Co-writing – strategies for working with other people’s words



There are various types of co-writing practices. Pretty well all of them involve you working on text that other people have written.

This is a sensitive matter. Many people are anxious about their writing and do not enjoy the process of having their words erased and/or replaced. This may be the case with their own revision process, or may apply particularly to scrutiny from others. This sensitivity isn’t entirely illogical. Writing and academic identity are folded into each other – it is not too difficult to see any corrections to your text as also a commentary on your scholarship. Because of this textual touchiness,  co-writing strategies really do need to be discussed. And preferably prior to serious writing.

It’s helpful at the outset to know yourself.

  • Are you precious about words? Do you struggle to revise? Do you like revising and editing or do you find that these are stages you just want to rush through? Do you feel ‘word loss’ very acutely?
  • Are there any co-writing strategies that you would find hard to deal with? For instance, I can’t stand writing with people who only write questions about what I’ve written rather than actually getting stuck in with alternatives. I’d much rather leave the questions to the things that actually need a discussion.
  • Are there any co-writing strategies that you think are helpful? I have found it’s usually helpful to have a discussion about big restructures, or changes to a line of argument. if one person makes a dramatic textual intervention, which then comes back as a very different piece, a co-writer will certainly be surprised  – and maybe not in a good way. I favour a talk-first-to-co-develop-the-new approach.

Productive co-writing relationships are built on trust. It’s important to not only think about how you respond to your partner’s writing, but also how you will respond to what they say about yours.  This means not being immediately defensive when co-writers question what you have done. If they suggest that radical textual surgery is needed on your first draft, it may well be a good call. This is hard to take, but it is inevitable in all academic writing that some texts work better than others. Sometimes we are so close to what we’ve done that we can’t see the problems we’ve inadvertently created. One of the benefits of co-writing is that other people can save us from sending these misjudgments off to be reviewed. So, it is tempting to leap to our own defence, but good to take a deep breath and hear what is being said.

So now a bit more practical stuff…

It’s often good to kick off co-writing a paper with a shared plan. Now this might be drafted by one person, or it could be developed via conversation, or it could be something as simple as an email. However, new co-writing relationships often benefit from building a more detailed joint understanding about the writing to be done at the start. And in the case of doctoral researcher-supervisor papers, shared planning is a time when the supervisor can support the doctoral researcher to learn a new genre and an approach to mapping out a paper, choosing the journal and so on.

Part of shared planning is negotiating the role that co-writers will play. Are you a minor player, a bit actor in a performance by the first author? Or are you an equal partner, with authority to change the paper in the ways you think it needs? This negotiation leads pretty easily into questions of material process – so the questions are raised about the hows, whether you should delete, track changes, raise questions…

Ideally, co-writers should read the document they get from a co-writer as equivalent to one that they have written themselves – in other words, they should understand the labour that has been put into getting it to this stage, but also see the text as something that they are able to add to. A co-writer should feel able to act, and not be tentative and unsure of their colleague’s reaction.

It’s worth thinking about ‘voice’ too and whether you want to read like one person writing rather than two. Think about your various writing idiosyncrasies and how they might mesh. Consider whether one person needs to take final responsibility for smoothing over the text so it does read easily.

And it’s good to think about some ground rules if this is a new co-writing partnership. Here’s three to kick around:

  • Negotiate the time taken for writing drafts of sections and for doing re-writes. This avoids the situation where one person gets anxious about what the other is doing/not doing.
  • Agree how the changes are going to be made. Track changes? New text highlighted? Whole new version?
  • Agree on how the new documents will be saved. How will you name each iteration? Title, date, author? And where will they be filed so you can both get at them – cloud store of some kind, or simply ping pong by email.

If you are co–writing, and almost all of us do at some point, and some of us more than others, then it’s very helpful to have as much as possible sorted at the start. But you also need to keep an eye on process as you go along and be prepared, if things start to go awry, to stop the writing for a moment to sort things out.

And remember, co writing can be one of the joys in academic life. Real conversations. Shared sense of achievement. Learning from each other.