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by Claire Aitchison

Over the last few days I’ve been working on a book project with Cally Guerin. It’s been fantastic – but intense, as we’ve worked to get a big job done on time. I enjoy co-authoring and it’s put me to thinking more about this way of writing. Whether you are a student or supervisor –this post might offer a framework for thinking about undertaking collaborative writing projects.

Collaboration of course happens on many levels including the initial pooling of ideas; the rigorous discussions that result in agreements about topic, structure, theoretical and conceptual framing; the practices of writing together and of sharing and critiquing each other’s work; and the mundane tasks of editing proofing and despatching manuscripts to publishers.

Here I want to talk about arrangements for writing collaborations and the actual practices of working with others to construct one manuscript. I’ve often been involved in writing retreats where people are curious about the kinds of collaborative writing commitments others are engaged in.

Round Robin or turn taking on one paper. This approach sees a manuscript being constructed over time, as each person adds to the text building on what’s been written by the previous author. Turn taking usually occurs consecutively, section by section. Authors may work to a predetermined structure or the process may be more organic as each writer responds to what’s already been written. Clearly this works best when the colleagues have reasonably similar ideas and approaches to the topic.

The colour-by-number or community patchwork quilt approach. In this approach each person writes their section independently and then the bits are assembled together later, according to the master plan. The master plan (the content, argument, structure and allocation of tasks) may not necessarily be determined by the contributing authors. For example, a lead author (the originator of the project) takes the running on the project, choosing and inviting contributors, allocating the tasks, determining the structure and writing schedule.

Serial co-authoring with allocated first authoring.  This arrangement works, for example, when a group of people have collaborated on one large research project and each person has responsibility for the production of an article arising from it. This can be an effective use of time, requiring each individual to do the bulk of the writing and organizing for one discrete resultant publication. It also means each member of the group will get their name on each of the publications.

Writing together. This is my favourite kind of writing collaboration but it is also the most time-consuming and labour-intensive. I am referring here to the practice of actually writing together. I have tried doing this in cyberspace, but for me, there is nothing more enriching than physically sitting beside my co-author and working with them to put words on the page (and to take them off again, and put them back again, to reshuffle and rearrange words and thoughts together).

This kind of close-up collaboration is enormously rewarding and informing. Whenever I’ve done it I have learnt from my colleague new ways of doing writing as an intellectual activity, but also as a physical, tech savvy operation. For example, with one coauthor I was always challenged to go home and read more, to think more deeply and to return to the production desk ready to reconceptualise our work. This week again, I’ve learnt heaps – a new way to ‘cut and paste’ and how to fix yet another Endnote challenge. I’ve been reminded again of how important it is to set tasks for the day and to break up the heavy intellectual work with a quick walk, a decent lunch break, a laugh and even a little chocolate!

The combination. Most of my co-authoring collaborations fit into this category, that is, authors agree to write certain sections independently and other bits together, but all the coauthors participant in the final readings to ensure everyone is happy to ‘sign off’ on the document.  I think this is the most pragmatic approach – it works best with colleagues at a distance and combines the best features of most of the strategies/practices I’ve listed above.

Has anyone got any other collaborative writing, strategies or practices they’d like to share?