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Collaborative writing quandaries

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As much as I love and value collaboration (it’s one of the 4Cs I picked out as major components to my profession after all), I have some challenge with getting students to value it quite as much. My colleague often tells me her stories of true collaborative writing when pairing up with her research partner to write a paper like this.

It may be worthwhile at this point to define “collaborative writing” as I see it: beyond individual writing, it’s more than one person working together on a piece of writing in order to produce a cohesive whole where every contributor takes ownership over the whole. Beyond this, definitions can be a bit murky.

In my experience, 99% of the time, it turns into cooperative writing. In other words, students divide up the portions of a writing project, write them separately, then patch them together into a whole. So my question then derives from this: is collaborative writing really a thing or is it inevitably cooperative with a nod to collaboration?

Let me give some examples:

Example 1: Peer feedback

I use Google docs quite extensively with students for a number of reading and writing practice activities. In one type, I have them answer a question I’ve given to everyone about a text. They go on to a shared Google doc with everyone and type out their answers on some spot of the shared document. After this, I ask them to find another students’ answer and make comments on it in terms of grammar, content, and structure. Pretty much peer feedback. Then the original writer goes back and revises based on feedback. Each person has a role to play, but is this collaborative writing?

Example 2: Group notes

After students have read a text and negotiated meaning together in discussion about it (see ARC), I ask them to transfer their collective understanding of text concepts onto a post-ARC Google Doc template. There are areas on the document that inevitably are written individually (e.g. the Visualiser, by definition, fills out a description of visuals they’ve used to illuminate text concepts), but I’ve purposely placed areas that don’t connect specifically to an individual’s work in ARC, but rather only after the group discusses should they be able to complete this area (e.g. write 250 words that connects ideas in the text they’ve read to a broader theme). They know that the document as a whole will be graded as a group mark, but inevitably, however, students divvy up the areas of the document to complete. I have doubts that any of them really read over each other’s work or even they assign just one person in the group to do so (i.e. the perceived strongest student). Is this collaborative writing? If so, I wonder then, is lack of collaborative writing solely a flaw in activity design or are students (and people?) just naturally inclined to be responsible for one component and expect others to do their job? Is collaborative writing perceived inefficiently?

Example 3: Turn-taking

Remember the pass-the-folded-sheet-story activity where each person writes a line and then passes it onto the next to produce a story? That doesn’t work so well in an academic sense all the time, but when we’ve discussed the types of information that goes in a body section of an essay (i.e. topic sentence, evidence from sources as support, explanation sentences and analysis of that evidence, tie-backs to thesis, etc.), I have tried them producing a body section to write collaboratively like this about a topic we’ve read in class with several sources. One writes the topic sentence (with a mini-argument about the topic). The next adds a sentence or two that incorporates paraphrased evidence from one source. The next explains or analysis it. Then another synthesises new support from another source, and so on. This to me tends to fit the definition of collaborative writing most, but the resulting paragraph often sounds disjointed and clearly like it’s come from X number of writers. Is this collaborative writing? If so, is it an effective/efficient way to produce a whole? Is it not just another example of divvying up work, just on a more micro scale? Would simply adding in an extra step of each group member proofing, creating cohesion, and revision make the product less disjointed?

I have no particular answers to these questions. I also could likely use a little reading up on what others do or if my expectations on the value of collaborative writing are simply too idealistic (I’m not really expecting students to finish each other’s sentences…or am I??), but when I do hear my colleague (above) talk about her experiences with collaborative writing, I’m a little envious because I’ve never really seen it play out quite that way even when I work on projects together with others. Perhaps each of these examples just improves in terms of collaboration through more experience and ‘synergy’ between the group members?

PS – This is a quick post. Forgive typos. I probably could have used more collaboration.

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Quick comment – perhaps the collaboration takes place prewriting through discussion. The mechanics of writing don’t really lend itself to collaboration the way speaking does.

Tyson Seburn

Yeah, collaboration is definition part of the planning phase. I’m not sure it’s not conducive to actual writing though. It’s not about finishing each other’s sentences per se. But for sure it’s about defining what collaboration actually means.

Having been thrust into collaborative writing contexts as a student myself recently, I found it excruciatingly difficult. Firstly, there’s the awkwardness of group dynamics – you don’t want to dominate or criticize people you don’t know very well. Also in a classroom context, there’s often a mismatch of abilities, subject knowledge or styles that feels uncomfortable. For me, true collaboration is really only possible between peers who are genuinely equal within the context, who really know, trust and respect each other. I’d also agree with Antony that in most collaborative writing, the collaboration actually takes place in the planning and discussion and then later in the editing rather than in the putting the words on the page.

Tyson Seburn

It’s one point I’m wondering about too: how much does the group dynamic impact this? A lot likely. Two people who are very in tune with each other’s ideas and work style (see my colleague above) get this going well.


hi Tyson
Anthony makes a good point since much of collaborative writing does take place in the idea generation stage or non-writing part. I have tried in the past to use a narrow reading technique with students to try to shortcut the idea generation stage. Kinda worked but circumstances have not made me revisit it for a while, would like to should i get the chance.

Tyson Seburn

Thanks for the comment, Mura. I’m not sure what ‘narrow reading technique’ means but I’m guessing a small reading, very focussed, instead of a longer text?


hehe my cunning plan to have excuse to link to a blog post; narrow reading – texts about the same topic after Krashen – []

[…] goes to a Google doc template that I’ve set up and collaboratively (or cooperatively? See this post for quandaries on this distinction) fills out areas of the google doc based on their improved […]

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