Paul Silvia on Coauthoring Writing Projects

Paul SilviaWriting is a communal effort, shockingly enough. Often, a writer’s friends come in the form of other books. Other writers need a number of loyal comrades who will give of their time to hear the, potentially, jumbled thoughts or ramblings of a writer stumbling into clarity [sigh* after a long sentence to prove the point]. However, collaboration is a wholly different enterprise where authors come together collectively to write a project—whether it is an article, book, etc.

I have heard, and surprisingly more than I thought I would over the past couple of years, negative remarks regarding coauthored enterprises. Some are rightly justified, in that your project will be as strong as your weakest contributor. However, two encounters have changed the way that I view collaboration—thus, I don’t seek to answer some of the previous objections. First, working with Michael Haykin has forever changed how I view collaborative projects. Ideas are best understood and tend to progress within a community of intellectually competent contributors to produce valuable products. The second occurred when I encountered Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. Her statistics on collaborative projects point to the demise of this endeavor within the humanities. Nearly all other disciplines pursue collaborative work, whereas, those in the humanities fail to do so on a regular basis—exceptions, not the norm.

Paul Silvia has recently authored a new book, entitled Write it Up: Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles. Some may be familiar with his other book on writing too, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Chapter 3 of Write it Up, “Writing with Others: Tips for Coauthored Papers,” offers strategies for collaboration. The following, then, is a short hand summation of Silvia’s chapter.

Profiles of the Discouraged: People to Avoid

  1. The Stretched-Thin Collaborator—These people generate disaster because they are always “just so busy.” They are either in the “craziness of their semester” or “playing catch up” or some other thing vying for their time. Silvia makes the comment that these persons have good intentions, but lack the writing schedule that will hinder such project.
  2. The Enthusiastic Collaborator—Many have the winsome personality to infect others with inspiration….and sometimes, that’s just it. Silvia likens this person to a cheer squad. Just because they are excited for the team and project, does not mean they excel on the playing field.
  3. The Incompetent Collaborator—If collaborators need you to do their work, they are a detriment to your team. You don’t want those you have to force to write. Silvia says, “Of the three types of wayward collaborators, the incompetent ones are the most dangerous.”

Ways that Work

  1. A collaborative project pools competence, not ignorance. Work with people who have their own lines of research and a record of publishing their own work.
  2. Ideally, one person writes a full first draft. Two writers is acceptable if the second has a limited role that the first couldn’t pull off. The Lone writer is usually the first author, but not always.
  3. If there’s a debate about the paper’s slant or argument, circulate an outline and work it out before writing.
  4. Circulate only a full first draft of the manuscript. Avoid soliciting feedback on fragments, paragraphs, and sections.
  5. Avoid passing documents back and forth via e-mail. Use shared network space or file-sharing programs that allow the team to work on the same file.
  6. Coauthors should comment on the manuscript, but all comments are opt-in, and there’s a deadline.

(Points 1–6 are taken directly from Silvia, Write it Up, 69).

Fountain PenDetermining Authorship

Whose name should appear first on the manuscript or book or article? Silvia attempts to give a balanced and quite helpful perspective on such issue. Some have flipped a coin; some put the names in alphabetical order; whereas others list authors in order of contribution. To sum up Silvia’s points: (1) if your worried about whose name is first, then you are “that guy” on the team; (2) if your name is not first and you are worried this will hurt your career, know that your reputation is built from a larger body of work—not one piece. Essentially, “tight teams have the trust and mutual respect…so [that] authorship tends to work itself out.”

Being Good Coauthor

Silvia offers three principles to being a good coauthor. But as in other areas of life, abide by the Golden Rule—“write with others as you would have them write with you.”

  1. “Do the things you said you’d do quickly and well.”
  2. “Cultivate complementary skills that set you apart from any other off-the-boat new PhD.”
  3. “Say no when you need to.”
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