Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Practical preparation for collaborative writing (Helen Young)

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash
In many disciplines co-authored papers are the norm, but collaborative writing is not always an easy process.

Sometimes, one person is mainly responsible for the writing itself, with others contributing ideas in planning and development.

In other cases, multiple people need to be very active in putting words on the page. Negotiating changes, editing, structure, and the direction of the argument can be complicated.

This post provides some practical tips for making the collaborative writing process easier.

It's a good idea to get these things planned and in place before you start writing so that you don’t have to retrofit your collaboration!


  • Think about your own writing and the parts of the process you are good at, and be up front with your collaborators about your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not good at proof-reading, don’t volunteer to do the final check before submission. Making sure that your expectations of each other are realistic is critical to maintaining a good working relationship.
  • Plan how you will share drafts and revisions. Sharing a folder in One Drive (or Dropbox, or Google Docs, etc) is a good start, but how will you label files so that it’s clear to everyone which is the current version? Emails with drafts attached are another way. If you are using shared files make sure you either schedule who will work on them at what times, or have a strategy for tracking changes. Doing both might also be a good idea.
  • Scheduling matters. Set deadlines for drafts and responses. Everyone is busy and, especially in a large project with many collaborators, people will have different priorities. If one person is clearly the lead author on a project, they could take responsibility for reminding others about agreed deadlines but, if there’s no project leader, it's important nominate someone to do this.
  • Decide how you will manage referencing. Many citation managers such as Endnote, Mendeley and Zotero have functions designed to help you work with others. Sharing your sources via a library can help with your argument and ideas as well as managing citations in your writing. Our Library has Endnote support including online resources and training if you are new to this type of software, and all La Trobe researchers can download it for free.
  • Make sure you are all on the same page about using a text-matching tool like iThenticate. Suggesting that you scan a document doesn’t mean that you don’t trust your collaborators. Anyone can make mistakes, and when there are multiple people editing and making changes errors can slip in. If you plan to do this from the start, perhaps at regular points in the process and/or on the final draft, you can avoid fraught conversations. Remember that iThenticate can help in proof-reading as well as checking for referencing errors.
  • Work out how you will communicate. Face to face or Skype (or Facetime etc) conversations can be a good way to work through complicated issues and negotiations, but sometimes you may need time to reflect as well. Some people find direct-messaging on Twitter or Facebook preferable to emails. It doesn’t necessarily matter how you communicate, as long as you keep the channels open between all collaborators.
  • Be prepared for others to disagree with you too, and to ‘kill your darlings.’ Just because you think a point is clearly written and shouldn’t be edited doesn’t necessarily mean you are correct – especially if you wrote it. You are writing for others to read and understand, so listen if your collaborators have concerns about something you have written.

These are all things that you will need to do with your collaborators, but your mindset as an individual is also important. Remember why you are working with other people in the first place. They are bringing expertise and skills to the project and making it something that you couldn’t do alone. Value their contributions and efforts even if you don’t always immediately agree with their ideas.

A collaboration is about working together and that means negotiation and compromise from everyone.

Collaborating on a writing project can be stressful but, with good planning and a positive attitude, it can also be very rewarding!

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