How to write with multiple authors (video)

Viewing time: 8 mins and 3 secs

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #89, which addresses how to write with multiple authors. The post first ran on May 3/19.


Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic today is how to write with multiple authors.

I have a question from Ellita Williams, a grad student based in Pittsburgh, PA. Here’s what she’s asked:

“What is the best way to go about a dynamic editing process like preparing a peer reviewed manuscript with multiple co-authors. There are steps that include sending the manuscript to the coauthors — more than once — for their edits, receiving the edits of these coauthors replying to the reviewers of the journal, doing copy edits, doing substantive/content edits and using editing software like ProWritingAid. I was surprised to find that this wasn’t as linear process as I thought it would be. My hope there is a less messy, less bull-in-a-china-shop approach to this dynamic process.”

Thanks for your question, Ellita. I know that much academic work arises out of collaboration but that doesn’t mean the collaborative process is easy!

You are quite right in observing that, at times, the process is messy and can seem woefully non-linear. This is partly the nature of projects where you need to find some sort of consensus. Still, it’s always possible to make such projects less stressful.

For the last 10 years, I’ve had a contract with a research unit at one of my local universities. As a result, I have a fair bit of experience dealing with the demands of collaboration. I’m happy to share with you what I’ve learned.

I’m going to present this video as three tips for you:

#1: Know who the senior person for the paper is going to be. If it’s you, that’s fine as long as you’re prepared to make the hard decisions and understand that the project is not a popularity contest. If the senior person is someone else, that’s also okay. Just be aware that you may need to defer to this person from time to time. The only problem I see is that if your group fails to designate a lead author at the beginning. It’s horrible trying to write by committee. That’s my idea of hell. Someone MUST be the lead author and must be in charge and you all need to know who that person is.

#2: At the BEGINNING of the project, agree on a process for how you will handle editing. I know this may seem premature before you have any writing done, but if you get the agreement up front this will save you much pain down the road. For group projects, I like using “track changes” a feature built into MS Word. This system allows any reader to insert notes into the text and I suggest you assign everyone a colour — let’s say pink, blue, yellow, green or red — and ask each contributor to highlight their own comments exclusively in that colour.

#3: Don’t ever have more than one master copy of the draft floating around. Instead of sending the draft to ALL collaborators at the same time, agree upon a specific order. Let’s imagine that you’re the lead author and you have four collaborators. I’m going to give them imaginary names. Let’s call them Robin, Leslie, Sidney and Jules.

So, as the lead author, you always “hold” the master copy. When you’re ready to send it out, let’s imagine it goes to Robin first, and Robin adds comments highlighted in blue. Then it goes back to you and you decide which of Robins comments make obvious good sense.

Obviously, fixing typos will fall into that category but there may be other edits you can make without getting the “permission” of everyone in the group. You make all these “safe” changes and if there are any you’re uncertain about, leave Robin’s remarks, in blue, in the manuscript. That way all your collaborators will be able to respond to them.

Then, you send the next version of the master draft to Leslie, who’s going to use pink. Leslie reviews this new master draft and then passes it back to you. Once again, you make the “safe” changes and leave Leslie’s more controversial comments in pink.

Then you send the draft to Sidney who’s going to be highlighting remarks in yellow before returning the draft to you. Again, do the same as did with Robin & Leslie’s comments.

Finally, you send the draft to Jules who’s going to be highlighting remarks in bright green before returning it to you. Now, do the same as did with Robin, Leslie’s and Sidney’s comments.

At this point, let me make an obvious observation: Because there will be only ONE copy of the master draft at any given time, it will be extra important for all your collaborators to understand the urgency of deadlines.

In my experience, if people can see a valid REASON for a deadline, they are more likely to work to achieve it. Your reason is that you want everyone to be able to work from one master draft. This will save a great deal of time and frustration and I encourage you to remind your collaborators of this fact.

Also, perhaps puzzlingly, people are more inclined to meet a SHORT deadline rather than a long one. You’re not doing yourself any favours if you give people too long to respond. Agree on these deadlines BEFORE any writing or editing takes place and underline how essential they are.

When ALL of your collaborators have returned the document to you, see if there is any obvious way for you to reconcile disagreements between participants. In my experience, a certain percentage of issues will be relatively easy to fix. That said, there WILL be some sticking points. For this reason, you’ll need to schedule an in-person meeting between collaborators after you’ve all had a chance to review the master draft.

If you have out-of-town collaborators, of course, it’s possible for them to join a meeting via Skype, FaceTime or some other software like that.

At this meeting, everyone should have a printed out copy of the draft and you should review it together in chronological order. Use the principal of consensus-decision-making to wrestle with the tough issues. That said, if there’s anything that you’re unable to reach consensus on, the lead author should make the final decision.

Ellita, you also asked about how to handle feedback from journal reviewers. I suggest you follow exactly the same process I’ve just outlined. Have ONE master copy and send it to group members one at a time. Incorporate their feedback yourself, if you can and retain their colour-coded comments if you can’t. You may need to have a second meeting at this point if controversies remain.

I know, I know. This sounds like a lot of work. But it’s effective.

  • Spell out your expectations.
  • Get agreements well in advance.
  • Enforce deadlines.
  • Be super well organized.

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the CEO of Warby Parker, Neil Blumenthal: “A good collaboration pushes the boundaries of both partners.” 

I agree with Blumenthal, although I think he’s underestimated the number of people who are involved in academic collaborations. It’s usually way more than two! But despite the number of collaborators, the same principle applies: If you can manage the process, you will all benefit from it. Thanks for a great question, Ellita.

Other links:

How to write a better, less-stressed lit review

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