Although writing in the workplace is a team sport, usually only one team member bats at a time. After the planning phase, the designated writer accepts responsibility for putting the words together for the first draft.
In some situations, however, team participation also extends to the drafting phase. Truly collaborative writing presents significant challenges for all participants. Have a clearly defined plan and adjust it as you work.
Before you decide how to collaborate, understand why you’re doing it.
Examine the Motives
Group writing projects typically arise from one of the following three situations:
- Assigning multiple stakeholders to the writing process to satisfy internal politics (writing by committee)
- Adding writers to accelerate the output (writing in parallel)
- Creating content that is the unique result of several individuals working together (true collaboration)
In the first situation, writing by committee, everyone’s pet ideas or phrases get a chance to be heard (or removed) during negotiated drafting. The process is subject to the perils of groupthink, a kind of dysfunctional group decision making that arises from our natural desire to achieve consensus and avoid conflict. The resulting text may check the boxes of all the committee members, but rarely serves the reader’s needs. Avoid it if possible.
Writing by committee is painful. True collaboration is fulfilling.
The second situation, adding writers to speed the end result, often happens on massive projects. Depending on the project, this strategy may add as much time in planning and revision as it saves in drafting.
In the famous book about programming, The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks Jr. de-bunks the idea that adding programmers to a project accelerates it: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”
The same thing can happen with writing.
To accelerate a project or reduce the load on an author, consider adding collaborators in other phases of the project, including research, revision and editing, and review management.
The third reason to write as a team is to generate better or different content than any participant could achieve individually.
This kind of collaboration requires a trusting relationship. Each writer must be willing to work in service of the end result.
Collaborative authorship is a difficult balance to maintain. Much will depend on your ability to work with the others on the team. Determine which model works for your team.
One writer, multiple authors: In this model, the group might work closely together determining the objectives, researching, and creating the outline. The group discusses the key points of each section verbally or in written communications. The designated writer (who may also contribute con-tent) assembles the words into a draft, which the team revises together.
Multiple writers as one voice: Some coauthors divide the work, each writing certain sections and then assembling them as one. An editor can create a consistent tone and style at the end. This kind of collaboration requires careful division of work and ongoing communication so that the reader experiences a consistent flow.
Multiple writers in an anthology: In this case, you do not attempt to disguise the reality of multiple writers. You still need to collaborate closely to be sure that the finished work serves the reader’s interests. Work together planning the objectives, creating an outline, and making key deci-sions about tone and style.
Determine ahead of time how you are going to work out potential conflicts about content, style, and tone. For example, a subject matter expert might collaborate with a professional writer to draft a book; the writer should have the say on tone and style, and the expert on the con-tent matter.
Many wonderful films, books, and television shows are the results of successful, productive collaboration. If you have a chance to work on a writing team, set out with clear expectations and roles, and a commitment to the reader. True collaboration may be an opportunity for growth.
This post is an excerpt from The Workplace Writer’s Process.