When it comes to collaborative writing, people often have diametrically opposed ideas. Academics in the sciences often write multi-authored articles that depend on sharing their expertise. Many thrive on the social interaction that collaborative writing enables. Composition scholars Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford enjoyed co-authoring so much that they devoted their career to studying it. For others, however, collaborative writing evokes the memories of group projects gone wrong and inequitable work distribution.
Whatever your prior opinions about collaborative writing, we’re here to tell you that this style of composition may benefit your writing process and may help you produce writing that is cogent and compelling. At its best, collaborative writing can help to slow down the writing process, since it necessitates conversation, planning with group members, and more deliberate revising. A study described in Helen Dale’s “The Influence of Coauthoring on the Writing Process” shows that less experienced writers behave more like experts when they engage in collaborative writing. Students working on collaborative writing projects have said that their collaborative writing process involved more brainstorming, discussion, and diverse opinions from group members. Some even said that collaborative writing entailed less of an individual time commitment than solo papers.
Although collaborative writing implies that every part of a collaborative writing project involves working cooperatively with co-author(s), in practice collaborative writing often includes individual work. In what follows, we’ll walk you through the collaborative writing process, which we’ve divided into three parts: planning, drafting, and revising. As you consider how you’ll structure the writing process for your particular project, think about the expertise and disposition of your co-author(s), your project’s due date, the amount of time that you can devote to the project, and any other relevant factors. For more information about the various types of co-authorship systems you might employ, see “Strategies for Effective Collaborative Manuscript Development in Interdisciplinary Science Teams,” which outlines five different “author-management systems.”
The Collaborative Writing Process
Planning includes everything that is done before writing. In collaborative writing, this is a particularly important step since it’s crucial that all members of a team agree about the basic elements of the project and the logistics that will govern the project’s completion.Collaborative writing—by its very definition—requires more communication than individual work since almost all co-authored projects oblige participants to come to an agreement about what should be written and how to do this writing. And careful communication at the planning stage is usually critical to the creation of a strong collaborative paper. We would recommend assigning team members roles. Ensure that you know who will be initially drafting each section, who will be revising and editing these sections, who will be responsible for confirming that all team members complete their jobs, and who will be submitting the finished project.
After your group has decided on the basic parameters of your project, you may find yourself doing a bit of individual planning too—especially if you’re planning on writing without your co-author(s) in the room. Before put pen to paper, you’ll probably want to have an idea of what you’ll be writing about. Try free-writing or outlining before you begin your draft. See our page about generating ideas for more information about planning to write.
Drafting refers to the process of actually writing the paper. We’ve called this part of the process drafting instead of writing to highlight the recursive nature of crafting a compelling paper since strong writing projects are often the product of several rounds of drafts. At this point in the writing process, you’ll need to make a choice: will you write together, individually, or in some combination of these two modes?
Drafting as a team involves crafting each sentence of your paper together—by either sitting in the same room or collaborating synchronously online. This may sound painstaking but may generate interesting conversations since you’ll essentially need to agree about every word of the draft. It also may be comforting to have a partner’s buy-in about the draft’s minutia—especially if you’re writing about something controversial or especially complicated. Drafting together is probably a good option if there are only a few co-authors since this can get unwieldy if the writing committee is too large.
Many collaborative projects are actually drafted individually. In this scenario, co-authors agree about the topics or sections in a writing project and then will draft these topics or sections individually. This is probably a good option for larger teams or those with members who have complicated schedules or dispositions unsuited for writing each word in collaboration with others.
Revising is the final stage in the writing process. It will occur after a draft (either of a particular section or the entire paper) has been written. Revising, for most writing projects, will need to go beyond making line-edits that revise at the sentence-level. Instead, you’ll want to thoroughly consider all aspects of the draft in order to create a version of it that satisfies each member of the team. For more information about revision, check out our Writer’s Handbook page about revising longer papers.Even if your team has drafted the paper individually, we would recommend coming together to discuss revisions. Revising together and making choices about how to improve the draft—either online or in-person— is a good way to build consensus among group members since you’ll all need to agree on the changes you make.After you’ve discussed the revisions as a group, you’ll need to how you want to complete these revisions. Just like in the drafting stage above, you can choose to write together or individually.
Revising together (in the same room or by editing the same online document) can be a good option because this will allow each member of your team to give suggestions about how the draft should be changed. Since you’ll all need to agree about these changes, revising together can spark debates and conversation that may strengthen the final paper.
Revising individually can involve making suggestions about changes that should be made to a draft and/or actually altering the draft to take these suggestions into consideration. There are many permutations of individual revision within the context of collaborative writing. For example:
Person A writes a section
Person B gives suggestions for revision on this section
Person A edits the section based on these suggestions
Person A writes a section
The entire team meets and gives suggestions for revision on this section
Person B edits the section based on these suggestions
Think through the strengths of your co-authoring team and choose a system that will work for your needs.
Suggestions for Efficient and Harmonious Collaborative Writing
Establish ground rules
Although it can be tempting to jump right into your project—especially when you have limited time—establishing ground rules right from the beginning will help your group navigate the writing process. Conflicts and issues will inevitably arise in during the course of many long-term project. Knowing how you’ll navigate issues before they appear will help to smooth out these wrinkles. For example, you may also want to establish who will be responsible for checking in with authors if they don’t seem to be completing tasks assigned to them by their due dates. You may also want to decide how you will adjudicate disagreements. Will the majority rule? Do you want to hold out for full consensus? Establishing some ground rules will ensure that expectations are clear and that all members of the team are involved in the decision-making process.
Respect your co-author(s)
Everyone has their strengths. If you can recognize this, you’ll be able to harness your co-author(s) assets to write the best paper possible. It can be easy to write someone off if they’re not initially pulling their weight, but this type of attitude can be cancerous to a positive group mindset. Instead, check in with your co-author(s) and figure out how each one can best contribute to the group’s effort.
Be willing to argue
Arguing (respectfully!) with the other members of your writing group is a good thing because it means that you are expressing your deeply held beliefs with your co-author(s). While you don’t need to fight your team members about every feeling you have (after all, group work has to involve compromise!), if there are ideas that you feel strongly about—communicate them and encourage other members of your group to do the same even if they conflict with others’ viewpoints.
Schedule synchronous meetings
While you may be tempted to figure out group work purely by email, there’s really no substitute for talking through ideas with your co-author(s) face-to-face—even if you’re looking at your teammates face through the computer. At the beginning of your project, get a few synchronous meetings on the books in advance of your deadlines so that you can make sure that you’re able to have clear lines of communication throughout the writing process.
Use word processing software that enables collaboration
Sending lots of Word document drafts back-and-forth over email can get tiring and chaotic. Instead, we would recommend using word processing software that allows online collaboration. Right now, we like Google Docs for this since it’s free, easy to use, allows many authors to edit the same document, and has robust collaboration tools like chat and commenting.
Dale, Helen. “The Influence of Coauthoring on the Writing Process.” Journal of Teaching Writing, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 65-79.
Lunsford, Andrea A., and Lisa Ede. Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice. Bedford St. Martin, 2011.
Oliver, Samantha K., et al. “Strategies for Effective Collaborative Manuscript Development in Interdisciplinary Science Teams.” Ecosphere, vol. 9, no. 4, Apr. 2018, pp. 1–13., doi:10.1002/ecs2.2206.
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