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Thing 15: Writing Collaboratively – Tools and Tips

Dr Mike Rose, Research Strategy Business Partner, University of Bath


We’ve already covered some aspects of drafting and developing your academic writing (Thing 9), as well the specific challenges of funding applications (Thing 4 and Thing 10). To add another string to your bow, in this Thing we’ll be looking at what happens when you join forces with others. Larger projects, such as grant applications or edited collections, will often require detailed input from team members, describing specific work packages, showcasing shared expertise, and demonstrating how the work will be organised or distributed. Even where you may mostly be designing a self-contained project, there are opportunities to strengthen by working together with professional services, potential supervisors or mentors, and experienced colleagues.


Whether you already have experience of writing collaboratively or it’s quite new to you, there are many ways in which the process can be successful and efficient. There are also some pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. This blog provides some simple tips and resources for planning and delivering a collaborative piece of writing. You might even be inspired to try some collaborative writing with your pod!


Everyone’s prior experience of this will be different; you may already work collaboratively in much of your research, or you might be in a discipline where this is still a fairly unusual approach. (I did my PhD in philosophy, where the idea of writing concurrently with others, or even talking to other people very much, used to be quite alien. Things are changing, but slowly…).


A photo of a house in an isolated landscape.
I’m just not much of a people person. (Photo by Cassie Boca on Unsplash)

What is collaborative writing?

We’re talking about working together towards an agreed whole, with multiple contributing writers and team members (as opposed to separate pieces of writing that are then combined into a collection). Different contributors will have different specific responsibilities or levels of involvement, but the end result must be a single, coherent text or proposal, and should meet the needs of everyone in the project. It can be an iterative process of mutual revision, can include the use or production of other media, and may develop into a longer-term collaboration, especially if a funding proposal is successful. To give a sort of definition and motivation for this kind of working:


From The Network Turn (Ahnert, Ahnert, Coleman and Weingart, 2020): "We seek to demonstrate the benefits of co-authorship, the insights and perspectives it brings, which can rarely be replicated by a single-authored work. It is not a shortcut or a faster route to publication. The process of gaining understanding, compromising, and iterating our arguments necessarily takes longer than writing a piece from a single viewpoint. However, we believe that process makes the work stronger. Genuine, deep sharing of ideas across disciplinary boundaries takes patience, goodwill, and a desire to learn and be challenged."


Why do it?

Sharing initial ideas

  • Ensuring extensive and open discussions can be a less daunting beginning than a blank piece of paper. It’s also an opportunity to consider perspectives outside your immediate field, and develop novel approaches.

  • Discussions can be provocative, inspiring and challenging; you might consider having a nominated (or external) facilitator involved, to ensure everyone’s perspective is heard.

Better understanding of the team

Writing together can be very revealing about the strengths and preferences of your team, both as working partners and in their subject specialism. Getting to know people’s expertise beyond their publication record, as well as their preferred ways of working, can make the team and the project more focused and efficient.

Shared and complementary expertise

  • We usually work with other people because we need their expertise; different team members may write the majority of different parts of the project, accordingly. But learning from other fields can also inform how you view and communicate your own research, helping develop a novel approach. 

  • Ultimately, your writing should reflect multiple voices but reveal a coherent whole, so involving team members in all sections (especially final drafts) is important. (This is another means of showing editors or reviewers that you have a coherent team and project in place, too.)

More coherent final product

Writing collaboratively, rather than simply having different people writing separate sections that get bolted together at the end, helps to knit the proposal and the project together. Often these ongoing discussions and negotiations can reveal spaces for extra impact or reduced redundancy – or help to edit out unnecessary tangents. This can be the product of repeated rounds of feedback and editing, so be prepared to defend and compromise!

Divide workload

For larger grants or documents, writing collaboratively can reduce the workload on any one person, especially if distinct work packages depend on individual expertise. It can also be useful to discuss team members’ overall workload and calendars; who has the capacity, when? As Emma Griffon puts it (around 6:45 in this video) there’s a kind of magic to collaboration, that you can see progress happening and words appearing, even if you’re not at that moment able to add anything yourself…

Group accountability

  • There’s nothing like sharing deadlines and deliverables with others to make them actually happen. Communicating regularly keeps the project on everyone’s radar and avoids nasty surprises.

  • Have a clear timeline and allocated tasks, with agreed soft and hard deadlines to meet.

Feedback from many perspectives

  • For any project, frequent and varied feedback will make it stronger. Writing together can give you this throughout the process, including diverse expertise, perspectives and ways of communicating. This can be much more effective than a single round of feedback after the full draft has been written, and potentially save time and effort. 

  • It can be a challenge, too, but all feedback should be seen as valuable, and critique given and received in a productive and respectful spirit.

Proofing and polishing

  • Everyone hates a typo and many pairs of eyes will be more effective than one. It can also be useful to have a systematic approach, with each person tasked with checking specific things, such as formatting, figures, references and headings. (Do you enjoy that side of things or find it torture?)

  • Things can get complicated if you don’t have tight version control, especially if people try to edit content at the same time as proofing, so have an agreed process and schedule in adequate time. 

  • Discuss matters of consistency throughout, such as referencing style, spellings and the types of sources you will use. 

  • A copyediting checklist can be invaluable. 

This video provides a great insight into multi-author collaborations, from Living Machines, the largest digital humanities project ever funded in the UK. Team members talk about the benefits and challenges, and from around 5:35, they specifically discuss collaborative writing. 


A photo of one white man, two white women, and one Asian woman, chatting with each other
So we’re finally agreed: the icon for the Whatsapp group shall be a Dinosaur brandishing a sword made of cucumber. (Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash)

Key Agreements

Any project needs to define its chief aims, scope and tasks. Without confirmed agreements, work can drift, lose focus, or miss deadlines. A strong framework also makes sure that work is shared and contributions properly recognised. (Though this doesn’t mean that plans can’t change as you go, if needed.)

Overall project aim

  • It sounds obvious, but making sure everyone has signed up to the main objectives of the project is crucial, including what falls outside its scope. Consider aspects such as funders to be approached, minimum viable product, extension activities and how these will be triggered or adapted, timelines, back up plans if the initial work or pilot is unsuccessful, intended publications and other outputs, public engagement and impact, links to team member’s other projects and milestones, etc. etc etc.

  • For interdisciplinary projects a large part of initial discussions should be establishing a shared language; learning about each other’s methods, parameters and interests is vital to avoid confusions and frustration. You may need to explain very clearly (and repeatedly) what you need, what your core values and measures are, and what success looks like; compromises will need to be made!

Specific roles and duties

Dividing the work in a way that matches members’ capacities and expertise will streamline the process; avoid putting too much on one person, and have mechanisms for nudging people if they fall behind. For the writing part, ensure a named person or sub-group leads on version control, scheduling meetings, note-taking, deadlines, internal comms, final edits and submission. Have a backup in place in case one person is unavailable (e.g. avoid using a personal account and password for shared documents)

Authorship and Acknowledgements

Consider who the key contributors will be and ensure that credit is given appropriately. This may include the main authors on a publication or proposal (the level of their contributions and the order they are in) but also contributors to specific areas, past team members or contributors who have left the project but whose work is still part of the outputs, and those who have lent expertise and support along the way. An excellent example of an authorship statement for an interdisciplinary project comes from this report on the Living Machines project, which also provides guidelines for creating your own.

Ways of working 

Below we have suggested some useful software and different case studies of a collaborative writing project can be run. Make sure this is clear and everyone is happy with the approach and platform. Do you want to work simultaneously on the same document, or share it in stages? Writing together in the same room or remotely? How and how frequently will you stay in contact? How will you make final decisions on areas that require compromise? Consider any security or confidentiality issues around the documents you’re creating, and that even at the proposal stage you have a data management plan appropriate to your project. 

Internal and external deadlines

Set out all the major deadlines from the start and have mechanisms for ensuring they are met. As well as submission deadlines, consider institutional internal deadlines (especially when there is a managed funding submission process), key milestones (draft zero, first draft, final draft, point-of-no-return for project changes), and ‘soft deadlines’ for sharing drafts. Build in time for feedback and editing – including any external support you intend to access, such as from your institution’s Research Development or Pre-Award teams. Finally, sharing calendars will avoid nasty surprises if a team member is away on holiday or has a particularly busy period coming up.

Giving and responding to feedback

  • Everyone gives and understands feedback in their own way, so early discussions and low-stakes feedback can be very useful for building understanding. 

  • You may wish to establish a code of conduct that lays out expectations and ways of working. 

  • Note that this is not just about being polite and professional, but also acknowledging diversity within the team. Consider issues such as access needs, language barriers, levels of experience, and social or cultural barriers that may exist. What power structures exist that need to be accounted for, so that all the team can contribute to the best of their abilities? This can be all the more important if you involve external parties in the feedback process, for example if your research involves public groups and communities; their input can be invaluable for making the proposal concrete and specific, but they may have a very different perspective on how to write about the topic, or need additional information.

  • Most collaborative projects have moments of frustration as well as positive sessions, so be prepared. Expect differences of opinion, especially where terminology has different connotations in different fields or where specific ideas and work packages are to be foregrounded. Avoid responding hotly to any comments that may have touched a nerve, and always look for the positive from critique, even if you disagree with it. (Imagine defending the same point if raised by a reviewer, for example.)

Use of tools such as AI

Related to Ways of Working, it can be useful to discuss what tools may be used as part of the writing process. Today, using AI to create initial drafts and check text for errors is common, but it is not without controversy. Ensure the whole team is aware of the benefits and risks, and the policy held by funders on the issue, which are continuously evolving.

Beware:

  • Don’t let one voice dominate; ensure all partners are heard and valued

  • Collaborative review can be extra time-consuming, so make sure to account for this when planning deadlines.

  • Teams can have complicated schedules and emergencies; what’s your Plan B?

  • Ensure you’re using safe, accessible and reliable tools

  • Avoid mission creep. What is essential (and to whom), and what is ‘nice to have’?

  • Collaborative writing can feel ‘bitty’ without a final polish. Maintain a unifying voice to keep the final version of the text coherent.


A sign that says 'beware of spiders, monsters, witches, skeletons, ghosts, zombies'
Which project member are you? (Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash)

Some Examples and Tools

MS Teams

MS Teams probably needs no introduction. (But if you’d like one, here’s a thorough beginner’s guide to its features and possibilities.)


Teams and the MS Office suite of tools is often the simplest default platform to use if you’re working with others in the same institution. There’s not much of a learning curve since most tools are already familiar, there’s in-built video calling, file sharing and chat, and the programme is supported by most universities if you have any technical glitches. Users can edit shared documents in real time, with or without track changes, and chat messages from meetings are saved for future reference. You can create a Teams Channel for your particular project to keep all the files and communications in one place, and because it’s often accessed via your university email, there’s an element of security built in. Finally, because almost everyone uses Microsoft, your documents are already in an easily shareable format; Teams comes as a desktop app or a browser version for on the go.


The downsides are that it’s much less straightforward if collaborating between institutions and it’s often glitchy trying to give access to outside collaborators. It can also be fiddly ensuring everyone you need has the permissions to view or edit the right files, partly because you can end up with so many different Teams channels – for your office, department, project, committee, fantasy football league, toy poodle appreciation society, etc. We’ve also found that you have to keep track of which version of documents you’re editing, if team members prefer to download to their own machine rather than edit online; several reviews of MS Teams mention the potentially confusing file structure.


Voice of Experience: Mike Rose (Funding Officer, University of Groningen): “I’ve used Teams for many collaborative projects, such as designing a training programme for academics, where expertise from several colleagues contributed to the overall content. The ability to comment on and edit shared versions works well and required no training. Ideal for when you have a project with many different elements and file types (word docs, spreadsheets, etc.). As noted above, though, we did have some confusions over version control, editing permissions, and the file structure.” 

MS Teams is probably the most extensive tool out there, especially if you take the time to learn its more advance features. It’s also generally recommended by the University since it keeps all your files in-house. But how does it compare to some alternatives?  


Google Docs

Google’s answer to Microsoft’s Teams is its suite of collaborative tools including Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Meet, Chat, Calendar, Forms and Mail.  As you can probably tell from the names, these cover the same major functions for collaborating and writing together, meeting and managing projects. Many people see this as a simpler platform than Teams if collaborating beyond the institution, since it’s easy to manage permissions and edit shared documents in real time. (Though you may need to have a Gmail account to make best use of things.)


Voice of Experience Esther van Raamsdonk (BA Postdoc Fellow, University of Warwick): “I’ve used Google Drive for an edited collection, as well as a polygraph, with multiple authors working together on each chapter. The simple access and ability to shift files around without causing as much confusion as in Teams was a major plus. We found it easy to talk to each other, leave comments, live edit, and manage time zone differences. Collaborative editing consisted of several rounds of edits per chapter, first for each editor’s general response and suggestions, then we took on more focused tasks, such as one person checking the language while another checked references and formatting. We also wrote the introduction together, with each of us writing a section, then going through three rounds of editing the overall text to make sure we liked the sound of it as well as the content.  Google Drive made this easy. However, a significant irritation is that if you want to download a document into Word to work on it, and then upload it again, there are frequently formatting issues with footnotes and other special characters. It became very important to have a strict rule about how we would handle documents at each stage (to download or work on the shared version) and copyediting in the final stages was crucial.” 

Voice of Experience Teresa Phipps (PGR Senior Officer, Swansea University): “We also use Google Drive for 23 Things International! It’s easy to store a range of file types – blog texts, notes, images, planning spreadsheets and all the lovely data that helps us arrange the pods and evaluate how the programme is going. It’s very easy to manage the permissions on the Drive, get people from multiple institutions to work on the same documents, and add new content, make edits, or suggestions. Having a shared platform also avoids having to email attachments of files, which can often lead to team members losing track of updates and edits that have been made. With a shared platform like Google Drive we always have access to the most up to date ‘live’ document.  . There are some question marks over security, so we password protect documents with any sensitive or personal data on. The set up is ideal for working with teams in different time zones and with different levels of experience in writing collaboratively. You’ll have noticed that many of our blogs are written by multiple authors, and the Google Drive has been a great tool for this iterative process.

Some other platforms you may want to use or experiment with are listed below. These tend to be more popular in some disciplines than others (for example if you’re a LaTeX user) and have different strengths and weaknesses. Consider whether your collaboration will be mostly via shared documents, or do you intend to meet regularly? Are you working mostly on written text or on data? What are the most important features for you to all work comfortably?


Overleaf

Great for LaTeX users and a brilliant community resource for learning as you go.


Notion 

A comprehensive workspace for collaborating, with the additional benefit of AI functionality. Requires some learning to get going but can be an amazing help for organising dates and data.


Open source and designed for multimedia collaborations, if you’re doing something more exotic than writing text together.


Scrivener

A common choice for creative or long-form writing, with great editing functionalities and collaboration options.


Discord

Ideally for a larger community where frequent discussions and meetings are needed (such as in a 23Things pod…) though limited for file sharing and live editing.


Lastly, you might also want to explore last year's Thing on online collaboration for more ideas.


In Your Pods

  1. At your next meeting or in the chat, share your own experience with collaborative writing and the tools that have been most useful.

  2. Why not start a collaborative pod project? This might be as simple as keeping shared notes from your meetings, or maybe sketch out some ideas for future collaborations. You could even work together to write your own Thing on a topic that we haven’t covered in this year’s programme (‘Thing 24’?)

  3. This could be a great opportunity to experiment with a platform you’ve not used before, and to learn together. 


And finally, for fun… collaborative writing doesn’t have to be for work. It’s also a fun way to be creative together. Why not have a go at a collaborative poem or story?


a person in front of a mural depicting Shakespeare
Choose your collaborators wisely (Photo by Jessica Pamp on Unsplash)

References and Resources

  • Ahnert R, Ahnert SE, Coleman CN, Weingart SB. The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2021. doi:10.1017/9781108866804

  • Ahnert R, Griffin E, Ridge M, Tolfo G. Collaborative Historical Research in the Age of Big Data: Lessons from an Interdisciplinary Project. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2023. doi:10.1017/9781009175548

  • Best Collaborative Writing Tools for Research

  • Living with Machines: On Collaboration


Mike Rose is Research Strategy Business Partner at University of Bath, and will happily talk to anyone about philosophy, literature, great coffee and terrible puns.





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We used Microsoft Word for a previous collaborative writing. we all have different styles but in the end, it made the draft better and we all learned from one another

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