Making co-writing work

Four people, concentrating on their laptops, in a library

From 'Writing like the wind' by snigl3t on Flickr

Writing with your colleagues can be as fantastic as it can be abysmal; it’s all about who you’re playing with, and what kind of experience those dynamics create.

Academia in general appears to be increasingly geared towards multiple authors and team-based research, even in the traditional bastions of sole authordom such as the humanities. Most of those in the sciences co-author and team-write as a matter of course, though many admit that the process can still be a fraught one. Susan Cain, in her recent New York Times article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink“, focuses her criticism on the context and implementation of that collaborative work.

While performing a critique of prescriptive collaborative work cultures, Cain notes: “recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.)”

This post is about the process of intensive co-authoring. I’m not talking about the formality of including a research team on a publication, where only a handful of the listed researchers may have actively worked on the paper. Nor will I cover the situation where one person does all the work and then feels obliged to add a senior colleague’s name on it.

ALL successful intensive co-authoring requires:

  • A feasible, agreed-upon schedule for drafting and deadline for completion.
  • A strong leader for the paper, someone who takes final responsibility for its proofing and submission (even though the actual tasks may be devolved to someone else…).
  • Proper version control. That’s why I emphasise the serial process of sending it around the team. When X has done their bit, they send it to Y (cc’ing the others), who then sends it to Z (cc’ing the others). Don’t fiddle with the writing till you are the one the document is sent to.
  • All members of the team to be committed to adding value to the publication, and doing their bit.

The three approaches that I’ve experienced (for which I’ve committed the sin of neologism) are:

1. LAYERING

One person does a whole first draft after an initial, loose meeting with the team about content and overall direction. This person sends it around to the other authors (serially); they edit and add to it.

PROS: This should be a very organic process, with the team’s critical ideas meshing in the text and each writer building on their co-authors’ work. When done well, this kind of article reads more smoothly because there’s less jarring between people’s writing styles. It should present a beautiful synthesis of the great minds behind the publication. Naturally, the person who puts together the first draft (if they do it properly) takes on a significant load for the writing project – choose this person well!

MUST HAVE: Strong organiser and draft schedule to keep momentum of work going. Every author should know when the next person is expecting the draft, and the entire paper must have a deadline (self-set or otherwise). It’s too easy to lose the thread of the paper development in the middle of other academic commitments.

2. BRICOLAGE

The research team meets and discusses the general content and structure of the work. Major themes and sections are sketched out. The sections are then allocated to various members of the team, who go away, write their bit, then return the text to the publication leader. The leader stitches the sections together, smoothing connections if necessary, and sends it around the team (serially) for final ‘massage’ of content and style.

PROS: This can be a faster way to get something written, with people writing to their strengths or covering the specific section of the project they carried out. For this approach, the whole team doesn’t necessarily have to be au fait with every step of the research; as with the process of the actual project, researchers can dip in, be the ‘expert’, then take on the ‘informed lay-reader’ review role when the whole thing is complete (that is, read for general integrity of structure and flow of argument).

MUST HAVE: Again, must have strong organiser/leader for the publication project to keep everyone on schedule and to make the call on structure and direction in the preliminary and final stages.

3. LEGO

For this one, the research team meets (maybe multiple times) and nuts out all the content for the paper, right down to the required paragraphs, maybe even their topic sentences. Paragraphs are allocated to various team members, they write them up, then send them back. Leader stitches the sections together, smoothing connections if necessary, and sends it around the team (serially) to ‘massage’ content and style.

PROS: This approach requires a much longer preparation and discussion time, but the actual writing of the publication can be extremely fast. It’s a bit like an academic ‘paint by numbers’ template. It allows you to complete the bulk of the writing very quickly.

MUST HAVE: Consensus about whole-of-publication content and direction, and a co-authoring team that can work well together (even when threshing things out on the nitty-gritty paragraph levels).

All my co-writing experiences have been positive ones, and some of the team-writing I’ve done have been the highlights of my academic career (both in terms of work produced and good times had).

My most extreme co-writing experience was an ARC grant application where three of us nutted out the whole first draft of the application together, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. It taught me two things:

  • It wasn’t the most efficient way to write a grant application, but
  • It was the absolute best way to find out whether I could work with those two over a three-year project.

Not all of my co-writing adventures have involved equal division of labour, but every one started with the authors being clear about where we all stood. For example, in drafting the introduction to an edited book, I knew the more senior professor with whom I was co-authoring would not be doing the heavy lifting. I was cool with this. It would’ve been a different situation, however, if I was expecting parity of labour and found that it was not the case. Best way to avoid this kind of misunderstanding, which can lead to all kinds of long-term pain? Talk early, talk often!

Have you encountered different approaches to co-writing? What were their advantages (or otherwise)?

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

2 Responses to Making co-writing work

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Also, putting the thing on Google Docs, with everybody having access, is no substitute for actually working out who does what, imho.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I’m paranoid about version control, and I find that giving everyone access at once just leads to academic stickybeaking. Old school serial file sending is what I stick with. ;)

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