co-writing strategies – or – what could possibly go wrong?

Writing collaboratively can be a joy. But it can also be challenging.  It is important when writing with others to choose a strategy which is not only manageable but also has more likelihood of joy than challenge.

The talk-write together approach

Barbara and I have written together for the last fifteen or so years. We wanted to find a way to write which was at once both of us, and neither of us. We achieved this through talk-write together – lots of conversation, then writing sitting side by side, always talking the text into being as we took turns at the keyboard.

We have interviewed other pairs of long-term writing collaborators. We know that some other people write like this too – but it’s not very common. Some writers prefer to write separately and apart. Some don’t have the time for the talk-write. Some try it and find they spend all their time talking and none writing. Or, at worst, there is a fight over words which jeopardises the partnership. So talk-write together is not for everyone.

And of course it’s much harder to do as a threesome or a bigger team. Then there are other strategies that come into play.


The first-draft approach

Perhaps the most common way for people to write together is for one person to do the first draft. This is a strategy that works whether there are two writers or fifteen. And first-draft usually happens after joint planning.

First drafting is not without its problems.

Writers must negotiate about who takes the lead. Sometimes one person might just assume it is them and this can create resentments. Ideally, the first drafter become first author. However, quite often, the first-drafter is the most junior member of a team; they can end up being relegated to somewhere near the end of the author order. This is ethically difficult… but there are disciplinary differences here and differences of view. And there are countless stories of unethical exploitation of junior first-drafters. Supervisor-doctoral writing can also suffer from first-draft difficulties: assumptions are made about who should be first author and who actually knows most about the topic and the literatures.

Of course, there is potential in the first-draft arrangement for second, third and fourth authors to do very little work, or to act in other irritating ways – for instance, writing questions on the text as if they were marking the first-drafter’s work, rather than offering alternatives as co-authors. ( My personal hate.) Occasionally first-drafters don’t produce, leaving others in the team wondering how to address the problem.

But in both the talk-write and first-draft approach it is possible for a particular writing style – or ‘voice’ to be developed and maintained throughout drafting and revision. My research partner Chris and I have just written two books using the first-draft approach. Our aim was to ensure that readers were not aware of two authors. Each text would read, we hoped, as if it were written by one person. I wrote the first draft of one book and she the other. In each case, the second writer wrote into the text, deleting, inserting sections into our overall agreed plan. The final revision was undertaken by one of us who paid attention to the consistency of writing across the whole text – and we initially agreed that the first-drafter would have the last say on how the text was written. But if you were to read the two books side by side, as we have, you would see two different writers at work. Each book has one of our writing voices.

The write-in-sections approach

Another very common way to approach co-writing is for the text to be carved up so that each team member writes sections. As in the first-draft strategy, one of the writers, usually first author, has to take responsibility for the last version of the paper.

This approach is also not without its problems. The write-in-sections strategy is completely dependent on each writer doing their job within agreed time limits. While first-drafters can deal with tardy co-writers by doing the revisions themselves and then negotiating about whether the non-participants stay on the author list, section writers can’t. People who don’t pull their weight on section writing create huge problems for the other writer(s). There isn’t a full first draft to work with. Who should tell the lazy one, and who should step in, thus taking on a bigger responsibility?

And there are two other potential issues that can also cause trouble in the write-in-sections strategy. First of all, recognition of the need for consistency across sections of writing can lead to all of the writers adopting a generic style, one that has less colour, that leans to facticity, that is a dull read. This is not ideal.

Secondly, and more negatively, the lead author’s writing over and writing out in the last revision can lead to some of the section writers feeling that their contributions have been altered, downplayed, ignored, twisted out of shape. Individual writing idiosyncrasies – choice of words, sentence length and structure, use of narrative, imagery and metaphor for instance – have been ironed out by the lead writer. (This can also happen in first-draft, but less often.)  Section writers who have been heavily revised may feel that not only their ideas and knowledge have been marginalised, but also their writing ‘voice. Feelings of loss can cause  unhappiness within the writing team. This is not just a problem in new writing teams – it can happen to very experienced writers. It is always best in a writing team to try to surface these kinds of potential concerns at the outset, rather than leave them to fester.

The multi-voiced approach

Now you may have read papers where people have chosen to write, at least for some of the time, in multiple–voices. In this kind of paper, there is some writing where there is a unitary writer, but sections where different writers are identified. These personalised sections often offer different points of view, but can also have very different styles, textually representing the individuals involved in a project or discussion.  Multi-voiced texts can make for a very interesting, stimulating read, as they invite the reader to consider differing experiences and modes of expression.

It is clearly not always helpful or appropriate to use a multi-voiced approach; it may not suit the material, a proposed journal, or the philosophical position of the writers. However, it is one which is increasingly common in the arts, humanities and social sciences as a way of representing non-unitary perspectives – of the writing team or even of a single author.

And some of the same things that dog writing-in-sections can happen in multi-voiced work  too. People don’t pull their weight, the last author pulls a power play at the last minute, the text just doesn’t hang together sufficiently.

But one of the benefits of adopting a multi-voiced strategy is that it acknowledges difference. It is thus a strategy that long term writing teams take up, not all the time, but as part of the process of ensuring that everyone involved in writing feels fairly represented and knows they are an equal partner.

Oh – and one more thing

Getting your co-written paper out is important. It is as important to work ethically. This means  discussing which is the right approach for you and the task before any writing begins – be clear about who is to do what, and make an explicit agreement about how potential problems are to be addressed. Ideally, author order should be negotiated at the start – and those with seniority and power need to initiate this, and be generous to more junior colleagues.

It also important to maintain good relationships with colleagues during co-writing. Any form of working together always creates vulnerabilities. There are innumerable possibilities for emotional damage in any co-writing venture. Writing together is an activity which requires trust. It is helpful to put the question of trust on the table  – make it acceptable for people to discuss their concerns about feeling uncertain, their fears about being silenced, or feeling belittled or inadequate.

Text work/identity work is not just about the cerebral but also the relational. And the relational is central to co-writing. We need to talk more about this in general IMHO, but co-writing is a good place to begin those conversations.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in co - witing, coconstruction, collaboration, collaborative work, text work/identity work, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to co-writing strategies – or – what could possibly go wrong?

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