Last week we brought together 16 people in a ‘castle’ in the German countryside, to write a set of resources to help human rights researchers in using new digital data streams in their work. More on the substance of the sprint is coming soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the ‘behind-the-scenes’ workings that went on, in preparation. I’m sure we’ll iterate upon it in the future, but for now, here’s a checklist of things to think about when preparing a writing sprint.
Why a writing sprint?
I love writing sprints, and at the engine room, we’ve used them to create some great resources – like the content for the Responsible Data Handbook. They can range in format from booksprints, which aim to produce a book from start to finish – or be more focused on different kinds of outputs, like this one.
They’re a fantastic way of bringing together a diverse set of people to combine their expertise on a certain topic, who often people don’t otherwise get the chance to work together. On this sprint, we invited academics, lawyers, activists, human rights researchers, and practitioners, to meet in the castle for 4 days. The multidisciplinary approach often yields benefits beyond just the actual resource created – from inspiring ideas, to interesting conversations and potential partnerships in the future.
So, what do you need to consider? Below, I’ve broken out sections on the following topics:
- Setting the scene
- Choosing participants
- Content preparation
- Let go…
From my experience, there needs to be at least 2, preferably 3 people in addition to the facilitator who are on the organising team and in attendance at the sprint – if not to be playing active roles in the logistics, then at least to be looking out for the group, helping guide people on an individual level, and providing input to the facilitator where necessary.
Logistics-wise, it helps to have at least one person attending and helping in preparation for the sprint who is responsible for support and logistics. Their role might overlap with content creation, reading or editing – but they’re the person that participants know they can go to with any problems.
Splitting this role out from the person leading the project is very helpful – trust me. And if you can get someone who has worked in these kinds of collaborative environments before, and knows how many post-its to buy, to do an emergency pharmacy run in advance, and to get hold of a bunch of extension cables before arriving at the location, even better.
Get outside of the city, ideally in a place where you can sleep, eat and work within the same location.
- Fewer distractions for participants during the day and the evening, which might well lead to more writing time even after the daytime schedule is over.
- Novelty: your participants are giving you their time and their trust, and many of them spend way too much time in conference venues in cities. Taking them outside of a venue that they are accustomed to provides an often very welcome break from the everyday hustle and bustle of their work.
- Group intimacy: in a sprint setting, you’re engaging with an intimate process. Asking a group of strangers to meet and collaboratively work together within hours of meeting each other is quite the feat – so, anything you can do to build that intimacy and bonding time between the group will help the process and product as a whole.
For potential locations, check out sites like Homeaway, Spacebase (though this is more for in-city locations) – or even Airbnb. If you happen to be in Germany, there are lots of ‘schloss’ venues (=literally ‘castle’, but often just big houses) which are available for rent.
Setting the scene
Above all, a sprint is collaborative. Being able to give and receive feedback in a constructive way is incredibly important- so, lead by example in the lead up to the sprint, and be clear on the kind of environment people can expect.
There is likely to be collective ownership over the resources created, and participants might see their words being transformed into something beyond what they imagined. This kind of approach can be especially hard for those who work in more traditional disciplines – like lawyers, or academics – but, with the help of a good facilitator, I’ve only ever seen people embrace it (at least by the end of the sprint!). Let people know in advance that there will be a diverse set of participants attending; that the outputs will be collectively, not individually owned; and that this is a collaborative experience for all involved.
Often, participants for relatively small events like these are chosen based on their levels of expertise alone. I’d like to throw another major consideration in there: emotional intelligence. As I’ve mentioned already, sprints are an intense and intimate setting, so having people who are thoughtful and kind in addition to being smart and experienced in the topic, is key. Try to make sure that the people you invite are considerate and humble in their approach to work. If it sounds like I’m describing unicorns, I’m not! Just look hard enough, and you’ll find them.
This might mean having a few calls with potential participants prior to inviting them to check that they’re the right kind of personality, or making sure that at least a couple of people who you know and trust, would recommend them to come. It’s also an environment which demands a lot of you socially, though there are ways of getting round the social demands.
You don’t want precious time at the sprint to be taken up with searching for links or resources – so, if you have the time, create this list in advance, and make clear to participants that they should be thinking about a certain topic before coming. If you can make this list available in advance for participants to contribute to, all the better. The focus of the sprint is writing, not searching on the internet.
This differs a lot depending on how important using Free and Open Source software is to you, and the type of output you’re imagining. In the past, I’ve used Booksprint’s custom and open source software Pubsweet, but from what I can tell, it’s currently at a stage where developer time is needed to set it up and actually use it. Another option is GitBook, which requires a Github login but produces a well-designed ‘book’ layout pretty seamlessly – and for examples, see any of the Tow Center’s Gitbook resources.
If you’re pretty sure of your internet connection, and you’re not writing about sensitive topics and/or you’re not averse to using Google Docs, setting up a shared folder on Google Drive is another option. The downside to this, though, is that setting up separate documents per participant makes it harder to see how many words have been written throughout the week, or to combine them – features that Pubsweet and GitBook make a lot easier.
Another internet-reliant option is using Etherpads (eg. through Mozilla’s set up, or Riseup pads– though these delete after 30 days of non-usage!), though inserting images or formatting further than regular text then becomes difficult. Or, Hackpad, which adds some nice extra functionalities, is open source, but also (I believe) relies on a stable internet connection to work.
For other options, check out this blog post from the LSE on collaborative writing tools for academics.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of a good, experienced, external facilitator. It often doesn’t matter at all whether they know the topic of the sprint or not – their skills lie in understanding social dynamics, being somewhat of an invisible ‘puppet master’ to guide the group and bring them to a successful ending.
Amidst all the preparation, don’t forget about fun activities. You’re basically going on an adult version of summer camp! As inspiration, at last week’s sprint, we had a guitar, a drone, a frisbee, a lot of beautiful countryside to walk and run around, and a couple of people who self-organised yoga sessions in the mornings. Encouraging people to take time out and keep themselves healthy and mentally fit only makes the content stronger.
As an organiser, perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is that whatever idea you had, and whatever reason you had for bringing the participants together, is going to change and evolve. The collaborative approach applies to the very heart of the project itself – together you’ll create something that is representative of your diverse and varied experiences, rather than simply meeting a set of deliverables written by a few people. Embrace it! Diversity makes us stronger and more creative.
Be flexible in your expectations: you chose the participants because you think they are intelligent, and because you trust them. Trust the process and your participants to come up with an output that you’ll be more than happy with!