Collaborative Writing

By Joey 

If you’re like most people, you probably think of writing as something you do alone at your desk, puzzling out words and paragraphs and organizational structures by yourself. Sure, you might ask a friend for feedback occasionally, or maybe even go to the writing center for a little extra guidance. But those are exceptions. Most of the words, and all of the thinking, are the writer’s alone. Right?

All the way through college, I viewed writing as an inherently solitary task. Entering the working world quickly disabused me of that notion. Before coming to the George Mason Writing Center, I worked on a research team at National Journal, a political media company. Our task was to find the most innovative tactics being used by advocacy organizations, and to produce reports and case studies on these tactics for our readers. These reports included a lot of writing, but they did not follow the kind of writing process I was used to.

Almost every type of writing includes both individual and collaborative phases, but I was used to the ratio being about 90% individual, 10% collaborative. Here, it was the opposite. Instead of one person sitting alone at his desk for hours and hours, our reports were composed in short bursts of individual work broken up by many rounds of editing by others on the team, and even group editing sessions. For instance, I would compose a blurb describing an advocacy tactic, take it to my boss, and get his feedback—say, “You need to emphasize the incentive system more.” I would go back to my desk, work on it some more, and bring it back to him. “That’s good, but now I think you need to distinguish more between the steps of the process.” Sometimes I would push back, and we would have a discussion about the writing or the ideas contained therein to come to some agreement. Then it was back to my desk again, or to show what I had written to another colleague to get her perspective. A typical case study would pass through five, six, seven rounds of feedback, revision, and editing by various individuals before it reached its final form. The result was that our writing was the product of a whole team, rather than any one person. 

With such a collaborative writing process, we had to work hard to keep things efficient. As anyone who’s ever worked on a group project knows, each additional person can seem to multiply the amount of time needed to complete the project. Everyone’s opinions and ideas need to be taken into account and reconciled with one another. The more collaborative the writing is, the more iterative it needs to be, as you are constantly revising to incorporate others’ feedback.

At National Journal, the most important rule we had for maintaining efficiency was to leave wordsmithing until a late stage of the process. “Wordsmithing” was our term for laboring over the sentence-level details of the writing, e.g. word choice, syntax, grammar, and punctuation. Before anyone sat down at their computer to draft a case study, we would always spend a lot of time as a group discussing and clarifying the ideas we wanted to get across in it. Otherwise, each of us would have spent hours laboring over specific words, only for these words to be changed when we changed our minds about the idea we were trying to express. That would have meant a lot of wasted work.

The process we went through as a group mirrored the typical writing process for an individual: first you brainstorm and draft to get your raw ideas down, then you refine those ideas through revision (often several times), then you hone the details with careful editing. This same order of priorities applies to virtually any kind of writing: Don’t worry about the details until you’ve finalized the big picture. Another way of putting this is: Work on higher-order concerns like thesis, supporting evidence, and organization of paragraphs before you spend a lot of time on lower-order concerns like grammar, spelling, and punctuation. 

However, there is a crucial caveat to that advice. Working on the big-picture ideas before moving to word choice and syntax requires that you distinguish between the idea you want to express, and the words used to express it. But this can be somewhat difficult to do, because ideas are only as good as the words that convey them. Often, when trying to think of the words to express an idea, one stumbles upon a new insight or deeper understanding of the idea, through the words. For example, an organization told us they had structured their grassroots advocacy force in a new way, designating volunteer team members in each Congressional district as “Advocacy Captains.” In our discussions of these tactics, we originally focused on the way they built small, pod-like teams around a volunteer captain. But it wasn’t until someone used the word “verticalized” that we realized that their real insight had been to insert an extra management layer—the Advocacy Captains—into their hierarchy. In this case, the specific language used pointed us to the insight. For the most part, though, it’s best to leave wordsmithing and sentence-level editing until later on in the process, especially when you’re writing in a group.

Everything about our iterative writing process—from the discussions of big-picture ideas to the sentence-level “wordsmithing”—was a group effort to come to a better understanding of our subject and to express that understanding clearly. Even if you’re working on an individual writing assignment, you can incorporate collaborative writing tactics into your work. For instance, you can ask colleagues, friends, or family members to read and comment on your drafts. If you’re a student or faculty member at George Mason, you can come to the Writing Center for help with a draft, or just to bounce ideas off somebody. You might even post your writing online, on a blog or social media website, and “crowdsource” comments. In my experience, the best writers are usually those who share their work with others early and often (and then put in the time to revise it!). Writing is simply a tool for communicating with other human beings, so the best way to know if it’s working properly is to share it with other human beings and get their reactions. And for most people, collaboration makes the writing process more enjoyable, as it gives them a feeling of connection. Even though the author alone bears the final responsibility for the words on the page, writing doesn’t need to be a lonely task.