When we think about collaborative writing, we envision a shared online document that multiple authors can contribute to, in their own time. This can work really well in some cases, for example if sections have been split across authors to share the load. However, one challenge that arises from this approach is that everyone’s writing styles differs, which can cause some discontinuity across the sections of the manuscript. This problem can be addressed through some common editing, for example by reading through the manuscript as a group.
However, an alternative style of writing is to draft the entire manuscript as a group. Sitting around a table and projecting a document onto the screen can be an extremely effective way of making efficient progress in writing. While it sometimes requires some pre-planning (e.g. a skeleton), it can allow for very focused discussion on the subject of each sentence as it is being written. In the next sections, I will provide some examples of how colleagues and I have used collaborative writing to great effect.
Distributed writing and joint editing: Cantor et al. 2020
In early 2019, I had an idea for a manuscript that I thought would draw on the knowledge of everyone in my group. My idea was to write a broad overview of what we’ve learnt in the last 10 years of research by applying ‘networks-thinking’ to questions in animal ecology & evolution. I thought that this would be an opportunity for doing a fun project together, give people a fun experience with writing, and ultimately improve the CV of all group members. The process started by workshopping an overall structure for the manuscript, which involved identifying key areas in which we felt that substantial conceptual advances had been made by using networks-thinking or areas where we felt that there was a lot of promise for such advances to be realised. We then allocated a first and second writer to each section (two to three paragraphs each), responsible for the initial draft and first edit of the text, respectively.
Within a few weeks, we had accumulated a complete draft of the text—pretty impressive! At this point, we set aside one day per week in which we all (6-10 people) sat down in a room together to start editing. We projected the text onto a large screen and started reading aloud. It took us several weeks to work through all of the sections, but by the end we had text that had a consistent tone, we’d sorted out all our terminology, and (most importantly) we had fun in the process. Several of my group also recently teamed up with another group to do the same thing (resulting in a paper that was just published this month).
Joint drafting and writing: Strandburg-Peshkin & Farine et al. 2015
My first experience in drafting and writing as a team came largely by chance. During my postdoc I worked closely on a large project with Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin (who was then a PhD student and is now a PI). For this project, we had to develop a set of analytical procedures to analyse a large GPS dataset. Having figured out that coding together resulted in substantially fewer errors than coding alone, we decided to also have a go at writing together. This involved working on the outline, main messages, making the figures, and, eventually, drafting the manuscript. I think we were both surprised by how well this worked, not only because it was much more fun working on this difficult paper together, but also because we could workshop all of the problems as they arose.
The strategy we used when writing this paper was to speak our writing aloud. We would write a sentence, re-read it, chat about what it was trying to say, and when reasonably happy with it, move onto the next sentence. Often, we found ourselves stuck for how to say something, so we’d discuss how to we’d say it in ‘normal English’. This process taught me two important lessons. First, for some reason when we write we seem to think it should be in a different language—not at all! Use normal English. Second, the need to speak in normal English gave our writing much more flow, and (I believe) made the paper much more readable. I’ve received a number of comments on the writing of this paper, which has only strengthened my resolve to write papers in teams and aloud!
Writing and reading as teams
Science functions through discussion. We travel to, and present at, conferences as a means of communicating our ideas and findings. When we prepare for these, it’s not uncommon to give a practice talk. Speaking through the slides (often for the first time) is the best way of revealing all of its weaknesses. So why do we not apply this strategy to the most critical communication medium of all—Scientific publishing? In my lab, we work through all of our drafts as a team. Sometimes this involves independently-drafted manuscripts that I edit with the author(s) in person while reading aloud, other times we tackle the whole drafting process together (usually in groups of two or three). The latter never fails to generate substantially better drafts across all levels of writing—from the overall structure down to the choice of words.
There are many strategies to becoming a better writer. Many focus on your behaviour as the writer, tackling behaviours such as procrastination. In my opinion, the best way of becoming a better writer is to make writing more enjoyable. This seems like an obvious statement, but in my experience it’s rare to see academics speak of enjoyment as an ultimate goal of writing. Tackling a manuscript with colleagues is one of the best ways of starting. It not only makes the experience less stressful (ideally!), but it also can help you learn from one-another. I’ve found that the writing lessons I’ve learnt, via those “Eureka!” moments when a problematic sentence becomes close to perfect, stuck much more when they occurred in a group than alone. As a result of writing as a pair or in groups, my confidence in writing increased, and I suffered less from some of the factors holding me back.
Having a plan when writing also substantially improves the experience. Few work tasks have caused me greater exhaustion at the end of the day as situations when I’ve had to write something without a clear plan. This is because it requires me to think across multiple scales simultaneously. Is my word choice good? Is my sentence structure understandable? Does the sentence contribute to the message of this paragraph? Do the paragraphs form a logical sequence of ideas? Does the ordering of the sections in my methods match those in my introduction and results? Reading (or refreshing) the literature really helps me gain confidence in my ideas. I often hand write out a list of papers and the key points that are relevant to my current work, which gives me a quick lookup for their ideas, wording, or even to find the right citation. Creating a skeleton (either as a short presentation or just a bullet-point list of the main sections) is a critical step, which I follow by writing the abstract. Finally, once I start writing, I make sure that I keep focus on the text. If I’m stuck, I start editing. If I get an idea for another section, I quickly jot down the ideas before I lose them. If I’m really feeling unmotivated, I just look at each paragraph as a picture, and think about whether the sequence of pictures make sense. All of these things are creative, all are time well-spent, and all result in a better manuscript.