Collaborative writing involves more than just writing. Writing researchers have identified seven core activities: brainstorming, conceptualizing, outlining, drafting, reviewing, revising and editing .
In brainstorming, the writing group creates a list of potential ideas for the paper. Through conversation and text, they consider how to best represent the findings, what they might say about those findings in relation to the research question, what storylines would make for a compelling Discussion , and what conversations the piece might join in the literature. Brainstorming may start while data collection and analysis are still underway, particularly in qualitative research using theoretical sampling methods.
The activity of conceptualizing involves coalescing and prioritizing brainstorming ideas to articulate the central story of the paper. Some ideas will be set aside as insufficiently mature or irrelevant to the study’s main purpose; others will be pursued in ongoing analyses and reading of related theoretical and empirical literatures. When a study will yield more than one story, the process of conceptualizing must also consider the order and audiences of multiple manuscripts: which story should be told first? To whom?
Once the story is conceptualized, outlining is the process of detailing how it will unfold throughout the sections of the research manuscript genre. What needs to go in the introduction and what would be an unnecessary detour? What degree of detail should the methods include? Which results will be included and in what order? How will the discussion develop the ideas from the introduction? Outlining is an activity that can lend itself more readily to solo than to collaborative work. However, even if one writer takes the lead on outlining, the process should be visible to other members of the group. Talking through the outline in rough as a team, and then reviewing the outline created by the lead author, is one way to maximize both efficiency and input at this stage of the writing process.
In drafting, the outlined sections are flushed out into full sentences, paragraphs and arguments. Create a realistic schedule for this activity; an outline can seem like it lays the whole paper out, but the devil is in the details. Will the literature review be organized chronologically or by points of view in the current scholarly conversation? How much theoretical framing should appear in the introduction? How elaborate should the methods be, and what is the appropriate balance of description and justification? How will main results be illustrated, and which data should appear in tables, figures or quoted excerpts? How will the storyline develop in the discussion, beyond summary of results and limitations? In fact, when you acknowledge the complexity of the writing that goes into even a rough first draft, it probably makes more sense to draft sections in blocks. Consider pairing methods and results, and introduction and discussion, for instance, as these represent, respectively, the study and the story .
Reviewing, revising and editing usually occur in cycles. In reviewing, all members read draft material and provide feedback orally, by email, or in the text itself as track changes or comment boxes. Ideally, reviewing is a directed activity, in which members of the group are asked to focus on particular issues at specific points in the writing process. Revising involves the consideration, prioritization and integration of feedback from group members into the draft. Cycles of reviewing and revising will take place until the text is substantively complete, logically coherent, and rhetorically effective. Editing involves micro-level revisions for style, grammar and flow, which may take place either as individual sections mature or when the entire document is judged complete. Editing at this level may be an activity best undertaken by one writer on the team, in order that the paper does not read as though it was written by several individuals.
These collaborative writing activities are dynamic and iterative. Sometimes the storyline needs revisiting after a particularly substantive round of reviewing. Reviewing may shift into revising. Or editing may take place on some completed sections while other sections are still being reviewed. Because of this, successful collaboration requires cultivating a shared understanding of which activity is being undertaken at any given time. Are you finished brainstorming, you’ve agreed on a conceptualization and you’re now ready to outline the paper? If one writer thinks so, but another is still in brainstorming mode, this can impede progress. Are some writers providing review feedback at the level of micro-editing, while others are grappling with the conceptualization of the story as it is emerging in the draft? Is reviewing of a one-for-all draft turning into all-in-reaction revising? Having a language to talk about the different activities involved in collaborative writing can help to identify and resolve such disparate orientations to the work. And keep in mind that these activities are not ‘neutral’; they occur in the context of interpersonal dynamics on a research team. Collaborators mark, claim, defend and redraw intellectual territory as they work through the various activities associated with the writing . Being attentive to enactment of territoriality throughout the writing process can help you focus on, rather than deflect, points of tension. Because within these may reside the team’s best opportunities to produce incisive, boundary-pushing thinking.
Depending on the writing project, these seven activities will receive variable emphasis and attention. Some results clearly dictate the storyline, making brainstorming less necessary. Some conceptualizations are sufficiently detailed that outlining can be more perfunctory. Some writers edit as they go, making the editing process less extensive at the end. The value of identifying these activities is to reflect on your own processes: does your writing team tend to skip some of these steps, such as outlining, and to what effect? Do some members of your writing team engage in some activities, such as reviewing, but not in others? Not every writer on a team will engage centrally in every activity. But some degree of participation in all of these writing activities yields more satisfying and efficient collaboration. For instance, team members not involved in the brainstorming and conceptualizing activities may inappropriately reintroduce through their reviewing and revising of drafts a storyline that the team had agreed to reserve for another paper. When such tensions in the writing emerge purposefully among collaborators engaged in all activities, they represent important moments for reviewing earlier decisions and perhaps reconceptualizing the piece. However, when they emerge incidentally because some collaborators are unaware of earlier activities, they can be a source of frustration and inefficiency.