Collaborative writing

Card's author : Outils-réseaux
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description : Conceived as a support for building collective knowledge, Web 2.0 has lead to a deep change in the way information is thought of. By freeing writing from the closed universe of printed supports, it has unfolded a whole change in this field. It is now possible for several people to work on a same document at the same time! The enormous success of the Wikipedia, one of the most visited websites in the World, has opened the door to new ways of writing. Defined as a “project for a collectively written free encyclopaedia”, it has proved to what extent collaboration can contribute quality and make a written document so much richer. Richer for the community who benefits from finding different points of view on a same topic. Also richer for the person participating in a project that will lead them to elaborate new writing strategies and to feed on new ideas.

Co-writing, a difficult process

Collaborative writing is the result of a process that is often considered complex and difficult. The authors explain this difficulty by the fact that to the task of writing individually (based on planning, translation and reviewing, according to the authors), collaborative writing brings in three more levels of complexity. LOWRY, Paul, CURTIS, Aaron and LOWRY, Michelle. A taxonomy of collaborative writing to improve empirical research, writing practice, and tool development. Journal of Business Communication (JBC). 2004. Vol. 41, no. 1, p. 66–99.

A Taxonomy of Collaborative Writing to Improve Empirical Research, Writing Practice, and Tool Development, published in 2004, Lowry P.B., Curtis A. and Lowry M.R.
1. Intellectual
2. Social
3. Procedural

This corresponds to three questions posed by collaborative writing:

1. How do we pool and harmonise individual knowledge to produce collective knowledge?
2. How do we coordinate the members and their different opinions for the project to be successful? How do we overcome social and affective conflicts that arise in this collective exercise?
3. How do we establish a common planning and deadline?

Group dynamics: the core of collaborative writing

The truth is that beyond the intellectual and procedural dimensions mentioned above, what appears to be the real core of collaborative writing is the social dimension that will then allow all the rest to “run smoothly”. By “social dimension” we understand the ability to generate group dynamics that bring each of the members together around a common goal (producing a text), where each of them will find their place. Dynamics that will make it as easy as possible for its members to become engaged and that, if it does not exist, will make the whole cooperative project unavoidably fail.

Collaborative writing can, indeed, generate social and affective conflicts (different points of view, the feeling that one is being judged, etc.) that may seem difficult to overcome. The act of co-writing also requires:

  • A high level of reciprocal interaction between the members that is nurtured by frequent exchanges
  • Taking into account the different points of view and giving value to the contributions of each member to the community, and encourage them all to participate while remembering this sentence by Paul Ricoeur "Tolerance is not a concession I make to the other, it is about recognizing the principle that a part of truth escapes me."
  • That the facilitator is capable to regulate social and affective conflicts arising from different ideas and natures.

The work of a network facilitator is precisely to contribute a convergence within the community and to create constructive work dynamics that promote everyone's participation:

JM Cornu - La Coopération en 28 mots-clés - 4. Convergence et conflit
(Transcript in english)

Facilitating the contribution of everyone using the method of the 6 hats

In order to make it easier for everyone to participate and for new ideas to emerge in a group, the psychologist Edward de Bono, specialist in cognitive science, developed in 1987 a method called the “6 hats”. Starting from the idea that searching for solutions goes through six clearly defined phases, this method invites each group member to explore, in a meeting, six concrete ways of thinking, symbolised by six hats of different colours.

Briefly, the objectives are:
  • to allow each member to perceive an idea, re-think it from a different perspective and thus make his or her point of view on that idea evolve;
  • to avoid any censorship on new ideas that arise in a group;
  • to create a favourable climate for exchange and creativity, favouring freedom of speech;
  • to solve problems in a collaborative way;
  • to offer a global vision and go deeper into the situation;

More specifically, once the problem has been posed, each of the group members adopt, one at a time, a different position by imagining they are wearing a hat, and start exploring new solutions:

  • The White hat represents neutrality. The person wearing it must simply announce the facts leaving all possible interpretations aside.
  • The Red hat represents emotions. The person can freely express his or her feelings and intuitions.
  • The Green hat means creativity. The person wearing it looks for alternatives, while trying to consider the problem from a different perspective.
  • The Yellow hat represents constructive criticism. The person "admits their craziest ideas and dreams".
  • The Black hat means negative criticism, judging. The person wearing this hat announces the weaknesses and the risks entailed by this idea.
  • The Blue hat represents organization, channelling the ideas and process. The person will look at the expressed idea from a distance.

This method that pushes participants to leave their usual way of thinking may prove very useful when it comes to writing collectively.

Three approaches for collaborative writing

Collective writing can be done in many different ways, depending on the levels of collaboration:
  • One member starts by writing an article which is then modified and added to by another member, and so forth until a “document” that is deemed complete by the whole group and that generates consensus is drafted.
  • An approach that is more cooperative than collaborative is when each of the members works on a part of the article. Then the different parts of the document are linked to one another and harmonised to constitute a single and coherent article.
A variation of this cooperation could be that each member, according to their skills and wishes, does one part of the work. For example, one person drafts, the other corrects, the third reads through it, etc.
  • Finally, the most collaborative approach is maybe one that includes all members in thinking about how they are going to write the article; one where there is no real distinction between roles. Each member participates in all the different phases. We will analyse the elaboration phases that could cover this last point.

Elaboration phases: tricks and tips for participatory writing

Each group can find their own method that fits best. However, to have some points of reference, here are some tricks and tips to start with participatory writing:

1. Generating "an irreversible cooperative experience"

When preparing a group for collective writing, there is nothing better than to start by making them live a “Small Irreversible Cooperative Experience” (SICE). This is done to overcome any possible barriers, to bring about the first exchanges and to give a sense to the collaborative task. One of the best tips is to use Etherpad, an on-line service that allows several people to take notes simultaneously, jotting down unfinished contents that will then be corrected or one containing many spelling mistakes. This simple action will instinctively get people to correct the spelling mistakes despite any barriers they may encounter. This tip is even more efficient when the mistake leads to a person: to the quest for perfect spelling we must add ego….The harm is done: the person thus lives their first collaborative experience!

2. Brainstorming

After this first step is taken, then comes a second phase that can be done organising a collective brainstorm; i.e. a meeting to gather ideas that will then allow bringing together all the points of view and the writing proposals of the group. This technique encourages the group members to put ideas into words, to compare them to others and to re-formulate them. It also encourages creativity. Using a mind map is also very useful to gather all this information, create a hierarchy of ideas and have a general overview. The principle is simple: the facilitator creates a mind map covering the points mentioned by each group member and classifies these ideas by topics and sub-topics. Projecting it on a screen, everyone can see if there is information missing and makes it easier for them to intervene. This exercise makes it quick and easy for ideas to emerge and to take all points of view into account!

There are many mind map tools, including Freeplane, which is very easy to use.

3. Drafting

Once the work has been done, the group is ready to establish a drafting plan. The real drafting work will start with this plan. From the start, it may be useful to test different modes of writing (individual or directly in a group, the framework to be used, etc.) to find the way that fits the group best. A reflection on what induces the publication (=exposition) will also be necessary.

Drafting can be done using on-line tools that allow each member to edit and modify the document, improve the common writing work and have a real-time view of the state of the document.

Google Document is quite useful for drafting in small groups. It allows several people to draft an on-line document at the same time that can be modified by each member and where all these changes are automatically included in the document. The advantage of this tool is that work is never isolated and members can see how the drafting process is taking place and, with this, they can make their ideas on the project evolve along the way.

For larger groups, a Wiki could be a good option. Just as Google Doc and Etherpad, it allows publishing all creations or page modifications instantly and having a global vision besides offering other interesting options. In fact, there is the option of commenting on pages, with a more visual display of page contents, to decide on the on-line publishing of the document on the spot and also managing the record of drafting. It also allows a collaborative work that is possibly more structured.

Small feedback on the experience of Animacoop regarding collective drafting

During the Outils-Réseaux training “Facilitating a collaborative network” (Montpellier, October-December 2010), trainers suggested that the group of trainees from Animacoop drafted three articles for their newsletter collectively and at distance. The group members were accustomed to working together and writing an article allowed them to value a common good, a creation. “For the trainers, this writing exercise was sort of a methodological challenge”, say the persons in charge of the training: “How can we test the collective capacity to synthesise crosscutting contents produced during a training? Second challenge: how do we get trainees motivated to do some extra work that is not expected?”

The testimonials of the trainees for this experience (method followed, stages, time management…) can be read on-line (in French):

Photo credits under Creative Commons licence: by bgblogging, by Yves Guillou.