by Claire Aitchison

There is an expectation at DoctoralwritingSIG that we post a blog every week or so.  This week I’m running late – and I feel bad – not too bad, because I’m not too late, but nevertheless, I know my writing actions impact on my colleagues.

Writing with others brings rewards – and obligations.

As academics we are more likely than ever before to be writing in collaboration with others: on grants, projects, books, articles and so on. Often with multiple writing projects running concurrently we work with colleagues across time and space; in our own departments or across disciplines, cross-institutionally and internationally. We may know these individuals personally, or perhaps not really at all. Technology has enabled all sorts of collaborations between writers that, even five years ago, would have been impossibly difficult. These everyday collaborative writing practices can inform our supervision management.

I am always interested in how people write in collaboration. There are endless possibilities and permutations. What works for some, doesn’t work for others.

Most collaborations are defined by time, task and obligation. Each of the collaborators needs to commit time to the project, and most projects must be completed within a defined timeframe.

Time can be your friend and your enemy; can be both productive and immobilizing; it can be motivational – and on the other hand, it can become the hill the project dies on.

‘Time’ demands organization, and  carries obligations. I know of one group of co-authors who ensure writing gets done because they have one absolute rule, and one only – when the fortnight is up, the text must be circulated. No excuses, ever. In this group, it is absolutely obligatory to forward on the master document, irrespective of what the responsible author has done, or not done, to progress the manuscript.  Their time imperative has been the winning formula for their ongoing collaborations.  I quite like this strategy because, although the timeline is inflexible, there is scope for forgiveness on obligations of task.

It’s more common, however, to tie task to time. For example we mostly commit with our co-authors to do a specific writing task by certain date; and in supervision we mostly request students write X, Y and Z for the next panel meeting.  Getting time and task to match isn’t always easy, and there would be few writers amongst us who haven’t occasionally failed on either score, if not both.  Predicting how long a writing task will take isn’t easy. We see this especially in supervision when we ask students to write something we think should be a snap … and for them it’s torture! How common is the request for an extension?

This is where I think obligation can be useful.  My own view is that obligations to meet deadlines should (in most cases) trump the obligation to complete a particular task. Tasks can be modified, renegotiated, made more do-able, but mostly, time is non-negotiable. Deadlines are rarely able to be modified.

I believe that working to deadlines is important – but obligations to people can be even more powerfully motivational. I don’t like letting myself down – but I hate letting down others. Perhaps that’s why I find myself committing to collaborations more often than perhaps is wise. When I make a commitment with someone else I am more likely to deliver.

Of course, there are times when no matter how pressing the deadline, our obligations to people need to come first. Sometimes life does get in the way, and commitments can’t be kept. A certain amount of generosity and flexibility is essential for productive, long lasting collaborations.

As supervisors and practising authors, we can help students learn how to manage writing commitments – be they tasks, deadlines or people. Perhaps you have some strategies for making time, task and commitment work smoothly?