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Writing

Writing together: how to make it work

Imagine opening up your paper in progress after three weeks away and finding an extra 500 words, grammar edits, and half the bibliography done. No, it wasn’t elves. It was your collaborators, moving the work forward even while you were busy elsewhere. If this sounds like a fantasy, that’s because writing together well as academics is a difficult skill to master.

Like so much else about academic work, writing together is rarely a skill that we’re taught. Many of us have co-authored pieces with our supervisors or lab colleagues, but just because you’re co-authors doesn’t mean you truly co-wrote the piece. Often, work is divided up and the author order reflects the level of contribution. However, there are times when it may be desirable, even fun, to more fully share the task of writing.

But how do you set up a fair, even, and satisfying co-writing process? In this post, I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned over ten or so years of writing together with co-authors, some of whom I’ve been working continually with for almost eight years. I can’t guarantee that every collaboration will run smoothly. But these tips will help provide a good foundation for your next co-writing project.

Lessons from a decade of writing together

My first co-authorship projects were with my supervisor, and then with another more senior academic. In both of these book chapters, we essentially wrote our own sections, and then co-wrote an introduction and conclusion. The process was more of a back-and-forth, cut-and-splice operation than true co-writing. I think this model is pretty common among academics. It can work, but sometimes it feels pretty disjointed. If one person puts the project on the backburner, little progress can be made. When one co-author is senior or in a position of power over the other, it’s hard for the junior partner to take ownership or move things forward. A sense of satisfaction and pleasure in the process can be hard to come by.

When I began working more with peers, the stumbling blocks were a little different. What was the next task to check off? Who was responsible for this section? Which document was the most recent? How can I keep this project high on my priority list? Over time, we found a set of communication practices and technological solutions that helped immensely. Of course, there are no simple solutions when someone in the group is participating in bad faith or when power is being abused. That’s a whole other blog! Or book! But I’m certain that adopting as many of these tips as suits your writing together project will make the entire experience more productive, more satisfying, and more meaningful.

Communication practices

It doesn’t matter how brilliant the members of your group are as individuals: if your communication isn’t good, the whole thing will either break down or be incredibly frustrating. Here are my top suggestions for setting a solid communication foundation:

  1. Meet regularly (in person or via phone/video conference). I can’t emphasize this enough. Hence why it’s first! Moving a project forward via written communication alone (email, track changes, document comments) is a recipe for misunderstanding, passive aggressiveness, and a general lack of commitment. I recommend meeting every 2-3 weeks. One of my groups sets our meeting dates 3-4 months ahead so they’re always in our schedules. It’s amazing how much 60-90 minutes of conversation can accomplish compared to the frustrating cycle of emails, silences, and irritated reminders.
  2. Be open about your goals and priorities early and often. Decide together what the important outcomes of the project are and be as specific as possible. For example, one person’s priority might be publication in a top-tier journal while another’s is finding a community of supportive colleagues. These things might still be compatible, but everyone needs to be honest about what they want out of a project. In my longer-term collaborations, we’ve found that these priorities shift as we progress through different career stages, so we revisit them for each aspect of our work together.
  3. Decide right away on levels of participation. Be clear about whether this project involves equal participation (and equal credit) for all, or whether one (or more) people function as the leaders of the group. In my work with peers, we always aim for equal and even participation. However, there are times when a hierarchy is preferable. The point is to be clear, open, and straightforward.

During meetings

  1. Set an agenda for your meetings. Either take turns or have the group “leader” send an email with a proposed agenda before the meeting. This can be quite informal (e.g. just a list of topics to discuss). Assigning times to agenda items can help if there is a lot to accomplish.
  2. Check in with everyone. If there are more than 2 of you, check in with the person who hasn’t said anything for the last 10 minutes. Make sure everyone has a chance to be heard. If possible aim for consensus building rather than majority-rules decision making.
  3. Always leave time for setting action items and assigning tasks. Devote the last 15 minutes of your meeting to figuring out what specific tasks should be worked on before the next meeting. Even if these are small, the point is that everyone knows exactly what they’re going to work on next.

Technological help

Digital sharing technologies can either be a source of frustration or a boon to your efficiency. There is no one best app or system. Again, open communication will be central to making these decisions.

  1. Decide on your writing software and your sharing system. Whether it’s Google docs, Word documents shared to a cloud service, or emailing documents back and forth (I don’t actually recommend the latter), figure out what works for you. Different group members will have differing levels of comfort with apps and systems. Be willing to compromise, learn together, and experiment.
  2. Choose how you’ll save and archive the work. For example, will each new iteration of a document be saved as a new document (e.g. with a new date or version code), or will you simply re-save the same document? Some people like a very full archive of all changes and will be frustrated to see new changes take hold with no record of the old.
  3. Use commenting and tracked changes mindfully. Again, discuss your preferences. If you do track changes, decide how often you’ll “accept” and refresh the document. Watch out for the “tone” of comments. Their brevity can sometimes make them sound sharp or critical. If there are more than 2 group members, consider making comments and tracked changes anonymous to increase the sense that you’re working as a collective. In my group, we’ve found that this simple change allows us to be less “precious” about our own words.
  4. Create a system to avoid accidentally undoing or overwriting someone else’s work. In my group of 4 collaborators, we email each other when we’re about to start work on a document and when the latest version is back up in our shared folder. This way we don’t end up with competing versions of the latest draft.

Final thoughts

Truly collaborative writing projects involve a big time commitment, but the pay off is huge. When done right, not only will you have a stack of papers to show for it, you’ll have:

  • Deeper relationships with colleagues.
  • Learned a lot about yourself as a writer and a thinker.
  • Improved your writing skills through collaboration.
  • A deeper appreciation for the process of knowledge production overall.
  • Discovered what can happen when you (I mean you Type As) relinquish a bit of control and share responsibility.

My last suggestion is this: even if your group is geographically distant, try to find ways to meet in person once in a while. My four-person group is spread coast-to-coast across 4 time zones. We’ve gotten creative about ways to meet up: adding an extra 2 or 3 days at the end of a conference we’re all going to to stay and work together; pooling professional development funds to organize retreats, etc. Although these don’t happen every year, even infrequent meet ups have brought us much closer together and helped us reaffirm our commitment to writing together. They’ve also been incredibly generative times for moving our work forward. If you can make it happen, I highly recommend it.

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