Collaborative writing


At its best, collaborative writing can result in something better than any of the writers might have produced alone. At its worst, it can be a horribly painful and undermining experience.

It goes like this: you write your draft report, then you send it round to all the other interested parties. They change what you’ve written, add bits of their own and send it back to you. You swallow hard, tweak it again and send it back for another round of changes. And so it goes back and forth, till your original is unrecognisable and the fight goes right out of you.

So here is a five-point strategy to help you manage the process.

  1. Send your draft as a read-only electronic version. That will prevent others from plunging in and tracking their changes all over it.

  2. Attach a separate sheet for feedback. Frame the questions so they elicit clear responses: for example, are the messages clear? is anything missing? is there anything you would like to change and, if so, why?
  3. Pick your battles. Concentrate on getting the main messages right.
  4. To resolve disagreements about style, grammar or punctuation, refer to a higher authority: your house style guide, if you have one, or a trusted external one such as Clarity or the Guardian style guide (
  5. If you are the owner of the document, make sure you can live with the final result.

What is your experience of collaborative writing? Maybe you have some tips to add.

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2 Responses to Collaborative writing

  1. Will December 13, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    Is tracking changes really all that bad? I know that it can leave the final version of a document unrecognisable. But it does mean you can see who is responsible for taking out your lovely, flowing prose and turning it into an unlovely, tangled mess (or, I suppose, improving your work).

    Being able to ask people directly why they have changed something is useful.

  2. Chris Mohr December 16, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    A posthumous postscript to my blog from HG Wells:

    “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

    (Thanks to Guardian style guide on Twitter.)

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