Collaborative and Public Writing Techniques for Google Docs by Charlotte Frost and Jesse Stommel
Posted by Angson Chow

Charlotte Frost and Jesse Stommel met (as they often do) in a Google Doc to do some writing. This time, however, they invited a group of people to join them, and they demonstrated how and why they write together in Google Docs. In the blog post below, you can read the text they generated, but the original Google Doc they used can also be viewed as can the video of them writing together (which we’ve included below). If you have any further questions ask away in the comments section of this post.

My name is Charlotte Frost and I am a Visiting Assistant Professor here at SCM in Hong Kong. I run lots of projects looking at writing in an academic context including PhD2Published and AcWriMo. My other work is focused on digital and new media arts and the history of net art (the latter of which was the subject for my thesis). Jesse and I regularly work in Google Docs together on all manner of things because apart from anything else its fun.

My name is Jesse Stommel and I’m a teacher and researcher working in the US. I teach Digital Humanities and Digital Literacies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m also the Director of Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. I’ve been working closely with Charlotte for quite a while, and we have begun to inhabit each other’s writing in such a way that we often finish each other’s sentences.

In this session we’re going to:

  • Use a Google Doc to show how we work together and discuss what works for us
  • Describe and give examples of public writing.
  • Show which parts of a Google Doc we use for what.
  • Address some of the difficulties we encounter as we work in this way.
  • Demo all of this in a meta-sort of way, so you can watch it unfold before your very eyes.
  • (And hopefully film this demo so you have something to look at and refer to afterward)

Why Write Collaboratively?

Accountability: Writing together is a huge procrastination crusher. There’s safety in numbers and it makes it much less daunting to look at a blank screen with someone else there – you are NOT alone! (cause someone else is right there with you, prodding your sentences into life!)

Camaraderie: Having someone to talk to and write with and even ask questions about all sorts of things helps (especially questions about writing and academia of course!). It can make it easier to get started (see above) and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable.

Instant Proof-reading and Peer-review: Your partner can read for sense AND mistakes – if they don’t get it, others won’t either. But also, let them find your mistakes and save your blushes later on.

Less Work: If you work on something like this together in a Google Doc (whether it’s a blog post, article, outline, etc.) you halve the work. And, if you’re working with someone like Charlotte [says Jesse] it’s even less than half, because she’s very very prolific.

Progression: It will move your thinking and writing forward AND fast. There’s a difference between ‘thinking writing’ and ‘doing writing’ the former helps you work something out, the latter helps you show what you’ve worked out. A collaborative document can be used for either, but if nothing else, use it for ‘thinking writing’. It’s a sandbox for making sense of something of something.

Why not? Learning is social and doing this kind of work with collaborators helps improve your work and your partners. Writing does not have to be solitary. Sure, some writing prefers to live alone, but sometimes writing wants to live right alongside its readers.

 

How to Write Collaboratively?

(there’s lots of stuff to consider as you get started, but sometimes the best thing to do is just start putting words on the screen and work the details out as you go). Here are some strategies we’ve found work well:

Time and Place:

Set up a Google Doc and a specific time to meet – as well as the duration of your meeting.

Your work can continue asynchronously outside the scheduled time (especially if you’re working in different time zones) but writing together at the same time is key – so try to do that regularly.

But perhaps only do it for an hour at a time, it’s a tiring practice if you’re working very collaboratively.

Permissions:

Establish the ‘permissions’ you’ll set for the document, who can edit, who can comment, who can read, etc.

Decide whether you want your document open to the web.

If you’re inviting more people to work with you, make sure that you make them ‘editors’.

[currently this document is set up to only allow folks aside from Jesse and Charlotte to view the document -- or participate in the chat -- though we often open up our documents to a wider group of editors at some point during our process.]

The Google Doc Spreadsheet for AcWriMo for example is public and open to anyone to write on.

Types of Writing:

As well as writing your main body of text you’ll also be:

Using the chatbox for live discussion about all things writerly/academia and to arrange what you’ll achieve in your joint writing sessions.

Using the ‘comment’ function to select parts of the document to provide targeted feedback.

Navigation:

Decide how to navigate the various writing spaces together.

We meet in the chat box to get started and to arrange what we’ll do during a writing session, and we’ll often pop back into the chat box when we need to confer about our process.

We’ll also use the chat box as a space for dividing up what each of us will do during a writing session.

Sometimes, we will write in different colors just for fun to distinguish our voices. But we usually take that out as we polish the document.

 

Other examples of how you can use a Google Doc to work publicly and collaboratively:

Writing Buddy:

Partner with one other person and both use the same GoogleDoc to each work on a different project but so that your progress is witnessed and/or so you can get someone else to periodically review your work and comment on it, etc. (There are anxieties associated with writing in public in this way, so doing this work helps build trust.) Sometimes, Charlotte will work at the bottom of a Google Doc while I work at the top. This gives us some amount of privacy but the ability to “call each other” into our section of the document.

Public Peer-Review:

Write in a Google Doc and make it public for viewing and reviewing (you might allow people to comment but not rewrite the text itself). Offering up a piece of work to a specific group in this way is a great technique for obtaining instant peer review.

Example: Arts Future Book is one of Charlotte’s research projects and in this instance she wrote a paper and left it open to public peer-reviewing (using a blog rather than Google Docs though)

Sandbox:

Use one Google Doc for a large group as a sort of central repository for content.

You can brainstorm in the same doc and share ideas. and shape it up into something later. An Extreme example: of this is DigiWriMo Novel in a Day (which had about 100 people working in one Google Doc.)


Collaborate:

Write collaboratively with one or more people. Take turns to draft sections of the doc (perhaps its an article you’re writing together) and use the comments to discuss each other’s sections and how to combine them better.

Take turns to draft sections but then work on the same paragraph at the same time to review, comment AND edit.

Example: A document that started with 4 authors, evolved to 12, and the rest of the web to contribute to the creation of a Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age:

What Difficulties Do We Encounter When We Write Collaboratively?

Stage Fright: It will expose how many times you change a sentence before you finish it (or how many typos you make ;-) Charlotte likes to make typos, as do I. Luckily, we both find typos immensely charming.

Solution: If you see the other person writing at the speed of light you can lose your train of thought. Just carry on in your own way at your own pace until you feel comfortable. One of the most important things you can lean is that we all write differently and we have to find our own practice for ourselves.

Disagreements: It’s easy to get attached to your writing and hard sometimes to let someone else into your process. Occasionally, you will find yourself unable to share a common voice.

Solution: Decide in advance how you’ll resolve your writing issues with your writing partner. Agree to Skype, meet, or just agree to differ on what ever the issue is. Sometimes, you might decide that you want to write certain sections of a document independently, while continuing to collaborate on others.

Technical Problems: Technology can be temperamental. Occasionally, the gods of technology just don’t rule in our favor.

Solution: If you lose more than 15 mins to lost connections/Google Docs not refreshing it might best to just give up and work alone or on something else. But work out the next time you CAN meet and stick to it.

Ownership: Who owns this document? Who gets to decide its boundaries? When we work together in this way, who is the “author” of a document like this?

Solution: While we have both clearly been co-composing this particular example, what if one of us were writing and the other were primarily editing and offering feedback? If you set out to work on something together, even if one of your writes more of it, we think it’s probably best to just agree from the start that the work will be collaborative. This kind of work can’t be quantified in a cut and dry fashion. The production of one word is sometimes more difficult than the production of 10. Actual writing isn’t the only thing you bring to the table when you collaborate and we find that the balance of the work evens out in the end.

Looking for some more tips for working with Google Docs?

 This Google Doc workshop was offered as part of the Improving Your Academic Writing workshop series Charlotte gave at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong as part of AcWriMo 2013.

Angson Chow. Posted by Angson Chow


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