WriteCast Episode 8: Top 10 Tips for Group Papers and Collaborative Writing
© Walden University Writing Center 2014
NIK: [Teaser]: Everything that matters in the writing process matters even more when you’re writing a group paper.
NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a Casual conversation for serious writers. I’m Nikolas Nadeau.
BRITTANY: And I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson. In today’s episode, we’re talking about collaborative writing and group papers.
BRITTANY: So, this might seem like a strange topic to those of us who are pursuing academic degrees because much of our work is done on our own. But, it’s pretty likely that at some point in your degree program, you’re going to be asked to write collaboratively with other classmates. Or, you might need to work collaboratively in your workplace. This is something that happens quite often in organizations--people need to produce work together. And this can be really challenging. It can be difficult because you may feel that you’re responsible for somebody else’s ideas. It may be challenging to work with somebody who doesn’t have the same work style as you. And a lot of times I think we feel very nervous about giving up control over the final product that’s being associated with our name. So, we’re actually gonna spend some time today talking about strategies to make this process simpler and run more smoothly. Right, Nik?
NIK: Yeah, Brittany. This topic reminds me of an experience I had in high school, actually when I had to do this group paper for a philosophy class. We were supposed to write a paper about the movie The Matrix. So I had to do this assignment with a classmate of mine who was a very nice person, very accomplished, really smart, but we just had two really different writing styles. You know, I was the one trying to figure out, okay, well what kind of argument are we making? And, oh, well maybe we should argue this instead because, you know, given the plot twist here, etc., and it just--that kind of drove her nuts. And then she was really obsessed over those, you know, red and green squiggly lines you see in Microsoft Word. Well she demanded to change anything to make sure those lines didn’t appear. And I was like, no, you don’t have to do that, they’re just--they’re just squiggly lines, all you have to do is just focus on the grammar rules that we’ve been learning, and she’s like, no, no, no, we have to get rid of the squiggly lines, and it was just--it was a mess. And so, you know, everything that matters in the writing process matters even more when you’re writing a group paper. And that’s why we want to make sure that you’re planning ahead and really mentally prepared.
BRITTANY: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I love that story, Nik, because I think we all have a story like that in the back of our minds. And so, we’re gonna give some tips on how to work with other people and how to work in groups to produce a piece of writing, but before we even begin with those top 10 tips, I think it’s important that we spend some time talking about knowing ourselves, right? So if Nik and his classmate had spent some time talking about their own process, their own personalities, and anticipating where those personalities may have come into conflict, they might have had a smoother time working together on their paper. And so, it’s very important, I think, before you go into a group project like this, to talk with your classmates or your coworkers about your strengths and weaknesses or particular style of working and to be really honest and not be afraid to talk about those different styles and the fact that they might not match up with one another.
So, for example, you might say, I know that I am a work hog and that I like to do all the work myself.
NIK: Or you might be the procrastinator.
BRITTANY: I know that’s me. You could be the passive-aggressive team player with hidden feelings that you take out on your other coworkers.
NIK: Or, the high-anxiety worrier.
BRITTANY: Or maybe you’re a perfectionist.
NIK: Or maybe you’re someone commonly found in Minnesota, which is the avoider and non-confrontationalist.
BRITTANY: Right, and we don’t mean to put down any one of these types of people or these types of qualities that a person might have. But it’s good to know these things about yourself and to be honest about them going into a process. And again, you can kind of anticipate where those personalities or work styles might conflict and work through those conflicts ahead of time rather than kind of having them sneak up on you in the group writing process.
BRITTANY: So, let’s get started with our top 10 tips for group writing.
NIK: The first tip is to communicate early and often, whether it’s by phone, Facebook, text message, whatever it takes. Make a timeline, and make sure you know how each person prefers to communicate. Or, make sure you have a plan to communicate across a specific channel so that you’re all communicating together.
BRITTANY: The second tip is to go through the assignment instructions together as a group. This will allow you to agree on key components and to make sure that all the requirements are accounted for when you divide your labor.
NIK: Speaking of dividing labor, the third tip is to divide labor. And so there’s actually different approaches to doing this. You could give one person the task of researching and another person the task of writing, if they really love to do that. You could also have one person write the first draft and then another person write the second draft. Or you could have one person write one half and the other person write the second half.
BRITTANY: The fourth tip is to make an outline. This will allow you as a group to agree on a thesis statement together, so really knowing that you have the same goal for your piece of writing. And it’s also really important, whether you’re dividing the work or taking a drafter and then reviser approach, to make an outline so that you can stay on track. You want to make sure that you’re all moving in the same direction together as a group, and an outline can help you do that.
NIK: Tip number 5 is to decide on common technology. This is crucial to making sure that you have a smooth process from start to finish. For example, are you going to write your draft in Microsoft Word, or in Google documents? How are you going to track changes? The most obvious choice would be the track changes feature in Microsoft Word, but there are other ways to make comments and suggestions. Also decide on what I call document control. What is your process for ensuring that you’re keeping track not only of your current draft but also of previous drafts so that you don’t lose track or find out that something in draft 3 that you loved is somehow lost. You don’t want to have those situations, and you can easily avoid them by, for example, starting a labeling system: draft 1, draft 2, draft 3, etc. Also, you want to make sure that you’re backing up your documents. You want to make sure that you’re saving on what’s called “the cloud”--so save on Google Drive, on Dropbox, I know Windows has something called SkyDrive now. Just make sure you’re backing things up in a virtual space so that you, regardless of whether you spill coffee or break your computer, will still have your work afterward.
BRITTANY: Tip six is to schedule check-ins and expect unexpected delays. Now that might seem a little bit like an oxymoron, but it’s really important to anticipate that you might not stay on your timeline exactly as you originally planned. And if you have scheduled check-ins with one another, you can kind of correct back to your original timeline or adjust your timeline along the way, rather than reaching the end of the process and realizing that one person is almost finished and the other person is only halfway done. If you have these scheduled check-in times, you have a chance to kind of see where the members of the group are at, make adjustments as necessary, and move forward.
NIK: Tip number seven is to check your ego. When you write a paper on your own, you obviously have complete control over the writing process--over the content, over the way you revise, over--sometimes--what font to use, although, of course, APA recommends only Times New Roman 12 pt. But you want to be okay with letting go. You know, letting go of that sense of control and often that sense of pride that you and you only wrote this paper. Don’t be afraid to leave your ego at the door.
BRITTANY: Right, and tip eight is revise, then proofread. So the idea here is that revision has to do with reworking ideas. And so, just as you wouldn’t expect from yourself a draft with perfectly formed ideas the very first time around, be sure to be cognizant of the fact that your cowriters also aren’t going to have perfect ideas the first time around. Acknowledge that the revision process has to do with working through ideas and getting those ideas so that they make sense. And then you can all move through together and do the proofreading step which happens near the end of the process. So that means going through and checking for grammar errors, comma errors, punctuation errors, looking for typos, those sorts of things, rather than working on those ideas, which should be generated earlier in the process.
NIK: Tip number nine is to focus on substance over style. And by this we simply mean to not be so bothered by the fact that your writing style, your voice, is going to be different than your writing partner, than your group members--that might happen--and focus on style only at the tail-end. More important than style is substance. That means the ideas you’re presenting, the arguments you’re making, the evidence you’re using to support your arguments.
BRITTANY: So our final tip, tip ten, is to be respectful in your feedback. We talked about ego a little bit earlier in these tips, and this tip has to do with being cognizant that your cowriters have egos as well. So if you do need to provide constructive feedback to one of your cowriters, it’s really important that you keep in mind that that person has feelings--
NIK: Woah, Brittany, that’s actually a really stupid way to word it. Don’t word it that way.
BRITTANY: Woah, Nik, wow. That’s--
NIK: Yeah, yeah...no, just kidding, everyone, I’m just kidding. I was simply demonstrating the way not to give feedback.
BRITTANY: That’s a good example of what not to do.
NIK: Uh, in other words, Brittany, what you were saying actually sounded really great, I just wanted to make sure that we kind of defined the word “constructive,” so, how would you define “constructive” in “constructive feedback”?
BRITTANY: So, constructive means that it produces a useful result, I think is a good way to talk about it in this setting. So rather than just nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking, the feedback is actually mean to make a change that will make the writing stronger. And you might have noticed that when Nik interrupted me and insulted me by saying my ideas were stupid, my defenses when up. So I wasn’t really interested in hearing the criticism that he had to say, even if it was constructive. But, when he changed his tone, I was receptive to that criticism. Cowriters have feelings, too; your group members have feelings, too, and you would want to be treated with that same respect.
NIK: So, in this episode we reviewed ten tips for making sure that you have success in writing a group paper, and we’re just going to very quickly review those tips one more time for you.
BRITTANY: Oh, are we going to do that?
NIK: Nevermind, we’re actually not [laughing] going to do that, um…
BRITTANY: Cause we don’t have time.
NIK: Well that does it for our top ten tips. And if you want more advice, we have a webpage that’s specifically devoted to this topic. You can find it by first going to our homepage: writing center dot walden U dot E D U. And in that blank search box in the top right, type in “collaborative assignments.” Or you can type in “group papers.” And from there you’ll find our “collaborative assignments” webpage, and that will provide more tips, in writing, for you to really make sure you have a successful group paper that you can be proud of.
BRITTANY: Join us next month when Nik will be reporting from the Atlanta residency. In the meantime, please share your comments with us on our blog. Thanks for listening!
NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.
BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.