Co-authoring & writing collaboration: Planning strategies for success

Writing a book or an article is a demanding process in the best of circumstances. We must balance a number of internal and external factors. We must figure out how to convey our insights and experiences, research and analysis, in writing. At the same time, we must interface with the external world: schedules and deadlines, editors and publishers, and ultimately with our readers. We add another set of factors when we work with co-authors. How can we navigate all of these dimensions in ways that allow us to collectively produce our best work?

First, let’s define collaboration as “an interactive process that engages two or more participants who work together to achieve outcomes they could not accomplish independently” (Salmons, in press). This definition invites us to think about the processes we will use to interact, and about the ways we engage with others to achieve agreed-upon outcomes. Here are a few points to consider and discuss with your collaborative partners:

Reflect on Your Role
We think of collaboration as a group endeavor, yet the role and responsibility of the individual is critical. As individuals, we need to believe that the collaborative process is fair and that our ideas are valued. We need to reflect on the assets (and shortcomings) we bring to the group. If we don’t know what we want and hope from our partner(s), how can we expect them to meet our expectations?

Plan to Collaborate
When we launch a collaborative writing project, we might feel compelled to jump right into the ideas and subject matter for the book or article. However, making time to plan and agree to a collaborative process before we start the project can save precious hours in the long run. Three important points should guide our discussion:

1) Agree to Communicate. Communication and trust are interrelated: we develop mutual trust when we understand each other. To succeed in a high-stakes project such as collaborative writing we need to think carefully about how, and how often, to communicate. Will we set checkpoints and hold meetings on a regular basis or just connect on an as-needed basis? When we send an email, what response time do we feel is appropriate? Who will be responsible for communicating with the editor, etc.?

Today much of the interactive process occurs electronically. Do we have access to the same digital tools and software? Will we use shared folders, or send drafts as email attachments? What form, format, and styles will we use for drafts? How will we manage versions as the project evolves?

2) Design a Work Plan. A work plan establishes who will do what, when, and how. In the Taxonomy of Collaboration I articulated three ways to structure efforts completed by two or more people (Salmons, in press). With a parallel approach, we divide the project into component parts that are completed by individuals or small groups. With a sequential approach, component parts are completed in a step-wise fashion. Individuals or small groups take responsibility for each step. For example, one might research competing texts and outline the market research section of the proposal, and another person might flesh out a description of the target market for the proposed book. When we use a sequential design, we need to articulate clear expectations for the characteristics and timing for each step so that the next collaborative partner(s) are able to build and move the project forward. With parallel and sequential approaches, we will need to decide how to meld component parts into the final draft.

A third type of collaborative work design is synergistic. When we work synergistically. We do not divide the project into component parts, but instead brainstorm and work together to make decisions and create the project.

One of these approaches is not better than the other but one might be more appropriate than another, given the people involved or the nature of the project. A large project might combine more than one of these work designs.

3) Prepare for Review. If we’ve each completed a piece of the puzzle, will need to review each one in order to fit them together. How can we do this in a constructive and respectful way? Do we need to establish quality standards at the outset, and agree to review criteria before we start looking at each other’s work? We will also be subject to external review, including criticism of individual or group contributions. How will we work together to finalize the project?

Starting with agreements can help launch a new project in the right direction. By agreeing to communication, review, and work design processes, co-authors can avoid frustrations that can undermine a collaborative project. Keep the momentum going on a long project by including time to check in, re-assess, and be flexible about updating the agreement as the project evolves. With any collaboration, patience with each other goes a long way. When everyone is comfortable with a fair and workable collaborative process, you can focus on creative thinking and writing.

Salmons, J. (in press). Learning to collaborate, Collaborating to learn. Sterling: Stylus.

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Salmons’ book, Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn, will be published in September 2018 by Stylus.