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Collaborating across differences: Build writing relationships with co-author agreements

I had a conversation with a senior colleague recently about the purpose and value of co-author agreements in collaborative writing projects. He and I talk regularly about research and writing but had not touched on the nature of “agreements” in collaborations. He has built his career in a scientific field where co-authors are the norm, and the majority of his publications included graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, or government agency researchers as collaborators. So, I was somewhat surprised when he shared that he avoids co-author agreements, stating that they “seem overly litigious.” His concern, ultimately, was less about the realities of legally binding agreements or about any real-life experience with being sued; but, rather, his concerns were about the impact such a document and conversation might have on his collegial, professional, and implicitly trusting relationships with writing colleagues.

As a research writing program administrator at a large university, I have heard similar sentiments from academics across fields and disciplines. I share his concerns here, because they point to the power of trust in building high-functioning, rewarding, and productive collaborative writing relationships. They also illustrate the value of starting with non-binding community or group agreements that set the norms for how writers wish to be in relationship with each other and that can support relationship-building early on.

Having a conversation with new collaborators or a “resetting” conversation with long-time writing colleagues about how you wish to interact can provide key insights into the range of differences, preferences, and the priorities each of you bring to the project. Non-binding community agreements can be crucial in opening a space for writers who come together from a diversity of backgrounds or in an asymmetric (or non-peer) relationship where collaborators may hold a range of junior or senior statuses.

A collaborators’ agreement at its best will be both aspirational and actionable. It can be designed with an eye to addressing two questions:

1) What guidelines will make our meetings and conversations (including email or digital correspondence) most productive in terms of mutual trust and respect?

2) What actions or behaviors will support our collaboration?

These questions are relational and norming, not legally binding. By asking colleagues these questions and listening to each partner or group member’s response, collaborators have an opportunity to get to know each other more fully, to hear the needs of individuals, and to clarify how writers might reach out or reach across divides if conversations get tricky.

My program developed a “Community Writing Guide” with guidance from our office of diversity and inclusion that serves as a starting place for our workshops, retreats, and writing group conversations. It is a living document, which means that we can edit, add to, or subtract from it as writers express their needs for creating an environment of mutual trust and respect. Currently, it reads:

• Be present, honest, and authentic.
• Listen actively and with respect.
• Share speaking time (avoid dominating).
• Encourage others as participants.
• Be open to and considerate of other perspectives.
• If uncertain, ask clarifying questions.
• If challenged, respond with grace.
• After our time together, share only what is yours to share.

These words and sentiments are well-known and used among those who work and advise in diversity and equity fields. This list was generated as a starter among colleagues and influenced by materials from our Faculty Institute for Inclusive Excellence and The National Equity Project.

The phrasing of this particular community agreement distils aspirations into actions. It enables us to answer the question about “What makes our meetings and conversations a gathering site informed by mutual trust and respect” by stating that writers feel that they can be available to one another, that writers feel they can be honest with one another, and that writers feel they can be “real” about what they know and need from one another. In short, they can be “Be present, honest, and authentic.”

When we discuss our agreement to “Be open to and considerate of other perspectives,” I encourage groups to go broad when acknowledging the differences we might share together in our gathering. We acknowledge our social, cultural, and professional differences, which often include identity categories shaped by race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, age, discipline, rank and/or job title. Clarifying an openness to and valuing of differences is crucial to creating a trusting relationship, particularly when working across divergent or asymmetric relationships, particularly between senior and junior contributors.

I have found exploring other community or group agreements and using starter phrases beneficial in opening “agreements” up in conversation with each new group. I have even used them in campus committee meetings and regional symposia to great effect. I recommend starting a collaborators’ meeting with a quick check in and discussion. These conversations are designed to be inclusive, generative, and relationally norming, so that all members of the collaboration feel they belong, know their contributions are valued, and can contribute from their best writing selves.

Community agreement conversations need not take up much time in a meeting. Setting aside 5-10 minutes at the beginning of meetings is adequate—expect to spend more time earlier in the relationship, but less later as the check-ins on the agreement become just part of your coming together.

While such “meta” conversations about your writing relationship may seem awkward or bring up feelings of self-consciousness, just remember that such feelings will pass momentarily and that the overall results will be smoother and richer collaborations.

Returning to my colleagues’ discomfort in devising and signing a co-author agreement because they felt “litigious” or in other words “untrusting,” I know that backing up a bit and starting our collaborative writing conversations with self-aware, non-binding conversations about trust will help smooth the way to “trusting” conversations about the legally-binding documents of co-authorship.

Kristina QuynnKristina Quynn is the founding director of CSU Writes, a professional research writing facilitation program at Colorado State University. Trained as a literary scholar, her research and publications have focused on contemporary experimental literature and performative criticism and can be found in publications ranging from the Chronicle of Higher Ed to Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture. She is co-editor of the essay collection Reading and Writing Experimental Texts (Palgrave). Her current research and publications focus on academic writing productivity and sustainable writing practices for researchers.