Collaborating on Writing

Here’s a guide to how “collabo-writing” can boost your productivity while sharpening your skills (and subjugating your ego).
By William L. Phillips, Charles A. Sweet, and Harold R. Blythe

The Pirates of Penzance, the Federalist Papers, the King James Bible, and Superman. What do they have in common? All are highly successful creations in various fields, not by one person, but by multiple writers. Why, then, do we in academia, especially those of us outside the sciences, tend to pursue most of our scholarship and creative endeavors as individuals? Perhaps we are socialized to work independently through our academic preparation (one-author dissertations, a single faculty line throughout the promotion, tenure, and evaluation process), but that doesn’t mean the choice of academia is a life sentence to solitary confinement.

In the January–February 2009 issue of Academe, Jennifer I. Friend and Juan Carlos Gonzales suggested that first-year tenure-track faculty “form a writing group,” but they described a process of merely helping each other on individual projects instead of writing a common piece together. We would like to suggest that faculty join together to “collabo-write.” In various configurations, the three of us have co-written and published more than seven hundred items, including books and notes, traditional scholarship and commercial fiction, so obviously we have found the co-writing process to be very effective.

Reasons for Collabo-writing

Our success aside, why should you try collabo-writing? The potential benefits include increased productivity, mentoring opportunities, professional development, and collegial networking.

Working with others can increase ideation levels. For example, a recent article in BusinessWeek suggested that the increase in ideas resulting from collaboration could be as high as 700 percent. Moreover, others’ strengths can compensate for your weaknesses: when humanities-based Hal and Charlie work together, let’s say, they tend to be left- and right-brain oriented, respectively. When Bill joins the mix, he brings an expertise in the process of educational research. Each benefits from the contributions of the others. Furthermore, breaking out of the “silos” of our departments or colleges can benefit the institution as a whole. We have co-written a book chapter with nine faculty colleagues representing four colleges and penned a pedagogical article with our graduate assistant. Bill is an administrator in the College of Education, and the three of us are currently working on an article with our provost. Psychology professor Robert Boice, in his article “Strategies for Enhancing Scholarly Productivity,” wrote that “the usual incidence of productive writers within a discipline is less than 15 percent.” Working in groups tends to increase the institution’s productivity.

The collabo-writing process also allows faculty members with less experience to learn from those with more. It offers an excellent opportunity for senior faculty to initiate junior faculty into university and department cultures and provides the junior faculty with much-needed publications as they climb the promotion and tenure ladder. In recent years, Hal and Charlie helped three junior members of the Department of English and Theatre achieve their first publications.

Collabo-writing can also broaden, sharpen, and deepen one’s own disciplinary knowledge by pushing individuals to write out ideas for others, a classic critical-thinking skill. It can contribute to better teaching as well. A 2007 survey of 306 business leaders by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that teamwork, critical thinking, and collaboration were the three skills that employers most wanted to see in college graduates. Collabo-writing teaches and reinforces all three skills, making us more knowledgeable role models.

Finally, collabo-writing gives us a chance to build professional networks with our colleagues. For example, at a recent faculty forum in our Teaching and Learning Center, we had a colleague relate how he and a friend, who started out as cowriters in graduate school, have been using e-mail to write together since the 1990s. Advances in hardware and software have helped such longdistance relationships thrive. In addition, collabo-writing will help you be more sociable and prepare you for other forms of academic collaboration, such as the preparation of committee reports and team teaching.

Collabo-writing Guidelines

Obviously, with all these advantages, if collabo-writing were easy, everybody would be trying it instead of going it alone. We have found the co-writing process most productive when we stick to a set of guidelines that we have gradually developed.

1. Find collaborators you respect. Academic departments are established more for coverage than depth, so collaborating with the person down the hall is rare. However, that faculty member with whom you serve on a university committee might be perfect. So might the author of your favorite article in your discipline’s major journal. Better yet, what about the expert who liked your paper at that national convention in your field, or that editor you ran into at a special session? Hal and Charlie, being the exception to the rule, are actually office mates at the Teaching and Learning Center, while Bill is a frequent visitor there. Propinquity led to mutual respect and to the realization of the movie cliché of “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show together.”

2. Establish your roles early. The best collaborator is not your mirror image but a person who complements you cognitively and affectively. Some people tend to be rightbrain oriented, while others are left-brained; some are outgoing, some introverted. In our case, Bill is the best researcher, Hal’s forte is getting the details precise, and Charlie would prefer to synthesize.

3. Establish a goal and a time frame for achieving it. Our objective in writing this article for Academe was to produce a publishable piece during spring break (as administrators, we’re stuck for a week in Kentucky rather than on the distracting sands of Daytona Beach).

4. Do some market research. Most novice writers finish the article and then decide where to send it, instead of vice versa. We learned marketing from how Poe analyzed Blackwoods Magazine before writing his Gothic tales and from how McDonald’s studies the local demographic before putting up a new store (interestingly, for years we wrote in a booth at a McDonald’s because it allowed us to get away from distractions). Another way to look at this guideline derives from the old maxim, “You can’t make Jell-O without a mold.” Think of the journal’s requirements for word count, focus, documentation style, format, and so forth as the marketable mold into which your ideas will be poured.

5. Develop a “work alone–write together” rhythm. Brainstorming studies have shown that the most creative ideas come not from working by yourself or working together but from a combination of working individually on a project and then bringing that information to a collective session. To write this article, we all started with individual research and outlines that we blended into a single whole in four collaborative meetings. Each of us worked on parts of this article between sessions, whether in research, proofing, or revising. To achieve one voice, we talked it out and then one person prepared a draft.

6. Deliberate practice will lead you into the flow. We once had a basketball coach who told us, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” Our first attempts at collaboration made for great social gatherings but didn’t lead to much effective prose. Gradually, however, we worked out the kinks. Experts point to a phenomenon called “deliberate practice.” The Beatles weren’t an instant success, as New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell notes in his 2008 book Outliers, but achieved stardom only after thousands of hours of playing together in German and Liverpool dance clubs. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University researcher, figures that it takes ten thousand hours of such practice to reach world-class expertise. That’s another goal we have. Collaborative writing is deliberate practice with feedback from team members and editors.

7. Listen carefully to your collaborators and take notes when they speak. This article began with two pages of typed notes for an oral presentation at the Teaching and Learning Center. At the conclusion of that performance, we each found we had scribbled handwritten notes over our typing, and the notated outlines became the outline for the text. Listen with real intent to understand and make connections.

8. Seek to piggyback. Collaborating is more cooperation than contest. The best ideas occur when you build on others. Focus on the idea on the table and try to look at it differently—what experts call perception shift. During our writing sessions, each of us feels free to contribute ideas, knowing that the others will listen and give our ideas respectful attention.

9. Subjugate your ego (and desire to speak) to the common good. On the completion of this article, it was very difficult to tell whose original idea was where; after all, the source doesn’t matter—only the finished product does, and it has three authors.

10. Finish the play. You have a completed article in your hand, not just an idea or a draft. Someone should be responsible for submitting the article, tracking its progress, and keeping a file with all the material. If an editor suggests revisions, think of that editor as a new collaborator whose comments might strengthen the piece or lead you in a valuable new direction.

11. Beware of the pitfalls. Collabowriting efforts can be thwarted by any of a number of problems; we have listed a few of the most common pitfalls in the sidebar.

Not a Conclusion

While we were working on this article, one of us brought up an idea for our next piece; and yes, when this article is finished, we will start brainstorming. In fact, writing collaboratively is a unique form of brainstorming that is rejuvenating and revitalizing. We find collabo-writing an antidote for burnout and a remedy for “administrivia,” or what we call “the tyranny of the urgent.” Instead of becoming victims of burnout, you constantly learn the skills of negotiating, listening, and subordinating your ego. Moreover, collabo-writing is a good exercise in democracy, the will of the majority; you give up, but you gain when you compromise.

America’s Constitution is perhaps the best-known document that was written by a collaborative team. Amazingly, in a four-month period, fifty-five delegates created a document that Benjamin Franklin described as “approaching so near to perfection as it does.” While history tells us that disagreement abounded at the Philadelphia convention, the will of the majority ruled, and the United States of America was born.

Remember, only 15 percent of faculty members publish consistently. In the end, you have to decide how much time you will spend on scholarly productivity. You can do just enough to get tenure and promotion, or you can make scholarly inquiry and publication vital parts of your academic life throughout your career. One thing that may help you be in the select 15 percent of productive faculty is to find collaborators. Collaborators, if chosen carefully, will make you more productive and help you to overcome some of your weaknesses.

And now, please excuse us; we’re brainstorming about a piece on brainstorming.

William L. Phillips is professor of special education and dean of the Eastern Kentucky University College of Education. Charles A. Sweet and Harold R. Blythe are professors of English and co-directors of the Teaching and Learning Center at EKU.


Potential Pitfalls in Collabo-writing

  • Collabo-writers take time to gel as a group.
  • Promotion and tenure committees may have trouble crediting collaboration.
  • Few conventions exist for showing the equality or inequality of collabo-writers.
  • “Free riders” may need to be dumped.
  • Junior colleagues often feel overpowered by senior colleagues.
  • Collabo-writing conflicts with individualism, low self-esteem, and
  • New collabo-writers tend to choose “mirrors”—colleagues who share
    their interests and strengths—over complementers.
  • Conflict is inevitable, and some handle it better than others.
  • Partnerships fail unless each person does more than his or her share.
  • Don’t be afraid to revise. An old Hollywood axiom states, “Nothing is
    written—everything is rewritten.”