Learning to be a co-author


Co-authoring can be very different for researchers from different disciplines.

In the social sciences and the sciences, for example, co-authored articles have become the norm over the last few decades. My academic background is in English Literature, where we do not usually write collaboratively (Leane, Fletcher and Garg, 2019Nyhan and Duke-Williams, 2014). Publishing a collaborative article or book can still be a career limiting move in the Humanities where single authorship is the norm.

Co-authoring can lead to additional disadvantage for women (in both STEM and HASS fields), for junior researchers, and researchers from developing countries, who are more likely to find that their contributions are under-recognised or devalued.

As an early career researcher, I tried to keep publishing in the traditional ways, what is sometimes called ‘lone wolf’ scholarship (as in this previous Research Whisperer post ). It is pretty tough and solitary out there. You travel to the library or archives on your own, you read alone, you write alone, you edit alone. You might eventually get to work with a Research Assistant, but their intellectual contribution to the work is typically small: transcribing, fixing references, fact checking, copy editing (in other words, work that doesn’t merit co-authorship). You might go to conferences and present a paper on your work to build an audience and get feedback, but there’s a still a gap between what you present at a conference, and whether anyone actually wants to publish the finished article. Often, the only feedback you get is from peer reviewers.

Slowly, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have a traditional academic pathway with the expected h-indexes and annual publications, yet I still have things to say. And books and articles are still the ways I want to say them.

So, I have crossed over to the dark side and started writing collaboratively, and I’m here to tell you it’s great!

Below are 10 things I learned about being a co-author, including tips about teams, time management, values and the writing process. I’ve found these are essential, whether I see my collaborators every day, or if we live on other sides of the world.

Top tips for co-authorship:

1. Have a lead author who is responsible for the project management aspects like setting internal deadlines and negotiating with the publisher.

Getting something ready for publication means more than just writing good words. It helps to know whose job it is to keep an eye on the writing schedule, write the reply to emails from your editor, and convene your regular writers’ meetings. In my experience, this person is also usually the first author.

2. Be clear about what every person’s job is.

Which chapters or sections are you responsible for writing? What will you be responsible for when it comes to editing? Clarity about everyone’s job in the project helps you be sure the work is allocated in a fair and practical way, and makes it easier to get on with your to-do list. It will probably get messier at the end, but it should be clear at the beginning!

3. Meet regularly – either in person or via a video chat program like Skype or Zoom.

In our collaborations, we keep up regularly in a whole host of ways: tagging each other in #amwriting Twitter or Insta posts, SMS messages, email, going to Shut Up and Write together, or grabbing a coffee. But the monthly scheduled meeting is the most effective for being accountable, getting through a lot of material, and for negotiating.

I also use our regular meetings as mini-deadlines. Even if I haven’t written anything all month, an upcoming meeting makes me produce something. Maybe it’s just a last-minute first draft, but all those last-minute first drafts add up faster than you think.

4. Encourage each other.

When you are having a good day, or a bad day, your collaborators should be your biggest cheer squad. It really does help the writing!

5. Stay in contact if you get sick, are falling behind, or finding something hard.

A publication is a long-term project and lots of other things can happen in your work, your life, and your writing pipeline. Everyone understands that you might need to make adjustments. If you are communicating, the team can find a way to get back on track.

6. Try to work with compatible people.

There needs to be a lot of trust in any team, especially if you are working remotely and only checking in every month or two. I write with people I have worked with before (whether it’s through teaching, being on committees, or smaller writing projects like blog posts). I already know we can be compatible, so we can then work through any challenges or disagreements together!

7. Working with other people means they won’t always do things the way you would.

This is obvious, but it can also be a challenge if you are used to being a lone wolf. Most of the time, the differences help the writing to be richer, smarter, and speak to a wider audience.

8. Stand up for what you believe in.

I have become a much better writer for being challenged to rise up to other people’s social, aesthetic and intellectual values. Whether you love gender-neutral pronouns, Derrida, or lower prices for graduate students…make that case. That said, I should also say that you won’t always win. My Oxford comma love regularly gets voted down.

9. Share early drafts.

It can be a challenge to go from only ever sharing submittable work to sharing a second draft. It’s much easier to write together, in terms of tone, content and approach, if you are reading each other’s work before it’s too polished.

10. Edit other people’s work in stages.

When I edit my own work, I’m often rewriting paragraphs, changing individual words, checking spelling, and rethinking concepts … all at once. This is messy and unhelpful when other people do it.

When someone else is giving feedback on my early drafts, it helps if they keep their feedback high level, about the direction of the section and the work as a whole. When they are giving feedback on very late drafts, it helps if they keep their feedback on small details like sentence structure.

Co-authoring felt scary when I started because I had to make myself vulnerable and accountable to my collaborators. But, as we became a writing team, I realised that this was one of the most effective, affirming, and intellectually robust ways I had ever worked.

If you can find a writing team that communicates, is fair, and does the work, I’d strongly encourage you to have a go.

Author Bio: Dr Katherine Firth is a Lecturer at La Trobe University. Her PhD was on collaboration in writing.