hands-together Writing in teams

Collaborating effectively is a key skill in any career, especially technical communication. Learn how to write together more effectively.

Joe Moses is a senior lecturer in the Writing Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He teaches technical and professional writing and project design. It was that happy combination of courses one semester that led to some thinking about project-based writing instruction in teams. 

Jason Tham is an associate professor of English at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. He teaches and writes about technical communication, social technologies, collaboration, and human-centered design practices.

Together, Joe and Jason are the authors of Writing to Learn in Teams: A Collaborative Writing Playbook for Students Across the Curriculum, published by Parlor Press. We asked them about collaborative writing.

Why did you write a book about collaborative writing?

We were both participating in a radical collaboration project led by Dr Ann Hill Duin (University of Minnesota) in which undergraduates, graduate students, teaching faculty, and tenured faculty wrote together for publication. After working together on that exciting project, we decided to continue writing together about collaboration. 

In Joe’s case, he’d tried using collaborative writing in his courses but hit the usual obstacles—the unwieldy challenges of team coordination and accountability to name only two—and didn’t feel equipped to manage the process in a way that would meet course objectives. But the radical collaboration project revealed some possibilities that led to some additional research on ways of inviting writers to work together—primarily by structuring a writing process specifically for teams. 

By exploring intersections of agile project management, design thinking, and project-based writing to learn, we were able to identify ways of supporting student writing teams in some new ways. 

Why is collaborative writing an important part of technical communication roles today?

Frankly, we have not heard of any technical communication roles that do not require some form of exchange and interaction with other professionals to get their job done! Collaboration is embedded in a lot of writing and design activities. Tech comm roles that require a high-level of collaboration include web designers, documentation writers, user experience researchers, instructional designers, content producers, consumer analysts, technical editors… and the list goes on. Practitioners believe that working together can improve the quality of products and services, and we think working together strategically is key to a meaningful and generative experience. 

How can we collaborate more effectively in technical writing?

Collaboration is a skill. To realize the benefits of collaboration, ongoing training and support for collaborative writing should be in place to grow individuals’ capacities for the many collaboration skills teammates need, including adaptation, cooperation, inclusion, participation, review, teamwork, and transparency.

What tools or technologies can technical writers use to collaborate with each other?

Several tools do a good job in collaborative writing. Here are a few examples:

  • Google Drive, Dropbox 
  • Microsoft Teams and Sharepoint
  • Zoom and other video-conferencing apps
  • Emails, online calendars, mailing lists 
  • Instant messaging apps (Slack, Discord) 

Tools are most helpful when they help structure three key routines for collaboration: interaction routines, engagement routines, and communication routines. 

Interaction routines include defining, pursuing, monitoring, and reporting project milestones together. Interaction tools invite, enable, and welcome degrees of diversity and inclusivity suited to the goals and phases of projects. 

Engagement routines include access to collaboration training and support, and to subject matter experts and other information sources. Engagement tools are ones that enable knowledge sharing. 

Communication routines include team check-ins and priority setting, increment or iteration reviews, and team retrospectives. Communication tools should help individuals make their thinking visible to each other and to other stakeholders.

In addition to tools for traditional phases of drafting, reviewing, and revising content such as document-sharing platforms, tools that support the design-thinking process of gaining empathy with users (readers) and teammates, problem definition, ideating to generate a range of possible solutions together, and testing potential solutions can contribute structures for evaluating work while monitoring progress.

What tools do a bad job for collaborative writing?

That’s a good question upon which collaborators should ponder. We do not think there is an inherently bad collaboration tool (although some are more well-designed than others). The things that disrupt technology-supported collaboration typically involve: 

  • Lack of familiarity with a tool
  • Collaborators being technology-centric rather than people and project-centric
  • Lack of trust on the tool 
  • Inequitable access to a tool

What are technical writers "getting wrong" today about collaborative writing?

Whether technical writers are getting anything wrong is not for us to say. Organizations that require collaboration without fostering a collaborative writing environment, process, and skills mindset may be leaving many benefits and advantages of collaboration unrealized.  

How did you collaborate to write this book? What tools or technologies did you use?

Jason: I consider “writing” broadly here. When reflecting on the tools we use, collectively and separately, for this project, I considered technologies that allowed me/us to think, write, organize, design, deliver, etc. So, thinking aloud here: 

  • Google Docs to share drafts and comments 
  • Emails and calendars to facilitate meetings
  • Zoom to enable meetings 
  • Laptops and tablets for writing and notetaking 
  • Adobe InDesign to typeset pages
  • Adobe Acrobat to markup and respond to comments
  • Websites (personal and publisher’s) to promote the book 

Joe: The tools and tech that enabled timely exchange of ideas were the most valuable. Our Zoom sessions and especially our early face-to-face meetings are what stick with me, though. The literature and the multitude of tips out there about strong collaboration emphasize the importance of trust, and I agree that it was and still is central to our collaboration. Trust comes from sustained inquiry not only into previous literature, current data, and the significance of the words we put on the page together, but into each other as collaborators. We share what we’re thinking and feeling all along the way. We’re interested in each other’s perspectives on the topics and problems we’re taking on. 

I would say we make trust a priority, which means assuming the best of each other’s intentions. In that context pushing back is easy. We have very different approaches to teaching and research, and very different professional and personal experience to draw from, and those differences show up in the form of questions that guide or redirect subsequent steps.

Thanks to Joe and Jason for this insightful discussion about how technical communicators can collaborate more effectively. Writing to Learn in Teams: A Collaborative Writing Playbook for Students Across the Curriculum is available now from Parlor Press.

To learn more about collaborative writing, you may also be interested in Jason and Joe's previous book, Collaborative Writing Playbook: An Instructor’s Guide.