The Craft of Co-writing

By Emma Jackson with comments from Michaela Benson

I have written more with others than I have on my own, including co-authored books with multiple authors. I like doing both. Sole-authored pieces come with the delight of deciding on every single word and no compromises (at least until the reviews roll in). Writing with others comes with the delight of being able to hand it over when you get stuck, and the pleasure of discussing and fine-tuning something together. There is less potential for over-dramatising, writer’s block and generally losing a sense of perspective/the plot (‘It’s a disaster! I’m throwing this paper in the bin!’) with collaborative writing. Or maybe I have just been lucky with my collaborators? There is also a politics to co-authoring in an academic system that celebrates the individual. As I have argued elsewhere, in the age of superstar academics and the pressures of the REF, collaboration can be a form of quiet rebellion.

This blog focuses on the practicalities of co-authoring and draws on the way that I work with Michaela Benson, the person I have co-authored with the most. Not incidentally, I work with Michaela on a number of other things, including editing The Sociological Review, conducting research and co-supervising PhD students. We have enough in common – as well as academic interests, we both like structure, working to a plan, and each other – while also filling in for some of each other’s gaps and being well aware of each other’s foibles. This blog is an attempt to demystify the process of co-writing an article rather than offering a set of instructions.

MB: The practice of co-authoring together, has always been one that is based on dialogue. This is important in terms of how we approach collaboration as it frames how we think of our joint projects, as something that we have an equal stake in. It reminds me a bit of our approach to grabbing coffee, cake, lunch and drinks together—one of us will pay, the other another time, but it is not a precise and exact science of repayment!

When we sit down to write a paper we first work out what we think the key argument is, where we think it makes an intervention and where we think we should send the piece. This sounds obvious but it is vital to get this clear between authors from the start. This bit is fun and usually takes place in a café near where we work, and is often squeezed in between other commitments. When we sit down to do this, we have usually already discussed the basic premise for what we are writing in snatched conversations here and there. This moment is when a new piece of writing becomes real. This is an exciting stage. The new shiny piece of writing is always more attractive to me than the half-finished. At this more focused meeting, we work out a structure, decide on some working sub-headings, divide the paper into sections and decide who will write what. If there are areas that the paper is addressing where one of us already has a strong sense of the relevant debates, their initials go next to that section. If there is an idea that one of us is particularly excited about developing, their initials go next to that section and so on. We then bullet point out the key elements that need to go in each section so that when we go our separate ways and start working on our sections, we are not starting from scratch but with some key ideas and possibly quotations or other examples of empirical material.

We then work out when we each have time to work on the paper and from there sketch out a timetable (‘I’ll keep the paper until I go on holiday at the end of August and then pass it over’). In practice this timetable usually shifts around. We work on the paper not in tandem but pass it between ourselves, using Dropbox. We have found that collaborative documents (such as Google Docs) don’t work as well for us. The advantage to passing the paper over is that at certain times you have the responsibility of the paper, but at other times you also get to forget about it while the other person works on it.

The paper then bounces backwards and forwards as each of the sections are filled in by one of us. We might add notes or comments on each other’s sections too. Sometimes a dialogue appears in the notes alongside the text where I highlight a place where I think Michaela might want to add in a sentence or two, or pose a question about a sentence that needs clarifying, and vice versa. Sections or paragraphs may be deleted as we realise through these exchanges that we are trying to squeeze too many arguments into one paper.

MB: Fortunately, neither of us are too precious about the other editing our work! But this might be because we have reached the stage—after nearly eight years of writing together—where we trust each other’s judgments.

Once we have a rough draft, we sit down in person and go through it section by section, sentence by sentence, usually in one of our homes first thing in the morning. We both do our best thinking in the mornings. Through the process of clarifying and explaining to each other in person what we mean, the document gets edited and the ideas are refined. It is in this part of the process that the composite voice emerges. Our individual writing styles are quite different but when this works well by the end of this process you can’t see the joins between the sections. We are quite exacting with each other and lots of coffee is required. Ideally there will be pastries too. These sessions usually also involve a walk around a local park, where we inevitably have to stop to write something down that was eluding us indoors but has crystallised while out and about.

At this stage we work out if the paper just needs a bit of finessing and any missing references added or if we need to go away and do more intellectual heavy lifting. If it needs more work we decide on who is doing what and repeat the previous stage of bouncing it between ourselves – but with a tighter timeframe. These in person and email exchanges are also complemented with phone conversations. If one of us gets stuck writing a section we will often ring the other one. It is often in those conversations, when we explain to each other what we are struggling to express on the page, that the ideas solidify.

We then agree on a title, if we didn’t already have one, and sort the name order. We alternate first author, unless one of us has done more work than the other. Whoever is first-named author submits it.

Then the reviews come back. I find it is less wounding to get a negative review when the work is joint-authored because the process feels less individualized. You can share your gripes about Reviewer 2. We then work out what we want to take onboard and what needs doing. The points that need addressing are then broken down into a list of tasks for each of us, depending on which sections they refer to, or who has an inspired idea of how to respond. The bouncing of the paper starts again with each of us adding the new changes to the relevant section. Whoever is taking a lead on the paper will write the response to the reviewers and then check it by the other.

This might sound far removed from the romance of the inspired lone writer but, for me, collaboration always works best with a clear plan.

As this abrupt ending demonstrates, Michaela is better at conclusions than I am. I am good at introductions. Knowing this kind of thing makes for a good co-authoring relationship.

MB: I wouldn’t want to contradict Emma here 😉 So, here’s one final thought. I think that the reason that our co-authorship arrangement works so well, is because over the years we have always been open with one another about what we can give to any given project, and talked about what our expectations are of the things we do together. But it is also true that we work with ideas that really excite us both and this excitement is what drives any given project.

Emma Jackson is an urban sociologist and ethnographer. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths and co-editor of The Sociological Review. She tweets at @EmmaKJackson.

Michaela Benson is Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths and Managing Editor of The Sociological Review. She writes on migration and social class. She tweets @michaelacbenson.

Originally posted 8th October 2018.

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