Writing Retreats: How to Choose the Best One for You (+Giveaway!)

Hi everyone. Help me welcome author Sean Hillen who is going to help us better understand what makes a writing retreat worth the investment. And SPOILER ALERT, you definitely want to get in on the giveaway mentioned at the end of this post!

Forking out scarce, hard-earned cash for a writing retreat is no small decision, so when a writer decides to do just that, they want to make sure the benefits will be multi-faceted. Even beyond a powerful dose of creativity, the experience should also be confidence-building and provide positive, long-lasting effects.

As a journalist and editor for radio, newspapers, and television in both Europe and the US for the last 40 years, including having the same reporting position with the same newspaper as Ernest Hemingway, I’m not a great believer in theory. Instead, I feel the learning is in the doing.

We can greatly benefit from the guidance of those with more experience, and the collective camaraderie and support by fellow participants in a retreat is powerful. After all, we’re apprentices attempting to learn and perfect a process that involves skills that can be challenging to master.

In this way, ‘a timely critique’ becomes an important element of any decent writing retreat.

Rather than tutors talking about the theories of creative writing, value-for-money retreats should literally put participants to work. Writing assignments should preferably be based on activities or excursions participants actually take part in during a retreat. Why? Because such ‘live and present’ situations encourage writers to corral all their senses and create memorable prose.

They also teach aspiring writers to observe and absorb all that happens around them, what is often called ‘color’ – ‘the shapes of fading flowers and the images they evoke,’ ‘the sound and sway of leaves and branches caressed by wayward breezes,’ ‘the expressions on people’s faces as they sip coffee and nibble on croissants in cafes.’  

Just as in journalism, such daily writing assignments should have a set deadline to help foster discipline. At Ireland Writing Retreat in Donegal where I teach, participants enjoy daily an excursion or an activity that lasts several hours, then return to the boutique hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean where they stay (and where the retreat takes place) to complete the assignment. Later these will be critiqued collectively in a workshop led by an experienced tutor, usually a published author, and everyone benefits from the insight. 

Excursions are organised to be as diverse and enjoyable as possible and include guided tours of an ancient Irish castle, a ferryboat trip to an island for a walkabout and a food and drinks tasting experience in a 100-year-old thatched cottage overlooking Ireland’s famous ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ Not to mention exclusive live traditional Irish music and dance performances.

Such activities at retreats can be as wide-ranging and innovative as organisers wish, depending on duration, location and, of course, budget.

Writing retreats should encourage participants to step out of their ‘literary boxes.’ 

What do I mean? Well, some writers prefer to write in certain genres, yet most writers have not tried them all. So why not give them a go? What harm is done by having participants write a ghost story based on a castle visit, a romance based on an island, a murder at an innocuous food-tasting event or a sci-fi story about an alien from Mars trying to master the intricate steps of an Irish jig. Such challenges stretch the imagination. And that’s what we all crave, isn’t it?

I mentioned camaraderie. 

Collective encouragement should be a key ingredient of all retreats.

All of us – including the Dan Browns and the Margaret Atwoods of this world – stumble and fumble often, like post-party people trying to insert keys in door locks at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Fellow scribes helping each other overcome the pitfalls of plot, characterisation and story structure is wonderful to behold. Why? Because we all suffer from the frustrations, the obstacles and merciless procrastination, the dreaded, ‘I’ll hand-wash the dishes instead of putting them in the dishwasher’ syndrome). As Mephistopheles said so solemnly in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus,Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris’ – misery indeed does love company. No better way to overcome it than to share tried and true strategies. 

I also feel some of the best writing retreats are those where participants hail from different backgrounds, economically, culturally and ethnically, and feature a mix of genders and ages. Why? Because diversity provides an excellent melting pot of experiences from which learning flowers and friendships flourish. Outlooks broaden, expectations rise, and passionate brainstorming erupts in a delightful crescendo of conversation. 

In the six years since its foundation, Ireland Writing Retreat has managed to attract men and women, ranging in age from early and mid-20s to those in their 60s and 70s, from countries as diverse as Holland, France, the United States, Ireland, Canada, England, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and Scotland. Professions have been as wide-ranging as teaching, medicine, social work, civil service, NGOs, law, media, advertising, and PR. 

Last but not least, quality retreats should also provide the opportunity for participants to receive feedback on works-in-progress.

To facilitate this best, retreat organisers should request manuscripts of a designated length well in advance of retreat dates to allow tutors ample time to read and review. This way writers return home with a roadmap to move forward with on their own personal projects.

TIP: Attending a specialized writing retreat can also be a powerful way to further your career.

For example, have you ever thought about using your creative non-fiction skills as a TRAVEL WRITER for newspapers or magazines?

Or travel blogging on your own site, thereby being invited on free enjoyable trips to exotic places by tourism agencies? Both can be rewarding, both financially and as a way to blend a love of travel with a love of words.

At this year’s Travel Writing Retreat, Simon Pia, a Scotland-based print, radio and broadcast editor-cum-columnist, will join me as a tutor. Not only will we offer plenty of adventure, we’ll examine the style and structure of travel writing, best practices for keeping a travel journal and other special add-ons, such as how your blog can be a showcase for editors.

And if you would like to join us on this Ireland-bound Travel Writing Retreat, you can, FREE.

Ireland Writing Retreat is giving away one participation package for their Travel Writing Retreat on May 4-10, 2020, in Donegal, Ireland.

Yes, you read that correctly. Someone will be experiencing the beauty of Ireland while investing in their future as a travel writer, FOR FREE.

Corvid-19 Update:

Should this retreat be canceled because it is deemed unsafe to travel, IWR will reschedule and the winner’s seat will apply to that future date.

Prize Details:

One lucky winner will be able to participate in all workshops, excursions, and activities associated with the upcoming ‘Travel Writing Retreat’ on May 4-10 in Donegal, Ireland at no charge. (Prize value: 990 euro.)

Note: This prize does not include anything other than the participation component described above. All travel arrangements, hotel stay, transfers, meals, and other costs outside of the program described above would be the responsibility of the winner. (Ireland Writing Retreat organizers will help the winner book accommodation at the same hotel as the retreat should they wish it.)

Did you know that Ireland Writing Retreat was named one of the ‘Top Ten’ artistic retreats in Europe by The Guardian?

Want to enter to win a spot in this retreat? Just fill out THIS FORM.

A winner has been selected and we are in the midst of notifying–watch your inbox!

*Entrants must adhere to these terms and conditions to qualify. The prize will be awarded by Ireland Writing Retreats directly, not Writers Helping Writers. This giveaway is also subject to the legal notices here.

Want to see more beautiful photos of this and other retreat locations? Check out @irelandwritingretreat or visit them on Facebook.    

Sean Hillen worked at the United Nations Media Center in New York and is a former foreign correspondent for Time magazine, The Irish Times and The Times of London and chairperson of a national Fulbright Commission.

He is author of several books, including ‘Digging for Dracula’ and ‘Pretty Ugly.’


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Contests, Focus, Goal Setting, Guest Post, Motivational, Reader Interest, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Time. Bookmark the permalink.
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Cathy Peper
11 months ago

I’ve always wanted to visit Ireland and do a writing retreat.

Columbia Hillen
1 year ago

Northwest Donegal is probably the most magical part of Ireland indeed