Empirical Study on Collaborative Writing: What do co-authors do, use, and like? Sylvie Noël & Jean-Marc Robert
I came across this interesting paper about the co-authoring of documents. Most of the research is about collaborative writing in the workplace or in academia, but it’s full of interesting things.
I’m not going to reproduce what it says, you can go and look yourself if you want to.
What did catch my eye though, was the list of negative aspects or problems that their research subjects had when writing collaboratively. How have Iain and I managed to avoid these? I thought I would take a look.
Reconciling different writing styles:
After setting some basic rules for the narrative (close third person, a double-line break to indicate a change of perspective) we have found this relatively painless. We discussed the type of writing that we thought would work, and as we edit each other’s work we make small changes to re-phrase something if we feel we might have said it differently. As a consequence, we’ve tested our prose against electronic assessors (see Iain’s previous blog) and also our friends from Birmingham Writers’ Group and both have agreed that our writing styles match.
Difficulty with following the schedule:
We’ve tried not to be too draconian with our schedule, but we’re both excited by the project and highly motivated to work on it. As we’ve said before, there is also an element of competitiveness. Dropbox makes it very easy to see what the other person’s doing, and if I see Iain motoring through his latest chapter I can’t help feeling that I need to go faster. If one of us does finish before the other, there is always some other Clovenhoof-related task to be done, so we’ll keep busy with some of these, like blogging, tweeting, thinking about publicity for the finished novel and so on.
Unequal division of work:
This is a non-issue because of the approach that we’ve taken. Every chapter is plotted by writer 1, written by writer 2 and then edited by writer 1. As we work our way through the novel this way we can be certain that every part of it belongs equally to both of us, and we’ve both contributed the same amount of work.
Multiple editions and difficult co-ordination:
Working on this project without Dropbox might have been rather different. Controlling document versions might have presented difficulties, but maybe not as many as all that. For most of the chapter writing (as opposed to “ideas” documents) we have had only one person “controlling” the document at one time. I would not edit Iain’s chapter until he’d declared that he’d finished and handed it over to me, for example.
As it is, there are only very rare occasions where we might both edit an ideas document at the same time. If this happens, Dropbox will save a version as a “conflicted copy” and we need to look at both versions to work out what we did.
Communication and conflicts between members:
Day to day communication has been a constant stream of emails. There’s a pattern to these. As we are writing a chapter (two weeks, sometimes three) we send fewer emails to each other. There will be a lot more discussion while we’re plotting, but hardly any about editing. This is the aspect that has surprised me the most. We were wary of the possibility that we might be defensive about editing changes, and one of the things that I most regularly hear from other writers is that they would hate that part. I think that because we particularly wanted to merge styles by editing the prose just to make it feel more like something we might have written, we’ve taken out the ego-busting potential. We’ve always kept the unedited original, with the understanding that any particularly hated alterations would be up for negotiation, but it’s never yet been an issue. Maybe we really are just too polite!
Communication for broader planning or brainstorming has been face to face meetings and phone calls. If we can spend an hour of time face to face with pieces of paper we can get a lot done, and we had to do this to kick off the basics when we started the project.
As we’ve got further through, we’ve found that we’ve got better at getting productive results from a phone call, and now we’re less worried about relying on a phone call to iron out some crucial planning.
Difference in abilities between members:
Maybe this one stems from those who didn’t get to choose their collaborators!
Our relative abilities would be impossible for either one of us to judge objectively. The fact is though, that we chose to work with each other and I think we both bring different strengths to the project. It’s happened time and again that what starts off as a single cool idea for the novel gets stretched by the discussion between us and the plotting / writing / editing process. Some of these small ideas have developed into really pleasing scenes, so I’m confident that the finished result is better because of our combined abilities.