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Collaborative Writing

What is collaborative authoring or writing? One definition is: activities involved in the production of a document by more than one author, then pre-draft discussions and arguments as well as post-draft analyses and debates are collaborative components. [1] Based on this definition, the collaborative authoring process includes the writing activity as well as group dynamics. Another definition is "...any piece of writing, published or unpublished, ascribed or anonymous, to which more than one person has contributed, whether or not they grasped a pen, tapped a keyboard, or shuffled a mouse." [61] This definition alludes to the complexity of identifying and acknowledging contributions and their contributors.

With collaborative authoring, there is a meshing of the complexity of (technical) writing along with the challenges of collaboration. Given that writing is a complex , open-ended task, there are many ways of stating meaning. With multiple authors, this adds to the complexity. The acts of collaboration and writing as they relate to collaborative authoring include: establishing an agenda or goal of the collaboration effort, identifying writing tasks and dividing those tasks among group members, tracking individual idea generation, defining rules for document management, identifying roles for group members, communicating ideas, and managing conflict. Collaborative authoring, therefore, requires effective communication between members of the writing group.

The communication requirements of the writing task are: task division, brainstorming, editing, general discussion, and goal setting. Task division relates to assigning tasks and communicating the associated requirements and deadlines. Brainstorming is generating and recording ideas to be used in production of the text. Editing involves members indicating their comments about and enhancements for the text. These comments and suggestions will be used to revise the existing text. General discussions can include formal team meetings as well as casual, impromptu conversations. Determining what the purpose or goal of the document is goal setting. Also, goal setting can include establishing the timeliness and activities that relate to task division.

Besides facilitating the processes of writing, language and written text are the products of the group as well as the means of communication. When writing, the author many times makes notes or comments about the text within the text itself. To the reader, these notes may appear to be part of the actual document. Therefore, there is the need to make the distinction between external representation and actual document text. Further, it is necessary to understand the context of these notes. An important part of understanding the context of these notes is knowing the author The concern in this case is how to differentiate between actual document text, and the text produced as part of the planning and thinking phase.

Types of Collaboration: Research on Collaborative Authoring

There are various of degrees of collaboration in authoring. At one end of the range is a single author who through discussion with and review by colleagues produces a document. The other end of the spectrum is a group of writers who jointly author a document. For this appendix, term collaborative authoring is used for two or more individuals who work together to produce a single document. Research on writing groups [47,61] has identified three coordination strategies for group writing: parallel, sequential, and reciprocal. With parallel coordination, the writing task is divided into sub-tasks which are assigned to each group member. These tasks can be completed concurrently. Sequential coordination involves dividing the writing task in such a way that the first part of the task must be completed before any other portions of the task. With the reciprocal strategy, the group members work together--simultaneously--on the writing task. Each strategy has inherent advantages and disadvantages. For each methodology key issues are how the work is divided. (There is the possibility that methods could be combined to form new coordination strategies.)

Based on the results of the study conducted by Ede and Lunsford [39], seven organizational patterns for collaborative authoring were identified. These patterns are:

  1. the team plans and outlines the task, then each writer prepares his/her part and the group compiles the individual parts, and revises the whole document as needed;
  2. the team plans and outlines the writing task, then one member prepares a draft, the team edits and revises the draft;
  3. one member of the team plans and writes a draft, the group revises the draft;
  4. one person plans and writes the draft, then one or more members revises the draft without consulting the original authors;
  5. the group plans and writes the draft, one or more members revise the draft without consulting the original authors;
  6. one person assigns the tasks, each member completes the individual task, one person compiles and revises the document;
  7. one dictates, another transcribes and edits. Results from the study indicated that the percentage of writing groups that use these methods often or very often range from 3% (method 5) to 31% (method 3).

The above study was a survey of members of various professional organizations on their writing activities. The results show how individuals complete the activities associated with writing--generally alone, generally as part of a group, or generally partly alone, partly with the group. Fifty percent of those surveyed performed idea generation or brainstorming alone as well as with the group. For idea generation, the largest percentages are: 82% for 'part group, part alone' for engineers, 72% 'part of a group' for chemists, and 40% 'part group, part alone' for technical writers. For information gathering and organizational planning, the overall percentages for working alone and with the group are 53% and 46% respectively. The majority of those surveyed (63%) drafted documents alone. Of all the methods for completing activities, working alone and in a group received the largest percentage of votes (39%) for the task of revising the document. Fifty-six percent performed editing (and proofreading) activities alone.

One of the issues that relates to cognitive overhead is the use of "boilerplate" or template materials in the document, that is standard descriptions, and formats. The respondents answered that they sometimes used "boilerplate" materials depending on types of documents. Overall,. technical writers believed that having a plan is important to the group writing process. They also noted that having a bad plan leads to disastrous results. If a set plan was used, the group leader performed this task in 73% of the cases. Twenty- three percent reported that the entire group made task assignments. The respondents were asked to identify the individual(s) who made revisions to the document. Thirty-three percent indicated that this task was performed by the group leader; twenty-three percent indicated that several members performed this task. In the case of technical writers, 50% stated that revisions were completed by a technical writer/editor of the group.

Survey one, which was administered to a large group of writers (approximately 800), provides information on the amount of time spent on the various phases of the writing process. The results show that generating ideas (14%), note-taking (13%), organizational planning (13%), drafting (32%), revising (15%), editing (13%) contribute to the total writing process. Ede and Lunsford [39] also examined co

llaborative authoring and the results indicates that the level of satisfaction in the group writing process is influenced by eight items:

Beck [28] provides information about surveys of collaborative authoring conducted with smaller sample sizes. There, however, was no agreed upon definition of collaborative authoring. Most respondents discussed about the context and structure of the document during the writing of the document Some discussions were performed before writing the document or after the document was complete. Most of these discussion involved the entire group, however, some of these discussions about document content and structure occurred among members of a subgroup. A review of results pertaining to discussion about organization of work indicated similar patterns of responses. Most discussed this topic while writing the document. Group-wide discussions were most popular. However, discussions about work organization also took place within sub-groups. Beck also reports the role of individual group members and the relationship among them were discussed most during the writing process.

next up previous contents
Next: Computer-based Authoring Systems Up: Collaborative Authoring & Previous: Collaboration and Collaborative

Michael Spring
Fri Jan 31 13:59:00 EST 1997