Strategies for Co-Writing

By Kaysi Holman, Cihan Tekay, Sujung Kim, Mary Grueser, Michael Epstein, Stefano Morello

Note: In their initial collaboration, the authors of this post wrote in different font colors to distinguish between voices in the document, which is an easy and effective strategy for co-writing that makes voices visible and indicates which voices could be brought out even more.

How to Kick-off a Co-Writing Project:

[Kaysi Holman:] As soon as you know that you are engaged in a cooperative writing process — which may happen at the inception of the project, but can also happen during the process of your normal writing and working that involves feedback from other people — have a meeting with the collaborative partners. During this meeting, you should overview your goals for writing the project, both as a group and individually, as well as your ethos and values entering the project. More specifically, you should discuss your definitions and understandings of what collaboration entails, what you can offer to the collaboration, and what your expectations are of each other. Especially in a collaboration where there is unequal power dynamics, it’s important to be crystal clear about boundaries and authority that pertain to this particular project (as opposed to your relationship overall). It may also be helpful to review past work of the other person, discuss what accountability processes you want to use, and what technology you both enjoy working with. Authorship should also explicitly be discussed. If you are seeking first authorship, then you should be prepared to tell the other person what work you are willing to do and why you believe you should get first authorship. If authorship is less important to you than the other person, consider allowing them the honor of being first author, if your work is structured to be equitable. The more you know about each other–your background, your ethos, your collaboration style, and your habits–before entering the collaboration, the smoother the collaboration will go.

[Cihan Tekay:] Discussing what you want to write together and taking notes (like a brainstorm) might help with coming up with an outline/set of ideas. Using google docs or other shared platforms gives everyone a chance to put in their thoughts without first worrying about how they will cohere. A co-writer can help you kick off a writing project that you might be putting off, possibly because you feel like you don’t know enough about something or if you feel like you are not privy to all the aspects of a given topic. It also helps to be accountable to someone other than yourself, especially if this is not a required component of a program (ie. writing for the public) and doesn’t necessarily come with a deadline.

[Mary Grueser:] I agree that a brainstorming conversation and a collaborative outline should happen as an initial step.  Periodic check ins in the form of face to face meetings or phone conferences are also very important. There are too many opportunities for miscommunication in email or virtual check ins.  An initial conversation should happen about authorship and the goal of this collaborative project. People should be authentic in this conversation and already have a working relationship to understand how to work with each other.

[Sujung Kim:] If you have something that you really want to publicize, just talk about your ideas to people who are engaged in the same or similar projects. 

Taking enough time to discuss the timeline, authorship,  potential issues and so on. In particular discuss the power issues in a co-writing project:

[Michael Epstein:] It would be nice if there were clearer guidelines to faculty on how to address power issues early in projects.

And, as another group is discussing — you must take the time to discuss authorship, target journal to send the manuscript, expectations etc. I found that having this conversation earlier was far easier than expected, but I had received very little guidance on how to do this as a new graduate student. Now I wouldn’t even think of starting a project without having clear authorship expectations.

[Stefano Morello:] I usually begin with creating an outline with the other writer, and assign each other sections. We then go over each other’s work and make suggested edits. One person at the end goes over the entire thing to ensure the writing voice is coherent.
Theoretical Issues around Co-Writing:
[Michael Epstein:] How does one deal with working with someone who does aggressively strike out and correct writing? (when there is an inbalanced power dynamic in particular) —This is one of the critical issues in co-writing. Having open discussions on this issue is critical. In other words, in co-writing, discussion is also a crucial part to  progress the co-writing project and to utilizing the opportunity as deepening discussions on the topic. This issue needs to be discussed at the very beginning stage of the co-writing, throughout the writing process, and  until publishing the piece.
[Cihan Tekay:] As in any revision process, it’s good to use the “suggesting” mode and comment boxes on Word or Google docs while suggesting edits. That way, even if you or the other person is suggesting cuts, the text is still there.
[Kaysi Holman:] Every collaboration needs to have a discussion about what editing practices feel comfortable for each person, and what boundaries you both agree to. Ideally, this conversation would take place before any editing begins. But, if a practice occurs during co-writing or co-editing that feels uncomfortable for one of the collaborators, it’s important to have a discussion about the practice that is happening. It’s possible that the person doesn’t realize that their behavior seems aggressive or that it is encroaching on your writing process. Likely, they understand that both of you have the power to strike anything from the document, and they are proceeding accordingly. It is not always the case, but I find it helpful to assume from the beginning that whenever there are disagreements, the other person does not have malicious intentions.  

Also, using google docs, or managing versions carefully, allows you to resurrect certain pieces of writing that were stricken, and to reinsert them with a comment about why you believe it should be a part of the final piece, and asking for justification for the initial striking.


Practical Techniques for Co-Writing:
[Stefano Morello:] It takes a lot of getting to know each other before finding some kind of balance. I co-curated an exhibition and in crafting that narrative, I believe we produced enough material to write a book, before finally settling on a 12-page document. It is definitely a valuable explorative process, but also very time consuming. I wonder if there’s a way/technique to mitigate that process. 

Making the most of a shared pool of resources can also be challenging, the way I handled this was by keeping a shared Zotero Library and a shared Google Drive/Dropbox folder with primary texts and archival resources. Tropy is also soon to introduce a cloud-based service.

[Cihan Tekay:] Asking a third person to read and suggest revisions might help if you have very different writing styles or if things feel disjointed.
[Michael Epstein:] How can you deal with very different writing styles? Not as far as specific language, but different approaches to writing? In a recent co-writing project, (not this one!) I ran into the issue of some co-author wanting to sit in a room and collaboratively edit a Google doc, whereas another wanted to have a single author write up everything, and then have the others take turns revising.
[Mary Grueser:] 

I do not have a lot of experience with co-writing but I envision that the foundation for all practical techniques around a co-writing project is establishing and maintaining an open and collaborative form of communication among the authors.  Flexibility is also important. It is possible that the design may organically change as the authors move through the process. Establishing clear roles and perspectives from each author is important. What unique perspective does each person bring to the piece and who is best qualified to speak on what aspect. Then the other authors can serve as a test audience?

As far as technology, google docs is a great tool that I often use for collaborative work. In addition, I have started to use hypothesis for collective annotation on sources.