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Writeshops – key tools for generating outputs in international research projects

Sitting together, face-to-face provide the best opportunities to progress ideas

 

With large projects comprised of international teams, we are used to working at distance from our colleagues. Modern communication tools make this possible and effective, but sometimes there is no substitute for coming together in person. One of the circumstances where face-to-face interaction is essential is when colleagues based in different countries want to produce a paper or other output collaboratively.

In October, four members of the UMFULA project dedicated a week of their time to a writeshop at Kulima HQ in Pietermaritzburg. We capitalized on an opportunity to get together in person, arriving with our data and initial ideas for an article that could draw together synergies from our respective research.

The four of us have different experiences and perspectives from our case studies – which relate to climate information needs and use across the agricultural sector in southern Africa. However, we could see a common thread that linked our work and raised important questions that we were keen to share with the wider research community. Working apart in different hemispheres with a variety of other demands on our time, we had struggled to make progress on this idea remotely through Skype conversations and emails. Recognising this, we realised that sitting together, face-to-face, and working through the article, discussing issues as they arose, would be the best opportunity to progress the idea.

Committing a week of our time and putting aside other tasks, motivated us to make the most of the time and justify the various costs associated with the travel. We set ourselves the ambitious goal of a complete first draft of our article by the end of the week.

Our goal was ambitious, but the inspiration arising out of being able to discuss our ideas meant that the week surpassed our expectations. We had an initial outline drafted on the first day providing a foundation for subsequent development and, by the end of the week, we had a full draft that is near submission-ready. In addition to this paper, we were also able to use the time together to make progress on several other joint initiatives an online commentary a presentation, a video pitch and, of course, this blog article. This is an incredible result given that we first mooted the idea of the joint article nearly a year ago, and had made little progress prior to the start of the writeshop.

We knew that this paper would be a good topic for a writeshop based on a previous experience, where two of us held a writeshop. On that occasion, in February 2018, another paper had reached a sticking point with a large and very complex set of results. Attempts to work remotely with Skype calls and emails had only produced small advances and the paper was stalling. We took advantage of an opportunity to come together for a week. Sitting together with a few days of dedicated time allowed us to work through the data and develop a coherent narrative. Even with power cuts thrown into the mix, we made considerable progress. Shortly before travelling to our latest writeshop we received news that our paper from the first writeshop had been published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy.

Based on our experiences, we’ve identified the circumstances in which writeshops are likely to be successful (box). One of the first criterion is having analysed data or drafted text to work from. It is important to have done the necessary groundwork so that the time together can be dedicated to discussions, writing, further discussions and more writing. Committing a stretch of time to this process encourages rapid progress as we are able to work through multiple iterations quickly, asking questions, clarifying and responding without having to send emails and wait for replies. All working together towards a common goal enabled us to maintain momentum throughout the writeshop. A new location can encourage fresh perspectives and inspiration.

It isn’t always easy or straightforward to organise a writeshop. Even finding dates that suit all participants can be a challenge! However, making the effort to find the time and space to work face-to-face has absolutely been worth it. As we look back on our second successful writeshop, we are convinced that we have saved months of time sharing drafts remotely. It has also re-ignited our drive to complete our other joint papers and set us up well for synthesising our work for our final annual meeting next month. Watch this space for our outputs!

This blog was written by Joanna Pardoe, Katharine Vincent, Rebecka Henriksson Malinga and Neha Mittal (UMFULA)