December 30, 2015

The art of collaboration is a strange creature. I spent my entire life working in theatres in various production roles – acting, designing, directing – and perhaps these experiences instilled in me the understanding of how a final work can really benefit from the oversight of multiple, occasionally overly passionate, perspectives. On the other hand, growing up I was a straight-A student who was perfectly petrified of projects requiring group work. Unlike the theatre, where generally everyone in the room has come together to work towards a common goal, group work often meant gentle and not-so-gentle reminders to peers who clearly had other things on their minds besides grades. For someone who was as singularly focused as I was growing up, I saw their lack of commitment to their school work as my ultimate downfall. So I was weary of group work, to say the least.
Fortunately, group work is not something that goes away, and as I went through school I found productive solutions to my group work woes – carefully organized outlines of responsibilities, the fine art of updating and reminding, and a pretty keen eye for editing. With my toolbox, I felt I could take group work by storm!
When I began in the T&T program, I soon found I was confronted with a new collaborative challenge: co-authorship. I had co-authored one journal article before, with a friend of mine whose work and background were similar to mine and with whom I just spent eight months learning to work with. But this was different. I was asked to co-author papers with acquaintances whose work I had not had a chance to verify. I was suddenly scared all over again and a little confused. I was difficult for me to picture how writing something, which would eventually read like a single-authored paper, could be written by four. My previous journal article had been written in dialogue; we were ultimately writing our pieces and mashing them together.
Ultimately, my first attempt at co-authorship in grad school followed much of this same format. We each wrote our own papers and held them together with the always-handy transition sentence. But I knew there had to be a better way – a more collaborative way.   I soon had the opportunity to find out. I spent one semester working with three other people on a cultural heritage project for which we were instructed to write a final paper detailing our research and thought process behind the project’s development.  Armed with our assigned areas of research, we came together at the projects conclusion to write about our experience. We debated working from home and using the collaborative-project-life-changing technology of the cloud (serious how did collaborative projects happen before this?) and finally decided we would rather dedicate the same time and space to working on the final piece.
Before we gathered into the program’s ten-person computer lab, we drafted an outline of the paper’s flow and labeled the sections by primary author. This allowed us to focus on our own sections when we got into the writing space. We used Google Docs to live write and edit with each other and the space became a jumble of ideas and conversation and writing. Certainly there were bumps along the way, but these were very minor, and in five hours, we had a paper that we were really proud of. Although we each wrote small sections, the sections were spread throughout the document and we had each read (and re-read) the entire paper for clarity and continuity to the point where our primary-authored sections no longer felt as though they had been written by a fraction of the group, but the group as one entity.
I followed the paper with another group written piece about another project of which I was a part. This one came with its own set of challenges. First, the project was conducted with the help of approximately ten different people. We needed to determine who was actually willing to write. A group of six signed up for the challenge. We chose to write separate sections about our specific roles in the project. We did this again using Google Docs, but separately. The paper was pieced together over the course of a couple months, with the majority coming in the day before the deadline. When we had all of the material in place a colleague (who had graciously continued her role as project organizer) and myself sat down together to edit. She had worked with me on the previous paper as well, and it was refreshing to be back in the same room editing the document together. We could move through at our own pace, but discuss potential changes and where there were still opportunities to strengthen and expand.
Working collaboratively with another person or multiple people is challenging. The biggest and often scariest piece of the puzzle is trust. It takes a lot to trust your co-author(s) will do their research, write their piece, and go through the paper to add necessary or intriguing tie-ins. It took me a while to re-discover my toolbox and adapt it to the writing process. In the process, I discovered how important it is to trust your co-author(s) and genuinely value their knowledge and contributions. The combination of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is what makes co-authored papers strong. You have to give as must trust to the person you’ve collaborated with before as to the newest person on your team. Without trust and a commitment to value each other’s thoughts and ideas, collaboration quickly sours.
There is not “one right way” to collaboratively write. I facilitate group-writing projects on a regular basis with different community populations, and every time I begin a new project and begin with a different population, the process of collaborative writing is unique. The key element I try to develop when I come into those classroom or community spaces is a sense of trust. Trust is built from the respect you give to others when you openly listen to, actively engage with, and value their ideas. Trust is the most important tool your collaborative toolbox can have.
Ironically, this post about collaborative writing is single-authored.