original posted on 4-21-2015 by Lisa Meloncon
For our first Mentor Monday conversation, we discussed issues of collaboration. I was inspired to write this post because collaboration is tricky—even for those of us who have done it a long time. I always tell students the story of the first time I had to work on a collaborative project as a consultant, and it was an unmitigated disaster. That experience has made me a huge advocate of discussing the goals and processes of collaboration up front before any project begins.
So let me take a step back and actually define what I mean by collaboration. A collaborative project is one where you and at least one other person are working toward a common, shared goal. In our field (technical and professional communication), most collaborations are equitable with all people collaborating equally. (This shifts if you collaborate with people from other disciplines, primarily in the sciences and health and medical fields, but that is a post for another day!)
As you are working together toward a common shared goal, it’s important that you discuss, up front what that goal is and have a rough outline on how you’re getting there. In general there are two types of collaboration, co-authoring and co-editing. Let’s deal with the co-authoring part first.
Things to consider
- do you have the same goals for the piece, i.e., does it mean the same to all parties involved (this has lots to do with where you may be in your career)
- do all parties involved understand what collaboration may or may not mean at their institutions in terms of reappointment, promotion, tenure, or merit decisions?
- do you have common or complementary strengths and weaknesses? i.e., are you both detail people or is one a detail person while the other is a big picture person; does one have a research strength while the other have an editing strength? Finding out what strengths and weaknesses each of you have as well as ho
- do you have the same orientation to work or work habits?
- What are your stances on deadlines?
- Working styles (some same people can work together some different people can work together and sometimes not)
- Do you personalities complement one another? Personalities just because you like them as a friend or have admire their work does not mean you can collaborate.
- How will you handle additional demands on your time from other projects should those other projects or obligations interfere?
- How should work be divided or distributed? It’s important to have a general conversation about you may see this playing out and then you can determine what specific way of collaboration may work for you.
- How flexible are you at changing approaches? Should someone need time off for whatever reason how will you deal with that.
- Have you discussed what other obligations, projects, and deadlines you both have and how those may integrate or interfere?
These are just some of the big questions you may want to consider when approaching a collaborative project.
Baton passing—after discussing common goals and main idea one person takes a turn and then passes it for the other to fill in the gaps extend things
Assigned tasks—you are assigned specific parts to complete and then you come together and merge them into a common voice
Primary writer—sometimes due to schedules or subject matter one person writes more of the big picture and the other comes in and fleshes things out, smooths out language adds transitions, etc.
Same time—truly writing at the same time working through thoughts and ideas together (this can be time consuming, but rewarding, and it’s likely the initial phases of the project are done this way)
These are the most common that I have been associated with, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other types and kinds. The key is that you need to talk about them and actively communicate throughout the proess.
Collaborative Editing Projects
Editing projects need to have a more in depth discussion about the shared vision and goal because in this case you not only have to agree for yourselves, you have to agree and convince other people of that vision. This means that you and your collaborator(s) should discuss what common terms mean and how you want to define them, research orientations (methodologies and methods), and overall style and level of the volume. Drafting the CFP or the invitation letter/email should help you work through some of the bigger issues around vision and scope. However, depending on the type of proposals received, you may need to evaluate or shift what you want the volume to do.
Once you have a framework or vision established, you need to discuss how you’re going to coordinate the work of commenting on manuscripts of individual authors. Editing projects take on a different sort of approach since in this you’re critiquing other’s work under a shared vision. So for example
- Will you each comment, discuss any differences or variations, and then provide one set of comments to the authors
- Will you split the chapters of pieces so that you are each commenting on the same number?
- Will you have a lead editor who does much of the heavy lifting and the other person comes in and adds only additional comments?
In addition, you have to make sure you agree on the shared vision of the project, that is, what is it that you want the volume to do so that all the comments in the individual essays are directed toward that common vision.
Some publishers will require that the essays speak to each or are tied together in some way. In this case, editors can choose to direct authors in the ways that they see the essays tying together or you can take more editorial control and actually tie the essays together yourself. Both ways are equally effectively, but they both take strong communication between the editors AND strong communication to the authors.
In addition, you have to take time to discuss how to write the introduction (and in some cases the afterword), which then puts you into the writing process with the same questions as described above.
Editing projects are time consuming, and without clear communication up front on how you want to handle certain things during the process, you’ll end up being more stressed than necessary.
Collaborative writing and editing projects an be extremely rewarding, but collaboration doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount of work, it just shifts the type of work that is involved. A key to remember is that just because you may be friends with someone and like them (personally and their work) that doesn’t mean that you can and will collaborate smoothly or effectively. I know people who will never work with certain people again simply because they have such different working styles and work approaches. It’s true that sometimes you don’t really know until you’ve tried working together. In that case, I suggest working together on some low stakes collaborative writing or editing project or working together on a joint service project (maybe some discrete project for a national organization). Stepping into the collaborative waters slowly and with a project with lower stakes can reduce the stress and potentially save friendships.
In short, collaboration can be wonderful or it can be hell. You have to communicate and be honest throughout the process.