co-writing the messy first draft

another of those posts where I talk about my own practice…

I’m currently engaged in several bits of co-writing. They are not the talk-and-write-together model that I do with Barbara. No, these are variations on the write-together-write-separate process. Because this is very often the way that joint authoring goes, I thought I might share how I go about this and the adaptations that occur.

Now, as usual, the health warning. I’m not suggesting that these are the only ways to co-write – and they may not even be a best way. However, it does seem to me that it’s worth talking about co-writing, as both co-researching and co-writing are likely to be the lot of many post PhDs. The other reason for writing this post is that I want to promote the usefulness of (1) talking in order to write, (2) planning and (3) writing in chunks.

I currently have on the go:

(1) Three papers from a research project.
I probably know more about the topic than my co-authors and more about writing papers .

These papers are being written with two early career researchers. Both have their PhDs, and they were really good ones, and they have clearly shown that they can write and argue. So for them, writing these papers is in part about getting onto and into the genre of the journal article, as well as getting publications for the cv. For me, it’s about getting the research output lined up so it can be read and used (and reported to the Research Council). Each of us is going to first author one paper.

I always start a journal article with an abstract and a clear idea of what journal and readership to write for. So step one of these co-written papers has been exactly that; we started with a discussion about the argument and the point that we wanted to make and for whom in what publication. We have separately written an abstract for the paper we are leading on and we’ve then discussed these in a meeting. In one case, there are a few iterations of the abstract happening because it’s a hard argument to get straight. The next step is that one of us will produce a plan, or write a first draft, and this will go around the group for iterative comments and revisions. The precise process is still being worked out, as we are just moving past the abstract stage. We’re not in a desperate hurry, so we have as long as it takes to get these papers done.

As the senior academic and the director of the research project I have more power in this situation, and so for me the process is about finding the right balance in how much to write over what my colleagues have written and how much to leave. We don’t all say things in the same way, and it’s important to try to get the first author’s ‘voice’ into the text. At the same time, we do all want to make it through the reviewing stage so it’s important for me to make sure that we get the paper as ‘right’ as we can. This will mean, I think, that we will need more discussions face to face, rather than simply me communicating via a bunch of track changes.

(2) A chapter with a colleague.
I know a lot less than my colleague does about the topic but probably more about academic writing.

I was the one invited to do this chapter and I asked her to join me. She will be first author. I see my job as putting in the stuff that the editors, who I know, expect to be included. We are about half way through the first draft at present. We’re on a deadline, but not an impossible one.

We started with a conversation about what argument we could make, and this led to an abstract which I wrote and sent off to the Editors for approval. This was quite a long abstract, about 500 or so words. I then wrote a plan for the paper with word budgets for each section, and with some suggestions about who would do what.

In the first instance we wrote about a third of the paper. My colleague started the text off, sent it to me, and I then added three chunks. I didn’t do any revision at this point, and neither has she when she got my added sections back.

I then decided that the previous plan I’d developed didn’t make sense and so we had a face to face conversation about how the rest of the chapter should go. Because she is more knowledgable than me about the topic, this was very much me focusing on the argument flow, and her telling me what the key points were. I’ve just roughed out the new plan and sent it off to her to add the next chunks. When she’s finished, we’ll need to do a short methods section and smooth over the conclusion. But yippee, we will then have a complete messy first draft. My guess is that we may then have another short conversation about how and what to revise.

(3) A report with a research partner
We each know about the topic and we are co-investigators.

Because my research partner and I come from different disciplines we have a partnership where listening and understanding each other’s point of view is a key to any writing. Our goal is always to work out how our two perspectives can be brought together in ways that are meaningful. Our research project has a blog where we do some of this work. We have been writing about our thinking on the project from an early stage – this is not simply a writing exercise, but we have been testing out ideas and theoretical resources. Our ‘testing out’ writing is analogous to the kinds of advice given to doctoral researchers – write early and keep it up – and here, just as in doctoral research, what is actually meant by that is that it is good to use writing-along-the-way to develop thinking and keep track of ideas.

We began our end of project report as a powerpoint – we talked and did this together. We tested this version of our results out at a public seminar and got some helpful feedback, mainly about the (many) things that weren’t clear.

I then produced a summary document based on the powerpoint and my colleague added to it; this little paper was presented to a small seminar. Again the feedback highlighted things that we needed to make sure that we explain properly in the report. Finding out people’s critiques is very helpful.

We are now working on the actual report after having a Skype conversation to develop a broad report plan – during this we made a number of amendments to our initial plan on the slides. I have just written some of my part of the draft and sent it off to my partner so she can add some of her section too. Because we are both busy, we are writing in fits and starts as we can; neither of us will be able to do the sections that we are responsible for in one sitting. Having a kind of document that grows like Topsy between us is the only way we will get it done.

Final word:
So these are variations on a co-writing theme. It’s all about the talking, the planning and writing in chunks.

But co-writing is never just about process – it is also always about negotiation, support and clarity around who does what, when and in what order. Issues of power and expertise are involved in all co-writing, as I’ve suggested. And talking, planning and writing in sections are very helpful as processes that allow issues of power, identity and disciplinarity to be made explicit. They can then be sorted out as the writing happens, as long as identity,voice, power relations and (inter)disciplinarity are also understood as in formation throughout the entire talking together/co-writing process.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in abstracts, co-writing, planning, planning a paper, word budget and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to co-writing the messy first draft

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Last month my supervisor and me submitted a paper as a chapter for an edited book. It is my first paper and I am eager to see how it will go.
    The process involved a series of talking/writing and although at first it entailed a lot of “corrections” to my style it moved toward finding voice and concentrating on what + how our “delivery” should look like (some style corrections were still evident in my part of course, but a bit less).

    Thanks for pointing out to “surrounding” issues such as power & negotiations. My supervisor often made the first step in clarifying these and put me in ease -as possible- in addressing them in my writing part of the paper. I learned a lot indeed whilst in this process.


  2. lizst says:

    Really like your comments around getting ‘voice’ Pat and needing the face to face time together – working online is so super fast for collective information and specific idea sharing though isn’t a match for the finer points of dialogue.


  3. Congrats on getting your paper done. I’m starting my PhD program this fall and I’m researching and connecting with other PhD students. This post is great.


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