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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Collaborative Writing

“Tips for successful collaborative writing”

“Establish style guidelines when writing in a group”

“Writing as a team requires good planning”

Also see company style sheets and CRI’s no-excuse 10.


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Tips for successful collaborative writing

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


If you ever have worked on a committee, task force, or project development team, you probably know the frustration of group work. If you’re lucky, you also know the joy.

The nature of your experience depends on two factors: whether the individual participants share common, clearly defined goals and whether they know how to work together.

All of this, of course, applies to collaborative writing, a collective activity that – perhaps as much as any other – requires that participants hold their egos in check and that they be willing to compromise.

Here are some tips on how to succeed in collaborative writing:

Determine your purpose. Identify both your general goal and your specific objectives. Be clear about what you want your audience to do as a result of reading or hearing your message.

Analyze your audience. Identify your audience’s perspective, values, biases, concerns, and culture. If you are writing to both a primary and a secondary audience, consider how they might differ.

Formulate an outline and determine an organizational format. Determine the major components of the project. You also might want to agree on subject headings and format. Clarify the degree to which individual team members may depart from the broad outline.

Choose a team leader. Define the team leader’s role and responsibilities. As Charles Brusaw points out in The Business Writer’s Handbook, the team leader usually "does not have decision-making authority, just the extra responsibility of coordinating the team members’ activities and organizing the project."

Assign writing tasks and other duties. Decide who will be responsible for gathering information, conducting research, producing the document, distributing copies, etc. Decide whether to use a single writer or multiple writers. If you use multiple writers, assign the different parts of the project.

Establish a schedule of deadlines for drafts and revisions. Schedule the first deadline fairly early in the writing process to make certain everyone is on the right track. Because a missed deadline by one person can hold up the entire project, encourage everyone to meet the deadlines, even if they must submit imperfect copy.

Establish writing style guidelines. Before beginning to write, agree on strategic approach, person (first or third), voice (active or passive), point of view (objective or subjective), length, use of jargon, punctuation style (such as use of the serial comma), numbers usage (when to write numbers as figures, when to spell them out, whether to use the word "percent" or the percentage symbol), etc. It’s also a good idea to agree to use same stylebook, such as William Sabin’s The Gregg Reference Manual.

Establish editing responsibilities and procedure. Decide whether to use a single editor or a group of editors. Using a single editor makes it easier to achieve a consistent tone and style throughout the document. Using multiple editors offers the advantages of diverse perspectives and collective judgment.

Either way, define the editor’s role. As Mary Munter advises in Guide to Managerial Communication, "Agree clearly whether you want (1) a copy editor for typos, spelling, and grammar only, or (2) a style editor for consistency in style and format only, or (3) an analytic editor for strategy and content changes." Also, determine a procedure for circulating copy and incorporating the suggested revisions.

Expect some disagreement and conflict. Individual team members inevitably will have differing opinions and perspectives. As Brusaw points out, "A team that can tolerate some disharmony yet work through conflicting opinions to reach consensus produces better results."

At its best, a well-functioning group can achieve results far superior to anything that can be accomplished by one person working alone. But to succeed in collaborative writing, remember Munter’s words: "Collaborating means compromising."



Seminars & email courses

Establish style guidelines when writing in a group

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

When it comes to group writing, the old adage holds true: You can pay now, or you can pay later.

You can take the time to establish writing guidelines before the writing begins, or you can let each writer make those decisions individually and deal with the chaos later.

The problem with the laissez-faire approach is obvious: It creates extra work. It produces inconsistencies in usage and style that must be reconciled later – usually when the writers or editors are feeling the crunch of a final deadline. Sometimes it results in an editing nightmare.

To avoid those problems, I recommend you do three things: Agree on a set of guidelines before group members begin to write. Use the same stylebook (such as William Sabin’s The Gregg Reference Manual). And, for easy reference, compile a short list or style sheet of points on which writers are likely to disagree.

Here are some areas where you can expect writers to differ:

The serial comma. Decide whether to use or to omit a comma before a conjunction connecting the last item in a series, as in "We ordered pizza with onions, green peppers [comma?] and anchovies." Both styles are correct. The point is to be consistent.

Spacing after periods and colons. Decide whether to use two spaces or one space after periods and colons. Although some writers are now using a single space, most style manuals still recommend two. (Use one space after commas and semicolons.) Again, be consistent.

The order of quotation marks in relation to other punctuation marks. Place commas and periods inside quotation marks. (Although this is standard usage in American English, some writers are in the habit of placing commas and periods outside quotation marks.)

In contrast, place colons and semicolons outside quotation marks. Also, use standard quotation marks, like these ". . . ," rather than ditto marks, like these, ". . . ."

Numbers as words or figures. Decide when to express numbers as words (one, two, three) and when to express them as figures (11, 12, 13). Some style manuals recommend spelling numbers of 9 or less and using figures for numbers of 10 or more; others make the division at 10 or less and 11 or more.

Likewise, decide whether to spell the word percent or to use the symbol (%), and whether to use or omit a hyphen in fractions (one-third or one third).

Consistent spelling of commonly used words. As language evolves, compound words sometimes become hyphenated words, and hyphenated words sometimes become solid compounds. Agree on consistent spelling of words such as decision maker or decision-maker, data base or database, ground water or groundwater, and work place or workplace. Resist the temptation to get ahead of the curve with nonstandard spellings such as hourlong and signon (as in "Be sure to signon your computer").

Voice and person. Decide whether to use the active voice ("We recommend three steps . . ." and "I discovered a problem . . ."), the passive voice ("Three steps were recommended . . ." and "A problem was discovered . . ."), or the impersonal-sounding it construction ("It was recommended . . ." and "It was discovered that a problem existed . . .").

Vertical lists. Decide whether to number items in a vertical list or to mark them with bullets. Also, decide what punctuation to use after each item (periods, semicolons, or no punctuation until after the final item).

Format. Agree on the use of upper case and lower case letters in headings, whether to use left or full justification, the wording of headers and footers, the placement of pagination, etc.

For successful collaborative writing, each member of the group must be committed to compromise and consistency.


Seminars & email courses

Writing as a team requires good planning

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

With collaborative writing, a little planning can make the difference between time well spent and time wasted. Here’s how to make the process more efficient:

Designate a team leader. Decide who will have the responsibility for keeping the project moving, and define that person’s duties (enforcing deadlines, circulating copy, etc.).

Designate a chief editor. Depending on your situation, the team leader might also serve as the chief editor, or you might prefer to have a different person assume those duties. In any case, make sure every member of the team understands the editor’s role: Is the editor responsible for copy-editing (correcting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation), style editing (ensuring consistency in tone and format), content editing (checking for accuracy, clarity, and completeness) – or all of the above?

Agree on your purpose. Make sure everyone has the same purpose in mind. The time to reach a consensus concerning your goals and objectives is not when copy is being edited, but before the first draft has been created.

Think about your audience. Take a few minutes to discuss your reader’s particular interests and concerns. How can you present your information in a way that is relevant and useful to your reader? Are there opportunities for mutual benefit?

Organize your material. Outline your document’s major components. Depending on the nature of your assignment, you might want to take the next step and determine specific subject headings for each section, or you might want to leave those for the individual writers.

Decide who is going to write what. In making your assignments, consider the areas of experience and expertise of your team members. Consider assigning more important or complex areas to your more accomplished writers.

Indicate the desired length. Be explicit regarding length limits. No one wants to spend time drafting 10 pages only to be told that no more than 5 pages can be used.

Establish writing style guidelines. To reduce the amount of editing required later on, establish some guidelines before everyone begins drafting. It’s helpful to identify the style guide writers should follow (see my Web page for recommendations). You also might want to specify usage regarding the following: the serial comma (whether to use or omit a comma before a conjunction connecting the last item in a series); spacing after periods and colons (whether to use one space or two); vertical lists (whether to use punctuation after each item); headings (how to highlight, whether to use upper or lower case, etc.); numbers (when to spell as words or write as figures); and person (whether to use I or the third person).

Establish deadlines for both rough draft and final copy. To give every writer a sense of how his or her piece will fit into the whole, ask everyone to submit a rough draft early on in the process.

Emphasize the importance of meeting deadlines. Because one missing piece will delay the entire project, urge all writers to submit their drafts on time, no matter how rough the drafts might be.

Be prepared to compromise. Don’t expect everyone to agree with you on every point. Individual team members inevitably will have conflicting ideas. Be willing to give on certain issues.

Collective wisdom is a powerful force, but it cannot be achieved by talking alone. It also involves listening.




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