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A Short Guide on Collaborative Writing

You probably have some understandable anxieties and confusions about writing collaboratively, so the following discussion will help you begin this task. Working in a group has its special joys and frustrations, but it represents an important skill in today's workplace. As messy and perhaps painful as this process can be, it is a useful experience whether the whole enterprise flops or ends beautifully.

The main benefit of working in a group (as I hope you have seen with peer response) is that two or three heads are better than one, and four working together are stronger than one alone. Working together as a group requires a few guiding principles that I'll list below:

  • A willingness to entertain other people's opinions and not have to be right all the time. We all have different personalities and social habits, so as we work together we need to remember those important skills we learned in Kindergarten about playing together.

  • Reliable lines of communication: All team members need to communicate with each other and be available (within reasonable parameters) to each other. Everyone has different schedules and different responsibilities, and we can't expect instantaneous response to emails or Facebook posts. However, we should be responsive to communication we have received. A team member should not drop off the map but always be "present" for his or her group in a reasonable timeframe (say no more than one day).

  • A leader for every team: Your group will work better if it has someone who is helping to organize and coordinate the efforts of the group. If no one can make a decision, then maybe you need someone to step up and be a leader. I also suggest that you rotate this leadership role by draft: Maybe one person be leader for draft1, another person for draft2, and another person for draft3.

  • Clear tasks and deadlines for your team: Then, be sure to communicate with the whole group about your status in completing tasks and reaching deadlines. (The group leader can help in setting these tasks and deadlines.)

  • A sense of responsibly to the group. Slacking or procrastination on individual projects hurts only you, but in a collaborative writing context, your actions affect others. You must do your part and expect your group members to do their part as well. Being responsible to the group also means helping team members who are struggling for whatever reason. Dividing tasks is part of collaborative writing, but it doesn't mean you give over ownership and responsibility for that part to that single person--everyone is still responsible for all the work of a collaborative writing project.

collaborate Collaborative writing can be divided into three different kinds of collaboration:

Serial writing:
In this mode of collaborative writing, a "train of individuals" works on a text (361). This could take the form of employees creating individual sections of a report that the supervisor compiles and sends out without further collaboration. From Kittle and Hicks' perspective, this would be cooperation, not collaboration.

Compiled writing:
Here, individuals compose separate components of the text and retain "some control over part of the final text" so the reader can tell who wrote what (Kittle and Hicks 362). This might be a collection of essays or poems or a single document with multiple sections. Compiled writing represents a more advanced form of cooperation because all the parts have to fit; however, little negotiation or collaboration occurs among all the writers with this kind of writing. Though other individuals may assist in proofreading the final document, separate sections are still single-authored texts.

Co-authored writing:
In this type of writing, "it is difficult (indeed, often impossible) to distinguish the work of one writer from another" (363).Co-authoring means all authors have a stake in what is said and are actively composing every part of the text. Often one facilitator coordinates the final draft of the text, but everyone is expected to contribute in the entire writing process of the text.

Although writing teams might compose earlier drafts as compiled writing (with sections assigned to a single author or pair of authors), these first drafts of separate chunks must only represent the first phase of working on the text together. In a co-authored," text-woven" document, everyone must be responsible for the entire text in terms of both "global" and "local" concerns:

  • Global concerns include the task or genre appropriateness, content and ideas, organization, and development
  • Local concerns include word choice, sentences, grammar, mechanics, format, and documentation.

In co-authored writing, the entire team reviews and contribute to the document on both a global and local level.

I prefer the term "text-weaving" to describe co-authored writing. Most groups will fall into the easier and more diplomatic approach of serial or compiled writing. "You do that part, and I'll do this part. I have no responsibility for your part, and you have none for mine." Or groups may only co-author on the local level of fixing errors or individually composed separate parts. A true co-authored document is one where every author is involved in the writing of every aspect of the document and every part of the process of creating the document.

A Special Challenge for Co-authored Writing
All of us as writers learned at a certain point that our writing is not carved in stone--we can change our own text. Learning to take the risk of revision and accept the necessity of editing represent an important developmental phase for each individual writer. From my experience, collaborative writers need to learn this truth about the fluidity of text all over again.

Many writers feel either it would be rude to revise someone else's text or that they are not worthy to mess with another's writing. Our social norms respect individual space and property. However, in a collaborative writing context, we need to loosen these norms away from individuality to the collective. We need to see the necessity and opportunities for revision to improve a collaborative text as much as we would our own individual text. In short, we need to treat the collective text as if it were our individual text.

(This discussion in part comes from an article about collaborative writing "Transforming the Group Paper with Collaborative Online Writing" by Peter Kittle and Troy Hicks in Pedagogy Volume 9, Number 3.)


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