how do you teach collaborative writing?

Students working together.

With every project team I’ve worked with, I am surprised all over again by how difficult it can be to work with other people. While each person brings a unique set of skills and insights to the project, these strengths also come with a collection of preconceptions, biases, and personality quirks that can often become obstacles to the work.

In my experience, the challenges of teamwork are especially acute when it comes to collaborative writing. When you think about it, there’s a kind of audacity in even thinking that you can formulate a unified perspective and voice within a group of people. It’s not all that surprising, really, when a shared writing project is derailed again and again by the hidden beliefs, understandings, and preferences of individual team members. It’s not all that surprising when a ridiculous amount of energy must be spent sorting out these differences, while the actual work of writing stalls and stagnates.

Yet the advantages of collaborative writing can be tremendous, which is why so many of us eventually find ourselves literally or figuratively gathered around a conference table with a group of people, trying to hammer out a meaningful string of words together. Difficulties inevitably arise, but we somehow find a way to deal with them; and if the finished project doesn’t look much like what any individual author had hoped, there’s also a decent chance it is in some way more valuable than what we could have accomplished alone.

What strikes me as I’m working on my current collaborative writing project is how little my formal writing education has prepared me for these difficulties. At no point did a professor point to particular strategies or skills for grappling with the challenges or maximizing the advantages in this sort of work. In most cases, the professor was the only other living soul who ever saw my writing, and I was lucky if he or she turned out to be an even halfway engaged reader, let alone a helpful reviewer, collaborator, or editor. A few professors implemented a peer evaluation system to provide more attentive feedback, but this generally failed to produce a very thoughtful dialogue about how to develop my ideas or writing style.

What I have learned about writing collaboratively has instead come through being thrown into some very challenging, large-scale projects, usually without any coaching or any agenda on how a capable writing team might operate. I don’t think the limitations in my experience are all that unique.

As a writing teacher, I have to wonder if there isn’t a way to deliberately develop these skills in the classroom, and to begin doing so before being thrust into a high-stakes, high-pressure project environment. I’ve begun to imagine this being achieved through an introductory-level writing course built around a series of small projects. I imagine most of the assignments would be about the length of a blog post. There could be a unit of even shorter writing, like Twitter or Facebook posts, exploring how to be effective and purposeful in few words.

The important thing is that each piece of writing would be created through a collaborative process with at least one other person. Each student would take turns acting in the role of an editor, a researcher, a writer, and a co-writer, giving him or her the opportunity practice a variety of collaborative tasks. Assignments might include:

  • doing research on a subject you are interested in, then handing off these materials to another writer while you write a piece based on someone else’s research
  • preparing a piece on a topic assigned by an editor (one of the other students), and working with that editor to revise the writing to fit into a cohesive series of pieces written by several authors
  • having three students write on a particular prompt, then work together to combine their ideas into a single piece

These are just a few of ideas. Clearly, making such a course happen would take a lot of work on the instructor’s part, in developing a project schedule and in being available to coach students through any trouble spots in a particular mini-project. I think, though, there is the potential for a writing class that is fast-paced, high-energy, and extremely practical. I see students coming out with a portfolio of work that demonstrates a variety of skills connected to writing and working with others. I expect the students and teachers working together in this way would discover skills and strategies associated with writing collaboratively, revealing capabilities educators should be aiming to cultivate in their students.

In short, I see the potential for a course unlike any introductory writing curriculum I’ve ever encountered.


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