Co-writing, a continuing story…



This brief piece of collaborative written work was conceived in a typical manner, by Susi and me.  As we tied up a joint writing effort, I commented as an aside that we might, sometime, write about writing together. This is a topic on which we have at times mused reflectively, apropos de bottes. Amidst a flurry of business emails tidying up a forthcoming module, there then came into my inbox an almost empty message saying FYI. Susi had simply posted the Patter piece on co-writing strategies. I presumed that she provocatively inferred that we might be triggered to respond. Over to me! (1)

I did not recognise our collaborative style in the Patter post account. Writing comes second for us, with much disconnected talking coming first. Nothing emerges for us as even roughly drafted material, other than in regard to a topic we have talked out at some length. Something then prompts one of us to make a start. If it’s me who begins with an idea, the entry is usually anecdotal and ruminative and sometimes even passionate. If it’s Susi who opens a drafting interchange, then the opening is scholarly, well referenced, classically structured – and always carefully considered. In either case, there follows a prolonged iteration. Drafts go back and forth. Only occasionally do we talk in person or on the phone about content or style – unless we are, in effect, going back to square one and re-conceiving what we hope to write. We correspond digitally (2).

We do a lot of cutting and pasting.  We frequently revise and refine wording. We offer comments for consideration, and make marginal responses. Susi helpfully and constructively shoehorns in recent references whose relevance to us I only sometimes question. I tend to change words, prune drafts and split long sentences in delightfully purple prose – down to simpler components. I pepper-pot in helpful punctuation, to make text clearer for simple readers like me.  Susi can suddenly interrupt the process by posing an utterly profound and disturbing question, to which of course we should be giving attention. Off we then go – down that trail. We don’t have a lead author. We soon lose track of who first wrote what. The final version genuinely belongs to both of us (3).

Our collaboration has been successful so far in terms of acceptances for publication and a strengthening professional relationship. Why so? Probably for two closely linked reasons.  Our styles and strengths are utterly different – and hence are compatible without conflict.  But additionally, we each continue to genuinely admire and respect what the other brings and suggests (4, 5).

I wrote the first draft of this on my own. Then I sent it to Susi – with the wicked suggestion that perhaps we might just send it to Patter with her comments as footnotes. I wondered what that outcome would be. Here you have it, after a few tweaks and an extra footnote from me.


1 SP: This is often the case. I see a blog posting, an article, a chapter, often provocative, and wonder if this stimulate some joint writing. I know it will always lead to some discussions.

2 SP: I had not actually thoughts about this before, but yes, it is the case. I wonder if this is a practical response – our diaries are always busy – or is it because we know each other so well. I read John’s words and hear his voice.

3 SP: I value John’s editorial role. I can become obsessed with the content and “my message” and forget my verbosity. I have learnt not to be possessive about my words, since the joint efforts will be so much more.

4 SP: I am very honoured to work with John. He has taught me to have an unconditional positive regard for all his suggestions, although I may not always agree with them!

5 JC: I can’t let her away with that. For, in my turn, I am immensely grateful to her for the energy, insights and encouragement which brought me back to active research and academic writing, rejuvenated from being a hibernating academic in my 85th year.

Pat then said to John: I think that your co writing is a version of my first draft (category). But obviously the categories are slippery.

To which he responded  Yes, very much first draft – but then chaotically integrated.

I think we are fortunate. Since we started about 18 months ago, we have had no rejections, probably six aceptances or publications on different but allied topics and in reasonable journals, and a modest agenda of targets remaining! The secret seems to be the blend of totally different talents and priorities and perhaps the complimentarity of different age groups and styles!

Author Bios: John Cowan is Professor Emeritus of Learning Development of the UK OU.  Susi Peacock is senior lecturer for e-learning, at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.