I love collaborative writing.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said that so early on in the article but I can’t help it – it’s really cool.
What I mean by collaborative writing is producing a piece of text like a literature review between 2 or more people. If you’ve never tried it, I would give it a go. The reason I like it is that all the typical problems associated with writing almost completely disappear. If that sounds too good to be true then it may well be. Collaborative writing represents a whole new set of challenges to overcome, however if you’re aware of them in advance, it shouldn’t be so tough.
So, first with the benefits
It’s easy to be motivated when you’re writing with other people for a number of reasons. Firstly, not feeling like you’re doing it alone is a huge help. Then there’s the fact that you don’t want to let your collaborators down by slacking off and not producing your fair share. Finally, within the group of writers, it’s easy to come up with stimulating writing challenges to help get you over the finish line. An example might be a daily writing competition to see who can write the most words.
It’s easy to let your writing goals slide when you do them alone. However, if you write with a co-author then there is a huge sense of responsibility to do a good job for them. You don’t want to let them down and this forces you through the tough times when you might be tempted to take it easy. When writing with someone else you are far less likely to slack off
Instead of banging your head against a brick wall you can bounce your ideas of your collaborators. The synthesis of the literature review will go a lot quicker and will generally be more inventive/interesting than if you had done it all by yourself.
The workload is generally much less. It is at least half the amount if you write with two people if not more. This is because the idea generation and planning time are generally much more effective (*emphasis on generally – see the problems later on). Then of course you only have to write half as much (*again, unless you encounter problems)
Writing with other people tends to be much more stimulating than writing alone. Chatting and discussing ideas becomes an integral part of the writing process which doesn’t really exist when you write alone.
Forming formal connections
If you are strategic when you write your collaborative texts then you can form an official connection in the eyes of your academic peers. For example, if you want to be associated with a particular group in a particular field, then you can reach out to collaborate with them on a mini-review. Publishing something like this demonstrates that you have a number of important skills and connections. It demonstrates that you can find collaborations and work outside of your given field.
Get more publications
If you write an entire lit review yourself and publish it then you have one first author publication. If you write two halves of two lit reviews then you can have one first author and one second author publication. If you plan it properly you could even have a last author publication and a first author publication. This is very good for your CV when you’re graduating.
Demonstrating you are a team player
It’s there in black and white. If you’re looking for a position after your PhD and you need to demonstrate that you can work well as part of a team and take the lead, just point to the review(s) that you co-authored.
You learn so much
By writing with someone else you are really forced to consider the structure of your text and to analyse the way your co-author writes. This is great for your review but also for your learning and development as an academic writer.
BUT.. it’s not always straight forward
here are some problems (and solutions)
When working with other people, things like writers’ block and motivation problems fall back and personal differences come right to the front. If you have problems with people not doing enough work or not working as a team then it can destroy the whole project.
Solution: errrrrrm. This is pretty serious. How do you resolve personal conflicts with colleagues? Well I can tell you that some people never do. That’s not to say that personal differences can’t be overcome but you have to be aware before you start, this is probably the single biggest threat to your writing project. I think before you start it is important that there is a project leader who is responsible for the major vision and direction and that this is clear to everyone from the beginning (this should probably be you by the way). It’s also important that you choose people who you can work with. This is pretty difficult but at least don’t try and work with people who you know you can’t get along with.
So previously I talked about the workload being less. Well, if the collaboration works well then this is true. However, it’s not always the case. It is possible that disagreements and poor organisation during the planning process can increase the workload. It can also lead to duplication of chunks of text which is never a good feeling.
Solution: If you run into problems when meeting and talking with your collaborators then try to give your meetings a more formal structure. Plan an agenda beforehand so everyone knows what has to be discussed. Also record the outcomes and goals for the next time you meet so that everyone is clear on what they have to do.
This is a common symptom of collaborative writing so I’m including it here, although I think I covered the solution in the “personal differences” section. When several people contribute to a review, it can look like several different sections were just thrown together. This doesn’t make for good reading.
Solution:The trick is to have someone as an editor for the process (again, I would suggest that you do this). The editor will take the lead and will be responsible for contributing written text, but also formatting and editing the document to give it a coherent structure.
Should you or shouldn’t you?
100% yes you should. If you only do it for the experience it is totally worth it. You learn so many different skills that are critical in academia.
What you think? Any success/ horror stories? Please share in the comments.