Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Working and Writing Together: Strategies for Effective Collaboration

Summary of panel discussion, November 10, 2009

Panelists: Professor Bruce Kendall, Sara Hughes (Ph.D. candidate), Bridget Dobrowski (MESM '09), Shannon Murray (MESM '09)

Facilitated by Monica Bulger

Group Writing Overview

  • What is the purpose of the group project?
  • It can be very helpful for the group to agree on one or two sentences to summarize the project. If the group has a clear, concise vision of the project, it will be easier to convey that message to others.

Prioritize the Process

  • Communication is key.
  • Establish group goals: How do you define “success,” “finished,” “finished well”? What do you hope to accomplish as a group?
  • Consider each member a contribution: Assume everyone is putting in their best effort. Assess strengths of the team, and empower everyone to have leadership roles.
  • It is necessary for there to be a “buck stops here” person in the group.
Panel Discussion

Note: Panel responses are paraphrased.

Q: Please tell us about your thoughts on group writing and provide any tips you might have.

You will have to get on the same page in every project. It is important that you all mean the same thing when you use a word. Even if you’ve done that, when it comes down to start writing, the same issues come up at a deeper level. Once we get past arguing over style, and how to write, we discover that we really have a different understanding.
Because you are forced to be concrete, group writing peels back the group ‘mish-mash.’ View it as an opportunity. We often end up with something much better and deeper than we started with.

A lot of what I learned or some of the difficult parts had to do with the attitude that you bring and how it affects the outcome, or the hurdles you have to overcome. It can be easy to develop a narrow vision of what your group members can contribute, but it is easy to adjust that. Once you have a negative outlook, the project isn’t fun anymore.
Think about, and encourage, the different ways your group can contribute. Facilitate open communication and positive relationships. Be conscious of use of the comment tool in Microsoft Word. Comments can be rephrased to be more constructive. There is a lot of value to face time during the writing phase to keep up communication and smooth out disagreements.

It is important to identify each other’s strengths and encourage those. However, you can get boxed in to your roles: “good writers,” “bad writers.” That’s ok if the group is on the same page about the process. Specifics can help in editing, such as, “can you help with the grammar?”
It’s a fine line between concern about voice consistency and making group members feel like they aren’t contributing. It’s important to keep the essence of what you are writing. It’s not just the meaning of the word, it’s discussing the tone in the writing and our group values. It changes things to assume that everyone is on board with what you are saying. It is helpful to decide early: are we going to write in an active voice, or more passive? This gets to the general tone of your whole project.

Working on the poster, we had to write one sentence that summarized the project. It can be very helpful to find one sentence that you all agree on and understand. If what you are researching or writing doesn’t fit with this, you can cut it. It’s helpful if every section relates to the purpose of the project. Ask yourself: am I really writing with the group project goal in mind? It is important to be adaptable.
We spent time reading and editing as a group and hearing the feedback. That’s where it came out who was good with word choice, grammar, tone, etc. It was time consuming and painful at times, but we afterwards we knew who to turn to with questions on different aspects of writing.
Only ask for feedback when you really want it. It puts pressure on others to have to read it. You should feel that it’s final before submitting it to others. Do your diligence and put in the time to finish your work, and be clear on what feedback you are looking for.
Instead of having the whole group read every section, assign editing for each section to two people.

Bruce: The editor should be someone who isn’t deeply involved in that topic.

Q: When do you think consensus is necessary versus a majority?

Bruce: Consensus is most important in developing that one sentence vision or central idea of what your project is about. Then, what is the supporting information? Then, what is the bottom line one-sentence vision for each section?

Monica: Priority should be on what the audience needs as far as background information and data.

Sara: A group I worked with wanted to be on the same page with what was considered “compelling evidence” to make our final point. We had to decide when we were going to be happy with it.

Shannon: When you are not the majority, it can feel like your points are not being taken into consideration. The group has to ask: is there a way we can be on the same page? Rather than just going with the majority, ask why you are not all on the same page.

Bridget: It is important to care about what is important to your group. If there is trust in the group, you don’t have to spend a lot of time on consensus. People may argue about minor points because they like that kind of discussion. Ask that person: does it really matter to you how we do this? If it really matters on a personal level, consider the need for consensus.

Q: What type of audience are we targeting with the paper versus the poster?

Monica: It is important to remember that different sections of the Group Project serve different functions for your audience(s). For example, consider that a majority of your audience will read your Executive Summary and Conclusion, yet likely your client and other specialized readers will read your methods. Knowing which sections will be important to your different audiences should help you set the tone and determine the type of information to include in these sections.

Bridget: In general, your client is the audience for your paper, but it depends on your project and how applicable you think it is to a broader audience. For the presentation and poster, your audience could be just about anybody. You should keep scientists interested but keep the layperson up to speed, so they have a good idea what you did. You can have some sections in the paper that are more technical than others.

Shannon: It is better to err on the side of making explicit what you are trying to say.

Q: How do you balance keeping someone’s voice without tearing it apart?

Monica: On a project where we could not reach consensus, we had two editors. When they made the same edit, that change was made.

Bruce: For an executive summary, a one page document, it really does need to be consistent, but with different sections can be stylistically distinct. It is most important to be consisting within sections.

Monica: Focus on the conclusion, executive summary, and introduction. Remember to write for the tired, busy person on a plane. Most people read like you do—they skim—so it is important to put signposts in your writing. Draw their attention to what's interesting and essential. Write with your audience in mind -- give them what they need in the introduction and executive summary to help them decide whether your topic/study is relevant to them. The goal is to make your writing interesting and clear.

Sara: Good transitions, introductory and concluding sentences and vocabulary can go a long way in blending multiple writers. A good test is whether the original writer can pick out their ideas in the document.

Bridget: It is important that you control yourself. Are you making this change because you would write it differently or could you really not understand the point? If at the end everyone agrees that it does not fit, then it will be changed.

Monica: If you have the time, wait a day before sending edits and reread it. After a break, you may feel more generous. If you absolutely feel compelled to nitpick it, do it, but don’t send it to them.

Sara: Think about what is most important after reading the whole thing.

Monica: Ask your co-writers what type of feedback they'd like from you. As a group, you can decide that for the first few passes, you'll focus on ideas and conceptual development and save the grammar/style edits for later reviews. In the absence of an agreed upon editing focus, a grad student I know makes three meaningful comments and stops, which I think is helpful.

Q: Ultimately, somebody is putting the document together. What should their role be?

Bridget: I think there should be two people. In our group, we agreed that track changes shouldn’t be used. We highlighted what we most wanted changed. Have one or two people edit for content, and another for formatting. Headings, subheadings, final pictures and captions, page numbers, etc. take a lot of time to do. Make sure there is enough time so that every content edit is complete and every format edit is complete.

Bruce: Often, editing takes just as long as, or longer than the writing process, so plan accordingly.

--Danica Schaffer-Smith & Monica Bulger


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