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Writing as a Social Practice Humanizes Academia

By Joana Pais Zozimo, author of Women Writing Socially in Academia

In my experience of facilitating academic writing retreats since 2016, I have observed a huge transformation in writers’ habits. As each year passed, a new audience, or an international setting appeared, allowing me to observe the relevance of researching the practice of writing. From a curious observer to facilitator and researcher, the learning trajectory in my writing serves as a living social sciences lab.

I always loved to read and write, but my turn to start reflecting on my writing practice occurred during my PhD years when I had to write high-standard academic English in my second language. I knew that I had to reach out and find support, and that was when I was lucky enough to attend Prof. Rowena Murray´s writing retreats. I attended my first retreat in 2012, and it was life changing. The term “writing retreat” means a “space of dedicated writing time where collegiality is built” (Murray and Newton, 2009, p.541). As a structured intervention, writing retreats have three distinctive features: “all writing together in one room for the whole of the retreat; structuring retreat time as a series of fixed writing and discussion slots; and discussing writing-in-progress throughout the programme” (ibid. p.542).

I replicated this social writing method in my university straight afterwards, leading me to capture this initial experience “Three aspects profoundly inspired me during the retreat: the first was the awareness that many different people struggle with writing (even in their native language), regardless of their position in the career ladder. Second, that it was possible to finish the PhD if the perceived ‘huge writing piece’ was split into manageable little pieces or writing slots. For that, I ‘only’ had to show up day in, day out, persistently. The image of a manageable PhD, rather than a ‘scary elephant’, arose early on in my journey, keeping my motivation going, as well as helping me to overcome some obstacles along the way. Third, the idea of planning the writing was visible through an initial sharing of goals and a final debrief of achievements or difficulties, followed by a peer support conversation. That was a revelation, as I was impressed with my own progress, since I started to deeply think and thoroughly plan my writing in that slot-oriented way” (Zozimo J, 2016).

In revisiting my research journey, I can say that the reflection on my writing practice and how it changed over time was a powerful outcome that allowed me to advocate writing as a social practice. A social practice approach asserts that human interests, values, and self-respect come from the human experience of the object of study, i.e. writing. (Reckwitz, 2002). Since its beginnings, social theory has been anchored in the idea that understanding society requires an examination of the practices one encounters. Social sciences are not only important in investigating the layers and details of the practice of academic writing, but critical to understanding how a social writing framework can humanize academia and its performance-based ecosystem.

In recent years, as a senior educational researcher, and writer, I have engaged with a diverse audience of participants who shared the urgency of life-work balance, avoiding burnout, and being proactive about on self-care habits. As a result, I added the dimension of health and wellbeing to my facilitated writing retreats.

In describing this writing method, I focus on three main aspects: First, peers’ continuous support enables our writing progress. Second, the method shows how to maximize our focus, avoiding distractions. Finally, it improves our decision-making skills by encouraging us to take better and faster mini decisions. Writing in a short but very focused way generates powerful habits and transforms our brain´s neuroplasticity.

Some challenges I observed and heard are interesting domains for future social sciences research.

  • A critical challenge identified by one of my co-authors, Wendy Baldwin, is to understand how social writing can benefit scholars who need to write and publish in English within and beyond the Anglosphere. A recent study by Amano et al. (2023) demonstrates a gap in the time non-native speakers of English need to read, write, and revise research papers relative to native speakers of English. While remedies are needed at many levels, ensuring that non-native speakers of English at all career stages have regular access to structured writing retreats can help close the gap.
  • Recent research showed that the impact of writing retreats on wellbeing, particularly regarding mental health, has been enormous in postgraduate and early-career researchers (Zozimo, 2022). Individuals affirmed they wish they had known this approach much earlier during their academic career. It is urgent to incorporate the writing retreat principles in earlier educational stages, for instance during undergraduate years or even high school.

My writing has changed enormously, not only in terms of publications, but mainly in terms of deepening the meaning of what I write, why I write, and the contribution I want my writing to make. As a founding member of Writing for Research and Academic Practice (WRAP), a European network embedding social writing in and beyond academia, I can firmly say that Social Science Matters, and is fundamental to tackle these challenges and others.

Joana Pais Zozimo is a senior researcher at Lancaster University, UK, and writing retreat facilitator based in Portugal. Along with Kate Sotejeff-Wilson and Wendy Baldwin, she is the author of Women Writing Socially in Academia.


Amano, T., Ramírez-Castañeda, V., Berdejo-Espinola, V., Borokini, I., Chowdhury, S., Golivets, M., González-Trujillo, J. D., Montaño-Centellas, F., Paudel, K., White, R. L., & Veríssimo, D. (2023). The manifold costs of being a non-native English speaker in science. PLOS Biology, 21(7), e3002184. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3002184

Murray, R., & Newton, M. (2009). Writing retreat as structured intervention: Margin or mainstream? Higher Education Research & Development, 28(5), 541–553. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360903154126

Pais Zozimo, J. (2022) Healthy writing retreats: dare to enjoy your writing and joy will abound! Bear with me and try it out. – RECIRCULATE

Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243–263. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684310222225432

Zozimo, J. (2016). Exploring evaluation using social practice theory in development education: A longitudinal in-depth case study. Lancaster University.