Engaging in Collaborative Writing

What is collaborative writing?

If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then what is collaborative writing? A definition, which very easily could have been written by a committee: Collaborative writing is a commonly used technique where two or more students co-write a piece of text either with or without editorial oversight.

Some argue that group-authored documents can benefit from the expertise of the whole, provide a useful exercise in teamwork, and encourage revision. With some carefully constructed assignments and techniques, collaborative writing assignments in the classroom can be a rewarding and productive experience.

Why use collaborative writing?

Collaborative writing has several potential benefits:

  • It can help students get over the anxiety of the ''blank page.''
  • It gives students practice at a real-world skill: professionals in the workplace often have to jointly author papers, presentations, and reports.
  • Relatedly, it provides some trial-by-fire project management experience for students.
  • It provides more immediate feedback and chances for iteration than a student would typically get writing alone for a professor.
  • It can prompt stronger writers to share expertise and techniques with weaker writers.
  • It gratifies students' often inexhaustible appetite for group activities.

Collaborative writing also comes with some potential pitfalls:

  • It cultivates dependence on others for ideas.
  • It tests time-management skills, as students writing together may detour into socializing.
  • It's difficult to monitor the balance of who in the group is doing the work, which in turn could lead to unfairness in grading.
  • The group-produced document can turn out to be stylistically bland or choppy -- an accusation sometimes leveled at the largest collaborative writing experiment of our day, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/).

Approaches to Collaborative Writing

The following are some examples of projects/assignments that the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning has designed with various faculty members to meet a variety of needs:

  • A Literature Humanities instructor used a wiki to assign close reading of passages from books and poems. She divided students into groups and asked them to annotate her pre-selected passages together, commenting and reacting to others' comments. Another Literature Humanities instructor did a similar exercise, but she asked the students to choose their own passages, which they would analyze in small groups.
  • A Barnard professor asked student groups to create and lead weekly class sessions for their peers. Students worked in small group to research and assign readings as well as to outline the weekly plan. The rest of the class were able to review the class plan pages as they developed.
  • An anthropology professor asked students to build a small encyclopedia of activist groups in New York City, modeled on Wikipedia. They worked together on articles and sought to conform to a standard, authoritative style.
  • A biology lab instructor asked teams of students to write up reports together and post them to a wiki. The wiki articles included links to data and photos taken from the lab experiment.
  • A creative writing instructor asked students to write a short story with three other class members. The assignment was designed to raise awareness of narrative convention and individual style.

Technologies That Facilitate Collaborative Writing

Collaborative writing projects can be facilitated by a number of technologies.

  • Collaborative writing groups can use the "track changes" features in common word processors to pass updated versions of documents among members. If this approach is taken, it is important to understand how versions of documents are going to be shared and (eventually) reconciled.
  • A communal editing environment like a wiki enables web-accessible pages to be edited by a number of people. Formatting can be an issue here, but "saving over" other writers' work is usually not a problem -- even if two people are writing and submit changes simultaneously, the two versions can be easily reconciled.
  • Other web-based solutions like Writely, Google Docs (http://docs.google.com/), and Zoho Writer (http://writer.zoho.com) offer online document editing by multiple writers as well as the ability to upload (and then group-edit) existing documents or download (and print/publish) finished papers by a group.

Collaborative writing can be incredibly rewarding for both students and instructors if expectations are established and the exercise is well planned. It is important to determine the outcomes of the collaborative writing exercise before choosing the type of technology needed to facilitate the exercise. Wikis, blogs, discussion boards, and Web-based tool services have multiplied in number and availability in recent years and can often be used for a low monthly fee, or no fee.

If you would like assistance in developing a collaborative writing exercise, please contact the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at 212-854-9058 or at ccnmtl@columbia.edu.