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Collaborating across differences: Reflect on writing habits in co-author processes

Most research and academic writers today produce publications within co-author relationships—making collaborative writing a key feature of our professional lives. In their recent study of team science, Barry Bozeman and Jan Youtie determined that more than 90% of sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) publications are co-authored (Strength in Numbers 2020). Even in historically single-author fields like mine, writing studies, co-authorship is on the rise.

This revolution in co-production of publications means that individual writers must both learn the craft of writing but also the art of writing in relationship with others. Our co-authors are not carbon copies of ourselves. They bring alternate ways of thinking, complementary disciplinary expertise, and other generational, gendered, national, or racial experiences so that we might write a higher quality manuscript or proposal than we could produce on our own.

Universities and colleges bring together academics representing great differences of institutions, languages, backgrounds, abilities, and preferred ways of working. While we know from studies that diversity creates stronger teams, we also know that navigating our differences in collaboration can be, at times, challenging and stressful. The co-authoring process can be a key site of collaborative tensions. As if writing wasn’t challenging enough on its own, through collaboration, we have now multiplied the potential challenges a writer may face in producing a manuscript for publication or a proposal for submission.

Because writing is a complex process, individual writers can feel a range of emotions when they sit down to put words to the page. Depending on our writing practices, preferences, and standing on a project, we may feel pressure or pleasure, vulnerability or confidence, exposure or invisibility, undervalued or appreciated, uncertainty or certainty, at risk or supported, or some combination and unique set of emotions when we put our fingers to the keyboard or pen to page.

In our co-authoring relationship who we are as writers will be reflected back to us—sometimes in flattering or not so flattering terms. For instance, do you have a habit of missing deadlines or meeting them no matter what? (Note: the effects of both answers can produce tensions among collaborators). Do you feel savvy or challenged in wielding the language of your field? Does your schedule support your being able to mull the details of the project or are you overcommitted and working at a breath-taking speed these days?

In co-author relationships, what might seem to be the challenges of the individual become the challenges of the team. Who you are as a writer and who your colleague(s) are as writers—with all your common ground, goals, and differences—will become amplified through your co-author relationship. The very habits that currently support, or undermine, your writing become multiplied and amplified in your co-author relationships. To state the obvious, you will come to know both yourself and your co-authors much better by writing together.

It helps to ease the way for a smoother collaboration by reflecting on your writing preferences and sharing your insights with your co-author(s). Such reflection and conversation need not take much time. In the collaborative writing workshops that I run at Colorado State University to help co-authors get to know each other as writers, our guided conversation takes less than half-an hour. The time writers save over the weeks, months, or years of collaboration by avoiding missed deadlines or needing to hold trouble-shooting conversations about unrevealed pet-peeves makes this reflective conversation well worth it.

When you next connect with your team or before you embark upon your next writing collaboration, have all contributing writers answer the following questions:

  1. What kinds of writing do you most like to do and/or most appreciate reading?
    • Can you identify a preferred style? (may help to identify/share published examples)
  1. What are your top three writing pet-peeves? Why these three?
  2. When do you typically complete projects?
    • Well in advance
    • Early—usually before deadline
    • At deadline
    • Often need extensions
  1. Describe your current projects and workload.
  2. What is your comfort-level in talking openly with co-authors about you as a writer (your writing background, experiences, and needs)? In addition to you talking about you as a researcher and you as a teacher/instructor, are you as a writer
    • Very comfortable sharing details
    • Modestly comfortable sharing
    • Rarely comfortable and only if I must share
    • Never comfortable and may refuse to share

Your and your co-authors’ responses to these questions reflect your current communication styles, your work approaches, your habits of time, and your work capacity. All of which will be shaped by lived experiences, cultural backgrounds, personal habits, and professional demands. These questions focus on common pressure points in collaboration that often go unexamined or undiscussed until tensions or writing troubles surface. None of your (or your collaborators’) responses are set in stone. Your responses may change over time as your career and relationships change and grow, so you as a writer will grow and change, too.

Listen actively—without interrupting—to your colleagues’ responses to hear how you might best work with them, acknowledging the fullness of their strengths, contributions, preferences and constraints.

Each writer and consequently each writing relationship is unique, and who you are in relationship with others will change according to the “chemistry” of the partnership or team. The chemistry or magic of high-quality co-authored writing starts with knowing who you are as a writer and what skills—of varying degrees of mastery—you bring to the collaboration.

For the last Academic Author newsletter, I wrote about the value of using community agreements to establish trust among collaborators so that writers might create a space of open dialogue and richer collaboration. In this piece, I encourage you to build upon that foundation of trust to reach a deeper understanding about you, your collaborator(s), and your relationship by reflecting honestly about who each of you are as academic writers as you work across your professional and experiential differences.

By reflecting, sharing, and listening to ourselves and our co-authors as academic writers, we can move our collaborative research and writing projects forward with understanding and respect. Through understanding, we can better hear, discern, and implement processes that work best for all writers contributing to the project.

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.