Writing Collaboratively

by richard_reitz3 min read18th Jun 201615 comments


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This is a summary of the customs for collaborative writing the team on the fanfiction In Fire Forged came to, after a fair amount of time and effort figuring things out. The purpose of this piece is to share our results, thereby saving anyone who wants to write collaboratively the cost of experimentation. Obviously, different writing projects will accomplish different things with different people, and will therefore be best served by different practices. Take this as a first approximation, to be revised by experience.

Google Docs

We tried a bunch of platforms for collaboration, and found Google Docs to best fit our needs.

  1. Create a Google Doc. Multi-installment affairs may consider creating a folder and make one doc per installment.
  2. Enable editing. Collaborators are not very helpful if they can't provide feedback.

    Google Docs allows authors to restrict the changes other people can make to "suggestions" and "comments" by switching to "suggesting" mode.

    In general, the author restricts collaborator permissions to comments and suggestions. How to control these permissions should be described in the "enable editing" link above.
  3. Distribute link to collaborators.

Once the collaborators have the link, they read through it, making the comments and suggestions they think of. Google Docs does a good job facilitating discussion of this feedback; utilize this!

Micro and Macro

We found it useful to distinguish between what we were saying and how we were saying it. We termed the former "macro" and the latter "micro". This allows authors to say things like "I'm mostly looking for micro suggestions, although I'd be interested in any glaring macro errors (anything untrue or major omissions)." This succinctly communicates that collaborators should mostly restrict themselves to suggesting changes to how the author is communicating, which usually consists of small edits concerning things like technical issues (typos, omitted words, grammar) and smoother communication (word choice, resolving ambiguities, sectioning).

This contrasts macro suggestions, which would include (in nonfiction) things like making sure factual claims were true, being sure to include all relevant information, and the perspective from a different field. (In fiction, macro suggestions would include things such as plot, characterization, chapter structure and consistency of the universe.)

In general, you want to address macro issues before micro issues, since micro improvements are lost to changes on the macro level.

Team Makeup

On the macro level, you want as many people as can bring novel, relevant viewpoints to the writing. Essentially, you're looking to exploit Linus's Law by having at least one collaborator who will naturally see every improvement that could be made.

I favor erring on the size of larger teams for a few reasons. The coordination cost of adding a member isn't very high. Improving things on the micro level really benefits from having lots of eyeballs scrutinize for improvements: it's entirely plausible that the tenth reader of some passage notices a way to reword it that the first nine missed.

My favorite reason for having more collaborators, however, is that it opens up the possibility of partial editing. One collaborator flags something they notice could be improved, even if they can't think of how. Then, another collaborator, who may not have noticed that something sounded awkward, may figure out how to rewrite it better. (It may sound implausible that someone who can figure out the improvement wouldn't notice something improvable in the first place, but it happened reasonably often.)

Spreading the micro over a lot of people also helps avoid illusions of transparency. If you only have one or two people revising, it's easy for them to spend so much time that they miss statements that don't mean what they think it means or are ambiguous, since they're so familiar with what they mean to mean. Spreading out the editing keeps everyone from becoming overfamiliar with the work. It also allows for holding editors in reverse, who give the work one last pass and read it as naively as the target audience.

Collaborator Benefits

Helping someone else write their piece is the single most effective technique I've used to powerlevel my writing. SICP:

The ability to visualize the consequences of the actions under consideration is crucial to becoming an expert programmer, just as it is in any synthetic, creative activity. In becoming an expert photographer, for example, one must learn how to look at a scene and know how dark each region will appear on a print for each possible choice of exposure and development conditions. Only then can one reason backward, planning framing, lighting, exposure, and development to obtain the desired effects. So it is with programming...

...and so it is with writing. There's an awkward period when you're first starting to write, where you've read enough that you have some idea of what better and worse writing looks like, but you haven't written enough to visualize the consequences of your writing. The author of In Fire Forged got there by writing and scrapping 140k words. I got there with a fraction of the effort by helping out on a team that allowed me to see the consequences of various actions without needing to write entire pieces. I also got to see and analyze and discuss the feedback from the other collaborators, which taught me things about better writing I didn't already know. Plus, gaining this experience had positive externalities, since the suggestions I made wound up in a final product, instead of going into the trash.

Collaborating also helps you learn about the topic of the piece more effectively than just reading it, via levels of processing. Merely reading about something is fairly shallow, leading to nondurable memory, whereas collaborating on something forces deeper processing, and thus more durable understanding. You can force yourself to process something on a deeper level as you read it to get the same effect, but collaborating, again, produces positive externalities.

(You should be processing deeply anyway. One collaborator on this piece, for instance, puts comments in the margins of pieces she reads. That said, collaborating has positive externalities.)

It's also fun and social; writing collaboratively has caused me to meet some of my favorite people and strengthened many personal relationships. As such, I suggest that, should you come across some piece that you take a liking to, but see how you could improve it, you offer to collaborate with them. Worst case, they're flattered and turn you down politely.

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15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:29 PM
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There is another collaborative writing project I follow, though it is an actual work of multiple people. Hosted on Sufficient Velocity, Marked for Death is also a rational naruto fic.

As mentioned, it has multiple authors -- Eaglejarl and Velorien -- as well as two other people that help them out, one on the mechanics (it is player-driven and functions as a collaborative story in that regard as well) and one on worldbuilding, AugSphere and Jackercracks respectively. If you wish to speak to them about their experiences with this and compare it to your own, I'm sure they could get help too.

Ha! I give Lighting Up the Dark—also by Velorien—last pass editing.

Thanks for the rec. It looks really good.

It is exceptional. If you have the time, once you get caught up I'd suggest getting involved in decision-making! It's really fun to be involved and also like crack for apparently multiple readers, including myself, and at least one of the writers (who has the common "I'll just refresh one more time before sleeping...") problem.

The people there are actually really mature and empathetic too, though I think that the forum itself is partially to thank for that. The rating system on posts (Like, Hug, Insightful, Informative, Funny) does a lot to encourage empathy.

You guys voted to develop Righteous Face Punching Style and add Kagome to your party. What do you need my help in decision-making for? (But, seriously, I probably shouldn't have taken the time to get caught up, much less actively participate. Fun read, though!)

Hahah! Kagome's the best. We're presently debating the merits of international merchant adventure, and creating a village hidden in low earth orbit.

The title misled me: I though this would be useful if me and another person decided to write a piece of fiction together.

Apparently this post is for people who write things and let other people comment on them, make little changes and suggest edits. But there is still one main author.

I'm sorry my title misled you.

(Since writing has trouble carrying intent: I genuinely feel bad that the title I chose caused you to believe something that wasn't true. I wish I was smart enough to have come up with a title that more precisely communicated what I was and wasn't discussing.)

This is perhaps a case of different projects being best served by different practices. There's certainly nothing stopping you from making a Google Doc where two (or more) authors have editing permission (as opposed to commenting permission).

But it's absolutely true that I'm writing from the perspective of having one primary author. This is because every piece I've worked on has had one primary author. Paul Graham writes: "Design usually has to be under the control of a single person to be any good." Indeed, almost all books of fiction I'm aware of were published by one author. A quick survey indicates that even most TV shows—which have writing staffs—usually have one author, although it's somewhat more common to have several people collaborate as equals to put together a story, which is then written up by one person. This was more or less how Buffy got written, as described by Jane Espenson.

It would certainly have been a major breakthrough if I'd discovered how to have multiple authors consistently work together to make good work. But that's above my pay grade; if a bunch of professional writers who have been in the business for decades have a strong preference for single authorship, I see that as a strong indication that I should generally prefer single authorship.

Also, if this piece comes off as having collaborators mostly making small edits, that's partly because it's true, but partly my own bias. Certainly, in In Fire Forged, we had one or two people who primarily worked with the author on macro level issues (plot, characterization, thematic consistency, etc), while I worked on the micro level. But it's also partly because it's true; outside of two fanfics (plus a poem), I mostly work on nonfiction blog posts. In these, the author knows what they want to say and have said it, and just need to say it better. They may or may not benefit from a fact check (usually not, at least for the pieces I've worked on), but beyond that, most of the room for improvement comes in the form of little changes.

Lastly, I have to thank you. This is the first thing I've actually published. An earlier draft contained a section discussing what I've just said, but I cut it because I didn't think it contained material that was useful to either author or collaborator. Obviously, I was wrong! So, now I have a slightly better sense of when cutting stuff goes too far.

Is "In Fire Forged" RationalFic?

Yes; Eliezer recommended it in an Author's Note, which is how I got involved.

It's also not dead so much as on a very extended hiatus. Our author started a computer game company and has been prohibitively busy for a while now. There's a blog with updates about the lack of updates.

[-][anonymous]4y 1

But how did it all begin? How did all these people find each other.

(I'm asking because I have this monster of rational!Highlander:TS living in my head for the last five years, too involved to write it down and too comfy to forget:)

When I first read In Fire Forged, I really liked it, but saw things I could improve. So, I left some high-quality reviews on fanfiction.net (that is, reviews that demonstrated I somewhat knew what I was talking about) and then solicited the author. From there, networking (people who you collaborated with can collaborate with you).

Back-engineering, I'd tentatively suggest just posting somewhere with reasonable visibility that selects for writers you'd like to collaborate as, and then ask anyone interested to ping you. Alternatively, you could develop a relationship working on someone else's writing and then ask them to look at your's.

If anyone would like a collaborator for something they're writing for LessWrong or diaspora, please PM me. Anyone interested in being a collaborator can reply to this comment, thereby creating a collaborator repository.

Interesting! I'd love to try it in my spare time.

Do you have any examples of pieces that were written collaboratively? Do you keep a history of changes and discussions? How do you determine the direction of the story, is there a single leader who makes the big decisions, or is it more egalitarian?

Do you have any examples of pieces that were written collaboratively?

In addition to In Fire Forged (in which I did first-round micro, in addition to contributing to worldbuilding), I give a last pass micro to Lighting Up the Dark (rational Naruto fanfic). I contributed a little to the Second Secular Sermon, although verse is really not my thing. I also have a partnership with Gram Stone that includes looking over each other's LW posts.

Do you keep a history of changes and discussions?

In Fire Forged has a Skype group, which keeps an archive of our discussion. Since Google Docs aren't the final publishing form, you can keep comments around, although in practice, once we've resolved an issue, the comment/suggestion usually goes away, so things don't get more cluttered. If you're interested, this is the Google Doc for this piece. But Google Docs doesn't keep a changelog, I have no desire to look back at one, nobody I've talked to has indicated any desire to look back at one, so there is no history of changes.

How do you determine the direction of the story, is there a single leader who makes the big decisions, or is it more egalitarian?

I more fully discussed this here, but the tl;dr is that experience indicates a single-leader setup usually works best, and is also the only setup I've come across. That said, it's egalitarian in the sense that the primary author doesn't give any special consideration to the words they've written or the ideas they've had; in the end, you want the best ideas expressed by the best words on the page. I can't imagine the author who would pass up improvements to their creative baby just because they weren't the ones to come up with them.