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Collaborating across differences: Keep writing communication simple with the 5Ps

In the two previous newsletter pieces in this series, we learned how non-binding co-author agreements and reflective conversations can build trust and understanding among collaborators. In this piece, we will consider how developing a shared vocabulary about a writing project can support writing partners or teams.

A campus partner and I are at the end of a three-year study of collaborative writers in which we work with faculty and graduate students who co-author manuscripts for publication or proposals for funding. One of our important, preliminary insights is that many writers share the concern about miscommunicating in ways that interfere with next steps, recommended revisions, and co-author contributions.

For faculty advisors, poor collaborator communication is often frustrating and can create project backlog. For graduate students, miscommunication about their writing project can be confusing and stressful, with implications for the development of their field-specific expertise and impacts on timely progress to degree. For both writers, poor communication about the writing project can be time-wasting and disheartening.

Collaborating authors may find they have situational differences that play a role in how they connect—or misconnect—with one another. The faculty advisor and graduate student collaborators mentioned above are coming to their writing project from very different ranks and career positions. Many other differences may exist as well: our personal and professional identities, backgrounds, and skill-levels all help shape our approach to a new writing project, and may be a source of miscommunication.

Writing is a deceptively complex term—it represents a thing (noun), an action (verb), and an ongoing process (gerund). Complicating matters further, writing forces us to confront our past challenges alongside our current vulnerabilities, actively engage with our career-building and learning expectations, and—sometimes— share our partially formed thoughts. With all this layered complexity, we may often talk about writing with colleagues thinking that we have been talking about the same thing, only to learn we have different starting assumptions. To keep communication about the writing project clear and, thus, to keep the project moving forward, we recommend that co-authors articulate and clarify their meanings and expected approaches at the beginning of a project.

In your planning and reflective conversations (or if a miscommunication occurs), you may find it helpful to get grounded about which element of writing is providing the most challenges. We have found the following “five Ps” helpful in organizing our thinking and distinguishing different aspects of writing:

  • PRODUCT: the output of the collaboration, which will have a genre, be field-specific, include specialized knowledge, and have a sophisticated style
  • PROCESS: the putting together of a manuscript or proposal (the craft of what goes where)
  • PRACTICE: the customary, habitual way of doing (or not doing) tasks for individuals and teams
  • PROJECT: the actions that move the research forward (reading, analysis, task-based)
  • PERSONA: who you are in relation to others + your voice on the page

We use the 5P buckets in our workshops to render the essential elements of writing simply, clearly, and without a lot of jargon that may obscure communication. In addition to actively listening to your co-author to better understand their writing backgrounds and approaches as discussed in my previous newsletter pieces, you will benefit by keeping your communication about writing simple, nimble, and specific to your partnership or team.

Because academic writing is a specialized process and product, it requires that we communicate as clearly as possible with our co-authors from the outset and that we listen with care when challenges arise—as they often do. If the specialized terminology of genres, grammar, or syntax work for you and your team, use those. If not, find terms that do work.

Devising terminology and language that works for you can be especially important when writing across disciplinary differences. For example, four scholars (Beollstroff, Nardi, Pearce, and Taylor) from four disciplines (anthropology, computer science, media studies, and sociology) co-authored an interdisciplinary handbook, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds, using multiple meeting, commenting, and communicating methods.

The team developed a commenting system for their editing process. They agreed that substantive changes would need to be approved by the composing writer, but that minor spelling and grammatical errors could be edited by any contributor. To propose edits in text, they used the comments feature to confirm changes. For instance, they cued a writer to address a comment or to make a change by adding each writers’ initials to the word fix (e.g., TFIX, BFIX, CFIX, TLFIX). Simple, clear, writing-specific language that was developed by the group to work for all contributors in the group.

Yes, writing is an ancient craft and, yes, often there are agreed-upon structures, terminology, and definitions within a discipline, as well as distinct disciplinary constraints and pressures. But you in conversation with your writing partner or team can define your writing product, process, practice, project, and personas. Ultimately, how we go about co-authoring means getting clear about what we are doing in relation to and in support of our colleagues. Feel free to devise your own tailored terms and techniques to smooth your collaborative communication.

It’s time to reach out to your writing colleagues and get clear on your terms, ideas, and next steps!

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.