications for the retreat. Most of us reviewers already write notes on the margin, points we intend to mention once we meet the participant face to face. Why not use these notes to advance the pieces of those who could benefit from some coaching before the retreat? “Because it’s time you don’t have,” says my internal devil’s advocate. But pre-retreat coaching is about selecting one or two suggestions a writer could act on prior to the retreat. These suggestions should not involve a lot of thinking or writing, since most teachers are quite busy the entire year.
Before you begin to think this is a lot of extra work, I should stress that although all writers can benefit from it, facilitators do not need to do pre-retreat coaching for everyone. Here are some writers who, in my experience, have benefited from pre-retreat coaching:
- Writers who have not yet selected a target publication, and who are therefore working double because they don’t have author guidelines to follow. They may want to pitch a whole article or book to an editor without checking whether it’s a fit, or what parts the proposal should have. What the coach does: Sends them a copy of Editors with Publication Guidelines List (also part of the handbook they will receive at the retreat), and asks them to select a target publication before the retreat.
- Writers who submitted great ideas through very tentative first drafts. These ideas desperately need development in order for a response group to articulate feedback. What the coach does: Explains that if they arrive with a more developed draft, they will not need to spend the first night in a writing frenzy, and can instead focus on preparing their draft for review.
- Writers who are writing a dissertation or book and have not yet articulated what their draft needs from a response group, or do not know what part to focus on (the response group should not be expected to review the entire book or dissertation). What the coach does: Explains that a response group does not work like a focus group during the retreat. Asks them to identify what they need from a response group in the retreat’s time frame, and to name the critical chapter or part of the book they most need feedback on.
- Writers who do not know who their audience is yet. What the coach does: Asks a couple of guiding questions to elicit more clarity, and gives them a deadline prior to the retreat for a response.
- Writers who are writing an article on a popular topic, unaware of the extensive literature already on the market on the same subject. Some wind up frustrated after realizing this at the retreat. What the coach does: Suggests they explore it from a different angle, and sometimes even suggests what that angle might be. A coach might also suggest actual books or articles for the writer to consult or borrow prior to the retreat.
- Writers who need to do some research/reading but don’t know where to start. To save time, they’ll need to locate some of those resources prior to the retreat. Unlike creative writing, professional writing is source-heavy. What the coach does: Suggests they start collecting materials now. Points out one or two.
Introducing Your Role
Participant needs prior to the retreat tend to fall in certain patterns. So that we do not spend a lot of extra time, after reading their drafts we craft an email to point them in the right direction, all in one short paragraph.
I like to start by introducing myself. Then I mention how excited I am to have them at the retreat. I say what like about their topic or draft itself; then I explain that there is a way to prepare for the retreat. I place my suggestion at the very end:
Hi, I am one of the facilitators for the Professional Writing Retreats. First of all, congratulations on getting selected to attend! I was very excited to read your draft on what took place in your school district. Seems like you played a key role in transforming their writing assessment into something more humane and authentic. I especially enjoyed the part where you analyze the school board members’ writing samples. Teachers will get a kick out of that! Speaking of teachers, is this your intended audience? Take some time to think about this, then respond to me before May 10. You will “hit the ground running” if you select a target audience and a publication before the retreat. Can’t wait to meet you and hear more about this important article!
Once at the retreat, we always get grateful acknowledgments for our pre-retreat coaching, but more importantly, we have made a connection which helps that writer become a more receptive and open retreat participant. We start building community with a simple email.