Writing Collaboratively

Trading Moves: Collaboration in Organizational Writing

In an era where digital technology makes working together easier than ever, you’re more likely to find yourself writing collaboratively with others than in earlier eras. Platforms like Google docs and Asana facilitate individuals working together on everything from an important email or memo to complex documents like business plans and proposals.

In a study of different modes of collaborative writing across disciplines and within organizations, researchers at Brigham Young University identified three different types of collaborative writing: parallel, sequential, and reactive. But this research categorizes collaboration in ways that might be difficult for many of us to visualize when we launch into the task of producing a document. Instead, we can gain insight into collaboration during writing tasks by using categories drawn from game play.

The Closest Collaboration: Trading Words

The closest form of collaboration resembles a chess game, where two writers work closely from brainstorming to writing to revising. One move inspires another, an approach that can work best either when two writers are particularly like-minded or when one writer’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses. In the closest form of collaboration, writers might craft sentences together or alternate paragraphs, adopting a common writing style. This approach to collaboration occurs frequently in organizations when two employees need to craft particularly sensitive documents, like mission statements, policy documents, or high stakes documents representing, say, a unit’s reaction to budget reductions or staff lay-offs.

Slightly More Distant: Swapping Strategies

However, another form of game play also addresses collaborative writing that researchers described as parallel: beach volleyball. In beach volleyball, two team players perform different functions in setting up and spiking or blocking shots, communicating strategies in advance via hand signals. Similarly, in the equivalent mode in collaboration, writers map out approaches, tone, sections, and content. In contrast to chess mode, writers in beach volleyball mode perform different functions, yet still react to one another’s paragraphs and sentences. In organizations, this beach volleyball approach works well on employees collaborating on a document like a proposal, where team members have overlapping skill sets but bring different strengths to writing tasks. For example, one writer might excel at turning out a draft quickly but need her colleague’s sharper eye for detail during the revising and editing phase of writing. Or, in another scenario, one writer might lack the subject matter expertise to address an essential part of the argument, which the other writer can easily provide, at the same time he also suggests the utility of data from his area of expertise to the section the other writer is working on.

Complex Collaborations: Team Players

Complex documents require different models, also drawn from game play. Some types of documents, like business plans and proposals, will require writers with specific skill sets, much like team sports like basketball or baseball, where each team member specializes in the handling of certain types of information. For instance in the team sports model, some writers might elect to tackle a market’s demographic characteristics, while another might reliably address financials, while yet another might excel at describing technical specifications. The primary weakness of this model lies in its individual members’ specializations, which can make the final document read as an assemblage of different parts. However, the team sports model usually relies on a common game plan, as well as on a team captain who can ensure the final document has a consistent style, tone, and approach.

Quick and Dirty Collaboration: The Relay

Finally, the least desirable but most common form of collaborative writing resembles a relay race. In this model, writers know only the parameters of the project on which they are collaborating, usually a complex proposal involving precise specifications provided by a government agency or client. Each member of the relay works on an assigned section, according to his or her role in the organization or perceived strengths. As employees complete their sections, they hand them off to the next member of the relay team, moving along the entire document. This approach works well under tight time constraints, where deadlines make impossible a single team captain facilitating the document’s production and overseeing its final edit and proofreading. Instead, in relay mode, each writer simply passes off his or her version to the writer of the next section—or, in some instances, the next draft. The downsides: the strongest writer might not be final editor, sections written earlier in time might require revision to accommodate content added by some later writers, and some writers might not even know what the final version looked like.

Different Demands, Different Kinds of Collaboration

Ultimately, as with all game play, no single type of game is inherently superior to another. Instead, each model has its own strengths and weaknesses, which depend entirely on the nature of the task, parameters, deadlines, task complexity, different areas of expertise among team members, and varying levels of writing skill. However, if we understand the suitability of these diverse game-driven models to different kinds of tasks, writers, and deadlines, we can also employ models of collaborative writing that facilitate, rather than interfere with, our complex writing tasks.


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