Thursday, October 1, 2009


Writing collaboratively seems to come naturally to practitioners in fields that are viewed as being creative. We are all familiar with the writing teams who work for TV shows and movies. Those types of creative works are produced by two or more writers who brainstorm ideas, try out jokes on each other, or act out scenes to see what works.

Scientific writing, in contrast, is often performed alone or with coauthors inserting their text separately, in their offices, isolated from their colleagues. During graduate school, we typically go it alone—with some direction and input from an advisor (but rarely writing as a twosome). Many of us continue this tradition as we move into scientific careers, possibly under the impression that this is how it should be done. Although we may later work as part of a team of scientists to accomplish our projects, when it comes to putting the results and interpretation down on paper, we tend to work as individuals. Many scientists prefer solitary work, while others thrive on the exchange of ideas (brainstorming) and joint creation of a scientific article. Solitary behavior may be a result of male-dominated science, which has traditionally rewarded aggression, ambition, competition, and self-promotion--diametric to truly collaborative writing. Some might argue that multiple authors working separately--with one person later integrating the parts--is most efficient. But is that true or what is most desirable?

This post is about an alternative approach— “collabo-writing”, coined by three authors of a recent article in Academe: William Phillips, Charles Sweet, and Harold Blythe. These authors of “Collaborating on Writing” propose that there are numerous benefits, particularly increased productivity. Phillips et al. report that they have co-written and published more than seven hundred items, including “book and notes, traditional scholarship and commercial fiction” and attribute their productivity to collabo-writing. They offer some insight into why this approach is so effective and provide some suggestions for those interested in pursuing collaborative writing.

Some of the additional benefits Phillips et al. list for collabo-writing are: mentoring opportunities, professional development, and collegial networking. They argue (and this is my experience) that working closely with others to write an article sparks creativity and greatly increases development of new ideas. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon to some degree. I find that working with one or two other people is most stimulating, whereas interacting with larger groups is less effective. For a department or similar group, writing groups tend to increase the institution’s overall productivity. Usually, only a small percentage of a faculty is highly productive, so that having such individuals working with less productive scientists can lead to more publications overall. Junior scientists can greatly benefit from working side-by-side with a more experienced writer. For those seeking tenure (academia), permanent status (government), or partnership (consulting), help getting those first publications out can determine the course of their careers. This can also benefit the institution by promoting a collaborative, rather than competitive culture.

Another benefit, which is not always appreciated, is how collabo-writing can broaden your disciplinary knowledge through exposure to topics outside your immediate area of expertise. Brainstorming with a colleague to prepare a written document also increases your critical thinking skills and improves your ability to think on your feet.

A final benefit of collabo-writing is the opportunity to develop a professional network of colleagues. Some university faculty are actively promoting writing groups, especially among new faculty. Although typically not encouraged, developing a writing group during graduate school is a great way to get exposure to this approach—and could even lead to some pre-graduation publications and a post-graduation writing team. Jointly writing articles with fellow graduate students, e.g., for bulletins of scientific societies, for a popular magazine, or even a scientific review paper, is clearly a way to set yourself apart from the crowd.

My personal experience with true collabo-writing has been limited, but positive. Most of the writing was done jointly, with one person typing and the other dictating. These positions were switched frequently, and we periodically just sat and brainstormed or talked through an interpretation of the data. Bouncing ideas back and forth helped identify flaws or sparked interesting insights. Occasionally, we would work on something separately—preparing figures or compiling information for a table or conducting statistical analyses. But these activities were done side-by-side so that we could periodically discuss some particular point. Once there was a good draft, then one person would take the lead on finalizing the formatting and handling the correspondence with the journal. I described one of these collabo-writing efforts in a previous post.

Some Guidelines for Collabo-writing:

1. Find collaborators you respect (and trust). Starting out with your peers is probably the easiest, then try approaching someone senior whose work you admire.
2. Establish your roles early. In some cases, this may take some interaction to figure out who does what best.
3. Establish a goal and timeframe for meeting it.
4. Do some market research. For scientists, this means selecting the appropriate journal and finding out the journal requirements for length, formatting, etc.
5. Develop a “work alone-write together” rhythm. This pattern is similar to what I described above in my personal experience.
6. Deliberate practice will lead you into the flow. See previous post about what deliberate practice is.
7. Listen carefully to collaborators and take notes when they speak.
8. Seek to piggyback. Cooperation and building on others’ thoughts is preferable to trying to come up with the “best idea” of the group.
9. Subjugate your ego. Keep in mind that creating the best product is the goal, not who came up with the original idea.
10. Finish the play. Make sure someone takes the responsibility for submitting the article and seeing the publication through to the end.
11. Beware of the pitfalls. See list below:

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