CYGNA's 5 year anniversary: Middlesex writing boot-camp

In September 2019 CYGNA celebrated its 5-year anniversary with a full-day writing bootcamp in the Vice Chancellor's Board room at Middlesex University. It was our 28th meeting! Chaired by myself and expertly organized by Shasha Zhao, twenty-one CYGNA members spent a gloriously sunny day helping each other with their writing projects. It was particularly pleasing that we had participants coming from as far as Portugal, Spain, France, Austria and Ireland as well as other parts of the UK, such as Oxford, Nottingham and Manchester. In fact only a few of us were "locals".

The name CYGNA derives from the female version of the Latin word for SWAN (Supporting Women in Academia Network). The main objective of the group is to promote interaction among female academics based in the London area and to provide a forum for learning, support, and networking. We typically hold five meetings a year with a mix of presentations and informal discussions. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. If you’d like to join the CYGNA network, just drop me an email

Group work on papers

We started the day with a brief presentation on the reasons behind the increasing number of desk-rejects and the importance of seeing submissions to a journal as a contribution to their conversation. The full presentation - which was based on the Middlesex University Summer writing bootcamps - can be downloaded here.

This was followed by a plenary discussion triggered by questions such as: "How do I know my paper is ready for submission?", "How do I find a friendly reviewer before submitting my paper if I am a junior academic?", "How do I ensure that any co-authorship arrangements I enter into are productive and rewarding?" and "Do I submit to journals on my university's journal list or to the journal that best fits my paper?". We all had plenty of suggestions to share.

After that participants worked in groups of 4 or 5 to provide feedback on each other's papers, which had been circulated beforehand. I had divided participants in groups trying to match topics and research methods and this seemed to have worked well as the participants found the feedback they received from their group members very useful. During the whole day I held a "clinic" talking to participants one-on-one about their papers [see picture above].

Thanks to Shasha's very clever framing of the pictures we could see portraits of female senior university managers in every group picture. Group work was alternated with regular breaks to allow for informal discussions. Middlesex University had sponsored an excellent lunch, refreshments and a finger food dinner.

What did participants like most?

The most important for me, was that similar-minded people could come together and discuss their papers. Non-judgemental and supportive environment, no one made me feel inadequate, and likewise I felt that I should reach out to those more junior than me, to given them help and guidance in their papers. Everyone was on the same level.

I really liked the discussion part in group. The comments from group members do help a lot on improving each other's paper to a higher level, and from a different perspective.

I thought it was fantastic to get your feedback, Anne-Wil, thank you so much for making such an effort for everyone's paper. I thought your feedback was really carefully and delicately delivered, and that makes a big difference when a novice receives feedback from someone so experienced.

As expected what I liked the most was the academic and collaborative environment and Anne-Wil's coaching. To me this is a lifetime opportunity that I am very thankful.

The boot-camp provided a safe space to reflect on one's work and to discuss different aspects of papers in small groups of colleagues who have read the work. I found it particularly valuable that this format enabled us to jointly brainstorm ideas, work out possible solutions and consider ways forward.

Last by not least, I immensely valued Anne-Wil's attention to each and single one of us and her frank and developmental feedback on our work. Such personal attention and genuine effort to help out does not come by that often.

Finally, it should not get unnoticed that the boot-camp, thanks to Anne-Wil's efforts, also provided a platform to share experiences with different journals. The provided materials are now safely stored on my computer. As it turned out, I was working on a re-submission of a high stakes manuscript a week after the boot-camp. Our discussions about writing a good title, abstract and introduction enabled me to approach my own work with a more critical eye. I firmly believe that this has already improved the quality of my work. I am massively grateful for the generosity with which hard earned personal experience was shared with us.

I found the constructive, collaborative atmosphere so helpful and motivating. It gave me a totally different view of the friendly review process, making it much less daunting to reach out and ask for feedback. Also, the wealth of knowledge shared in the plenary sessions was incredible. Not just general suggestions but specific offers of help regarding understanding how certain journals work.

I really liked the format that combined plenary discussions, small group work and the option to work individually.

Reading papers of experienced researchers and talking about their development process and challenges face-to-face. This enabled me to learn what top-level papers look like and how my own work should be improved to make a clearer contribution. Not having many people aiming for publication in international journals in my institution, the bootcamp was an incredible experience to intimately feel the perseverence of enthusiastic researchers, which itself left a deep afterglow. These discussions are seldom available in conferences where people tend to say something diplomatic rather than be critical.

I liked how dedicated, professional and supportive all members were, they have given thorough comments, feedback and ideas that could improve my paper and in a very humble and friendly way.

I really enjoyed discussions in groups (very good group construction), I received constructive comments on my paper and discovered fascinating researches in my field. I enjoyed receiving Anne-Wil's comments on my introduction and conclusion. And it was great meeting new colleagues.

A wonderful CYGNA event, as usual. This allowed me to get some amazing feedback on a paper. A methodological issue I was struggling with for a while was sorted in 30 minutes!

Feedback from Anne-Wil on my paper, and feedback from some of my group members. It was so useful, supportive and inspiring! I also liked the opportunity to discuss topical issues and network in general, the members of the group were very friendly and together possess so much wisdom.

Amazing "side effect" was the networking opportunity and learning from more experienced colleagues.

Unfortunately I was unable to attend on the day but hugely benefited from overcoming the feeling of 'exposing' my fledgling article with experienced peers and receiving encouraging feedback which has motivated me to continue. The first few articles as an ECR are daunting so I found this process an extremely beneficial way to increase my confidence and just go for it.

I like how members with similar interests can work together and advise each other. It makes comments more relevant and useful. It is also a good way to build new network contacts in similar fields.

Best for me were the variety of suggestions for improvement. It allowed me to understand how different audiences could read my paper, and therefore helping to sharpen my message for the 'target audience' while at the same time making sure that my claims do not irk audiences from connected disciplinary fields. I also liked that, at least at my table, we started tentatively, as we didn't know each other well, and ended up being quite openly critical of our work, while still laughing and making jokes.

A celebratory cake

Of course birthdays require a cake. So we concluded the day with fingerfood and a nice slice of cake. I had bought a custom-made cake from M&S and I think it turned out really well. It looked like they almost ran out of space when icing "Anniversary", but we all know that feeling when writing under pressure.

Unfortunately, some participants had to catch trains and flights back, but most were able to stay until the end [see below]. It has been an eventful and rewarding 5 years (see also: Celebrating CYGNA: Supporting women in academia). Starting from a modest base of a dozen members, the virtual network has grown to more than 180 members. Many of them - because of location, lack of time or lack of travel funding - can participate via the mailing list only. However, in the past year we have had around 20-25 participants at most meetings, with every meeting showing a very nice mix of regulars and new attendees. We are looking forward to our next five years!