Violating the Norms: The Awkward Process of Collaborative Writing

I’m in the middle of helping to create an online faculty development experience with a half dozen colleagues.  The project’s coordinator has been encouraging us to work collectively through Google Docs to draft the content.  We meet face-to-face to discuss some of the ideas but then write them up in more detail on our own.There’s a main document that outlines the basics with links to other docs that flesh out the details of each section.

The process is new for me.  Much of what I’ve published over the years was written with a co-author but I’ve never written this way.  I’m used to:

  1. discussing broad ideas for a framework,
  2. drafting alone,
  3. passing it on for comments/revisions–an iterative process that goes on as long as needed (or the deadline allows).

I’ve always done this in Word documents with “track changes” activated to make revisions clear.  Here, in Google Docs with a group of writers, the process is much less linear and much less clear.  Sometimes it’s just plain confusing.  And confusing is always an opportunity for learning.

The reason for confusion seems obvious: the technical ability for a group to collectively write a document –as opposed to sequential revisions of a document–is relatively new and the social norms about how to do this are not yet clear. The result is considerable hesitation about how best to proceed.

For example:

  • Deleting.  We’ve been encouraged to add, edit, and delete as we see fit.  That’s not an easy thing to do since it violates social norms about ownership of ideas.  No matter how benign and well-intentioned, deleting is fraught with social implications. Deleting seems rude and anti-social.  It’s a judgment: what you’ve written is not worthy of being kept and I–on my own–have decided to relegate it to the trash. Ouch. You need to be thick skinned about this process.  And what about the practical implications of free-wheeling deletions?  Won’t this mean that the last person editing “wins,” since their content will survive?  Won’t more assertive personalities–or indefatigable workers–end up deleting more, potentially divorced from the merit or quality of the content in question?
  • Owning Content.  Some folks started by putting their content in a different font color to distinguish it from other content.  After being asked not to do that, some began adding their initials next to content they inserted.  The notion that an author needed to be attached to particular content lingered from earlier forms of writing. Was it to distance themselves from other content with which they disagreed?  Was it a polite alternative to deleting? It’s not clear to me, but this practice doesn’t work well in this setting..
  • Taking Charge. Because no single person is ultimately responsible for a collaborative project (except perhaps the coordinator) there may be a limited sense of ownership of the effort.  If it’s everyone’s responsibility, it becomes no one’s responsibility. (Insert your beliefs about “human nature” here.)  But making any one person “responsible” for a part of the project effectively gives tacit approval to others to wait to see what they produce, undermining the collaborative nature of the effort.  It’s a problem that plagues student group work–which is rarely truly collaborative–and for which there’s no definitive response.
  • Collaborative?  Cooperative?  Something Else? By the way, what do we call this process?  The brainstorming part was definitely collaborative; sitting in a room together, tossing out ideas, writing notes on the writable wall, sketching the outlines of the project. But writing is different. People write individually but multiple people may be involved in revising a section and the group is certainly involved in creating the project as a whole.  Is that collaboration?  Sort of. Maybe.  It depends on your level of analysis.
  • Creating a Voice.  Even if things go smoothly with plenty of participation, collaborative writing projects can be choppy affairs with an inconsistent voice.  In some cases, this may not matter and may even be an asset as a way of highlighting diversity and multiple perspectives.  On the other hand, if a project needs to have a consistent voice throughout, there really needs to be a process to review and revise for consistency.  As one person suggested, perhaps we should have created a style guide from the start.  We didn’t, so the matter of voice remains to be resolved.

We’re all learning together as we move through this process, trying to establish new norms for our group.  Hopefully, a good debriefing session will help clarify some of this.

For myself, I’ve been thinking about what might constitute reasonable guidelines for cooperative writing efforts to maximize participation, protect feelings, and produce the best results.  Some initial thoughts:

  1. Everyone should write.  In this sort of effort, writing is not a privilege; it’s a responsibility.  As a team-member, you are expected to add your thoughts and ideas, whether rough or well-developed.  You don’t have to be a polished writer to get your basic thoughts across; it’s the substance that matters, not the style. Others can clean up style later.  The value early on is to encourage participation.
  2. There’s No Need for Identifiers on New Content. Colored fonts, initials, etc, really don’t help in the creation or assessment of new content.  Let the work stand on its own (but see #3).
  3. Substantive Changes Should be Justified.  Similar to Wikipedia’s talk pages, substantive changes should be explained (perhaps with a comment added) so that others can understand the logic behind the decision to make major changes or deletions.  (What constitutes “major” is another matter.) Such context is likely to reduce confusion, misunderstanding, or inadvertently hurt feelings.
  4. Alternatives Can Be Useful.  Rather than deleting or rewriting, it can be useful to write out an alternative that may (or may not) improve a section of the document.  That way, collaborators can see the two versions side-by-side and be ready to weigh in on what might be stronger and why. This also encourages people to suggest alternatives, even if they’re not certain they are better.  It’s the written equivalent of “I could be wrong about this but what if we…”   We often use these verbal cues in conversation to signal the tentative nature of our suggestion. In addition, having available alternatives can spark useful discussion and comments.

That’s plenty for now; no need to create a rule book.

I suspect, ultimately, that this is about trust and communication in a group.  If there’s a reasonable amount of trust and ongoing communication, you don’t really need rules.  But maybe some discussion of guidelines–whatever you decide–in advance of projects will help smooth the way in clarifying expectations.

And, by the way, if you are having students work collaboratively, suggesting a discussion about such guidelines before–and while–working together could be invaluable.


One thought on “Violating the Norms: The Awkward Process of Collaborative Writing

  • May 14, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    I have a name David. I have a name.

    And clearly that name is not “project coordinator.”


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