How and Why to Write Collaboratively: A Guest Post

For the next bit of time I will be posting special guest posts early in the week, in addition to my regular Friday post.  These guest posts are kindly submitted by readers in response to requests that arise on the blog or Facebook page.  I appreciate readers’ willingness to provide these, and want to share them on the blog sooner rather than later.

Today’s guest post is by Roger Whitson, Assistant Professor of English at Washington State University, proponent of the digital humanities, and previous contributor to TPII on the subject of creating personal academic websites.

This post is on the value and techniques of successful collaboration with colleagues.  Collaboration can be treacherous, but also, if done right, one of the joys of an academic career.  Roger tells us what works for him.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add that in many humanities and humanistic social science fields, collaboration is dangerous indeed for a young scholar’s tenure case.  In the R1 tenure cases I served on, chaired, or handled as Head, co-authored articles counted for little toward tenure, and their presence on the record raised red flags at every level.  The humanistic sphere (in contrast to the hard sciences) still operates primarily on a solitary-scholar model, so evaluate collaborations very, very carefully and cautiously indeed, and consider postponing some of your collaborative goals until after tenure.


Nothing excites me more than collaborating with smart people. Exchanging ideas about teaching over lunch, skyping with digital humanities librarians about scholarship, writing an entire novel in a day, learning from others: all of these activities form the heart of what I love about higher education. In fact, my own interests in digital technology, teaching, and research stem from technologies that allow me to connect with my colleagues. I hate feeling like I’m locked inside my own academic bubble.

Collaboration is not simply about finding agreement. As William Blake – poet, printer, and Romantic theorist of collaboration – says “[o]pposition is true friendship.” Rebecca Burnett, in fact, “found that student groups that voiced disagreements as they analyzed, planned, and wrote a document produced significantly better documents than those that suppressed disagreement, going along with whatever was first proposed” (qtd in Locker 331). Blake and Burnett’s insights apply equally well to professional and academic collaborations. Collaboration is, as Andriessen et al. argue, a complex process of negotiation. It forces you to more clearly explain your arguments, mesh your arguments with the ideas of other people, and ultimately potentially produce better scholarship.

I say potentially because no process of collaboration is perfect. There are several things you should keep in mind when collaborating with other authors:

  1. Make sure you determine how you are going to collaborate before starting your work. The most important thing to remember about collaboration is that no one works in exactly the same way. Monograph collaborators will often simply assign each other different chapters, then worry about how those chapters fit together after drafting them. But even in this seemingly simple process, you need a detailed plan that helps articulate how you will work and who will get credit for what. You will find it much easier to resolve conflicts earlier in the process, especially if those conflicts involve the basic arguments highlighted in each chapter. Strategies: Consider drafting a project charter. The charter can help you list work expectations, envisioned research roles, how work can be used by each party, and a series of deadlines.
  2. Determine how separate writing voices will be incorporated into your project: If you simply write different chapters, you may quickly discover that you and your coauthor have very different writing voices. One example: when completing my most recent collaborative book, William Blake and the Digital Humanities, I found my voice to be much less tentative but also more uncompromising than my coauthor Jason Whittaker. I was forced to realize just how grating my own writing voice might be to those readers who might not entirely agree with my conclusions and learned to tone down many of my most extravagant rhetorical flourishes. Strategies: Apart from learning small things about your own writerly voice, you need to account for multiple voices in your work. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, for instance, merged their voices but also reveled in their multiplicity. In the prologue to A Thousand Plateaus, they called themselves “quite a crowd. [...] Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable, in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think” (3). You may not want to make yourself imperceptible, so other strategies exist. Burnett, in a Skype interview with me suggested writing chapters constructed as a dialogue, such that while the second chapter might be in a different voice than the first, it is also responding to the first. She also mentioned using marginalia, text boxes, and other graphics to comment on each other’s chapters. If you don’t want to have a single voice, show how your voices differ yet also interact with one another.
  3. Be open to different thoughts, different voices, and unexpected conclusions: Inasmuch as you want to control certain aspects of the collaborative process, you should also be open to new possibilities. Strategies: Patrik Svennson lists several ways to embrace this openness: “open yourself to neighboring fields, map the relevant conceptual territory, be prepared to find unexpected connections, communicate with people unlike yourself, think across boundaries, make sure to introduce interdisciplinary strategies early in the process” (qtd in Ruecker and Radzikowska). No matter how well you plan, something will surprise you during the writing process. The key is to be open to the process and not let your own expectations ruin potentially powerful insights and experiences.
  4. Argue for the importance of collaboration to your department and your discipline. If you work in the humanities, some faculty or administrators may not understand how challenging and fruitful collaborative work can be. Tenure committees, for example, may assume that whoever is listed second on the byline might have done less work. This may especially be the case if names are not listed in alphabetical order. Further, committees may want you to articulate exactly what you wrote and researched. Or they may require you to establish your own individual work before engaging in collaborative work. Strategies: Several scholarly articles and books exist that feature two or more authors. Most recently, the book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO10 featured 10 authors writing about the contexts surrounding a line of code written in BASIC for the Commodore 64. Nick Montfort called it a “new and radically different sort of book [...] [written] together using a single voice, using a mailing list, a wiki, and other means.” Judy Paige and Elise Smith mention writing the initial chapter of Women, Literature, and the Domestic Landscape and “eventually [dividing it in two]. It was a 91-page behemoth in its first iteration. Two years later we were still redrafting that chapter and others, sending them back and forth with messages like, ‘Feel free to fiddle around with my own fiddling, of course.’” Know what collaborative work exists in your field, the writing methods developed by their authors, and the impact these books have made on their field.
  5. Use different tools and strategies to experiment with collaborative writing. Obviously the spread of social media is contributing, at least in part, to the growing interest in collaborative writing. Before deciding what method works for you, consider experimenting with multiple modes of engagement. Strategies: Jesse Stommel has a great piece on some ways to make GoogleDocs a useful collaborative writing tool. He is also quite poetic when describing the process of writing with Pete Rorabaugh: “Our collaboration runs so deep,” Stommel argues, “that single sentences are usually co-composed, our cursors occasionally blinking in unison within a single word. While I still recognize the texture of my own language and the idiosyncratic turns of my writerly voice, I don’t take ownership of my own writing the way I once did.” While emails, wikis, Twitter, and GoogleDocs make remote collaboration more possible, it is also important to meet regularly and hash out ideas. Jason and I met at least once a month, and – when deadlines approached – we met once a week. Combining synchronous and asynchronous modalities, sometimes by seeing and hearing your coauthors, helps you to gain different perspectives on the process.

I’m sure other writers experienced with collaborative projects would have different advice. Collaboration, like writing, can be theorized, but it is ultimately an idiosyncratic process. No matter how much you talk to experienced writers, collaborative writing is best learned by doing it. You might find collaboration to be a more difficult process than you initially envision, but I’m convinced that you will learn more about your own writing process by writing with someone else.


How and Why to Write Collaboratively: A Guest Post — 6 Comments

  1. Pingback: On Co-Authored Articles: How Practicing Feminism Can Hurt Your Academic Career « James W. McCarty III

  2. Understand the Nuances of Conflict in Collaboration

    Roger Whitson is right—the heart of collaborative productivity is often the conflict, the disagreement that sparks stronger, more interesting ideas than would have been generated alone. And Karen Kelsky is right—humanities departments are often dismissive of collaborative efforts, so in your list of publications, balance your collaborative productivity with individual efforts (and be able to describe your contribution to the collaborative endeavors). While you’re getting accustomed to the idea that collaboration can be both productive and fun, read any number of articles and books by Ede & Lunsford as well as Lunsford & Ede to learn about their career-long commitment to collaborative scholarship in English studies.

    Back to the consideration of conflict in collaboration: Not all conflict is productive. In fact, much conflict in collaboration undermines the process. For example, procedural conflict (disagreements about the way work is done) can destroy a collaborative effort. Affective conflict (disagreements resulting from prejudices and belief systems) can result in ugly processes. I’ve written extensively about ways to avoid or at least reduce the risks of procedural and affective conflicts.

    However, substantive conflict is a different matter entirely because it’s often productive. This is the conflict about the concepts and ideas of a project, the conflict that provokes fervent discussions and generates new ideas that result from the synergy of differing perceptions. Substantive conflict is lively and exciting. I’ve also written extensively about ways to encourage substantive conflict, with the goal of encouraging high-quality processes and high-quality products. But such encouragement comes with caveats: collaborative processes are not necessarily intuitive nor are they consistent from culture to culture. Such processes need to be learned and practiced—and acknowledged.

    Roger’s first two points — “Make sure you determine how you are going to collaborate before starting your work” and “Determine how separate writing voices will be incorporated into your project” — are important for preventing or reducing procedural conflict.

    Roger’s third point — “Be open to different thoughts, different voices, and unexpected conclusions” — is foundational to encouraging substantive conflict. Similarly, Roger’s fifth point — “Use different tools and strategies to experiment with collaborative writing” — suggests ways that the tools and processes of social media not only simplify collaboration but encourage new ways to think about collaboration, extending the work in CSCW in productive ways.

    Roger’s fourth point — “Argue for the importance of collaboration to your department and your discipline” — is part of the critical political work we need to do to ensure that the intellectual processes we engage in, the authorship we claim, and the criteria for professional assessment all accurately reflect the rigor and frequency of collaboration, seeing such work as positive. The reality is that we collaborate a lot, but we seldom acknowledge that our intellectual processes are often collaborative, that our authorship could often be collaborative, and that peer assessment should praise collaborative work as challenging and productive.

  3. I Just wanted to point out that this is highly discepline dependant. In my sub-field of computer science most work is published collaboratively and a record with mainly single author publications would raise some questions at the very least.

  4. Thank you for a thoughtful guest post.
    While I agree completely on the merits of collaboration, it seems to me the post does not expand on ways to avoid negative conflict, primarily the result of ego. Junior and female scholars often find themselves marginalized in collaborative projects, doing the hard work while others take credit for it. I’d greatly appreciate practical advice on evading gender-based marginalization in collaboration, for example.
    Thanks again for this post.

  5. Pingback: Links of the week – ‘how to’ edition « ivry twr

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