3 Using Collaborative Writing to Solve Problems
Catherine Forsa, PhD
Collaboration as a Useful Tool for Solving Writing-Related Problems
You have probably worked on several group projects at RWU. Faculty members often emphasize the importance of teamwork and the large part it will play in your career. Group projects require collaborative writing, the process by which a group of writers makes decisions, writes, discusses, and revises documents with a common goal. Many students report facing challenges with collaborative writing and group work in general, especially when group members fail to contribute equally or documents end up as a hodgepodge of different writing styles pieced together. The challenges are rooted largely in misunderstanding what collaborative writing is, how it functions, and how to participate in it. You can address these challenges by learning more about how collaborative writing works and why it is so important to practice.
Collaborative writing is a powerful tool with benefits for the writing process and for strategies to facilitate an effective process for your writing team.
Benefits of Collaborative Writing
Collaborative writing can strengthen your writing in the following ways:
You get multiple perspectives on strategies for addressing a problem. Often the problems you will be writing about are complex, so you will need to carefully consider the most effective strategies to approach them. Working with others allows you to collect and evaluate a wide variety of potential strategies, including those that you would not have thought of on your own. It helps you talk about and think through the usefulness and challenges of the strategies. In other words, collaborative writing provides a fruitful testing ground for gathering and thinking through your ideas. By consulting with others, you will likely discover new ways to approach a problem.
You get multiple perspectives on assessing how effectively the writing addresses a problem. Collaborative writing can lead to effective writing because it provides opportunities for feedback throughout the writing process. This involves built-in peer review and opportunities to test your writing to get different perspectives on its effectiveness. You may think that a sentence or a paragraph is clear while your group members find it confusing. Getting this feedback will help you not only to revise that sentence or paragraph but to look for similar patterns or issues throughout the document that require revision.
You have the opportunity for meaningful conversations about your writing. Collaborative writing can help you become a stronger writer. You can talk through your writing process, allowing you to reflect on your strengths. Teammates may tell you what aspects of writing you excel at. Maybe they recognize that you are great at transitioning between ideas or making sentences more concise. That knowledge can help inspire your confidence. And you can support your teammates as they strengthen this skill. Similarly if you are struggling with an area, such as using concrete language, teammates may be able to help you consider revision strategies and explain the concept so that you can grasp it more effectively.
Strategies for Managing Effective Collaborative Writing
Collaborative writing is more than chopping up a document and assigning each section to a different teammate to write. This could lead to a document without a cohesive argument, voice, and style. It could also lead to unequal contributions and a timeline that does not allow for meaningful revision. This is not effective collaborative writing.
Instead, think about collaborative writing as an ongoing dialogue about the document wherein all members provide meaningful contributions to the major decisions. This dialogue requires all team members to put in meaningful effort and to be respectful of others’ time and ideas. There are many approaches to writing collaboratively, especially at the beginning of the process, when the group makes major decisions about the document’s argument, evidence, and organization. Below are some strategies to consider when writing collaboratively.
Communicate and make decisions early and often. As a team, decide on a plan for your work. Initial team meetings can include conversations about the role for each team member. Such roles can include the
- team organizer, who works with other members to set deadlines and track progress on the document;
- team editor, who ensures that all members are working to produce a cohesive, consistent document; and
- team communicator, who ensures that all members have access to documents and can communicate about the document in a timely manner.
These roles may change as the writing process continues, but having such roles can help the team make decisions together.
Make a commitment and stick with it. A key part of successful collaboration is acknowledging your role in the team; you are not an individual writer but rather a contributor to a team. This requires each member to respect the others. Think about how you can contribute to the team’s success. Such a shift may be difficult since so much of our early education is focused on individual success and grades. You may work best at the last minute under pressure, but writing collaboratively, your team members need to see your writing and hear your ideas early and often so they can help shape them. In joining a group, you made a commitment to work as a group—stick with this commitment even when it becomes challenging for you. It is helpful to continually ask yourself such questions as:
- What would my teammates say about my contributions so far?
- Where have I been a strong contributor? How can I continue to do that?
- Where have I been falling short in my contributions? How can I change that?
This process of self-reflection ensures that you are a productive, respectful team member.
Participate in group meetings. Meetings are essential to successful collaboration, especially in person where you can all look at the same document and talk out ideas. Once you schedule a meeting (or regular meetings, like every Monday at 5:00), commit to it. Team members should take detailed notes to keep track of deadlines, decisions, and plans. Team members should also decide on how, and how often, the team will communicate. A collaborative platform like Google Docs is useful to track changes and comments. If you cannot all find a time to meet on campus, consider using Facetime or other video chatting technologies so that all members can join the meeting. While email can be a useful way to address small decisions, it does not provide the same opportunity to have purposeful conversations where group members ask each other questions, offer suggestions, and build on others’ points.
Use technology effectively. Technologies such as Google Docs can be useful in showing all team members all parts of the document. However, this technology can limit the number of times that students meet or talk in person, so make sure to prioritize time to get together to share updates, raise questions, talk through major challenges, set timelines, and provide feedback. Text messaging may be quick and easy, but it can become confusing and inhibit having meaningful conversations; it can also exclude others. Instead, decide on—and stick with—a consistent way to facilitate an ongoing conversation, and do not underestimate the power of talking to each other. For instance, a group of at least seven writers collaborated on this book over one year, and we met in person every week to maintain a cohesive plan for it. Always maintain a respectful tone that seeks to add constructively to the group’s momentum.
Make a style guide. Since ensuring consistency throughout a collaboratively written document can be a challenge, consider using a style guide or reference guide on formatting, organization, and related areas. For example, this guide can outline the format for headings, subheadings, spacing, fonts, and other design decisions or models for citing evidence.
Seek advice when appropriate. While you should address disagreements respectfully, remember that instructors are valuable resources who can help support your team’s success. Consider seeking out an instructor’s advice about effective communication or means of communicating with a team member who may not be maintaining their commitment to the group.