Writing Collaboratively

by richard_reitz 3 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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