This guest post is by Kylie Budge, a PhD student in art/design education at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She is on the editorial team of the theteachingtomtom, in her role at RMIT University as a Learning and Teaching Advisor
Writing comes hard to some of us but, like most things, it does get easier with practice. One thing’s for sure, if you’re interested in an academic career post-PhD (or are employed in one now) writing and the ability to produce academic publications is a critical skill. Inger wrote a post a short while ago about why publishing during your PhD is a must for enhancing your career prospects. This post is more about how to get started in publishing and a look at collaborative writing as one way to make this happen.
Academic publications (journal articles, conference papers and so on) are either collaboratively written or sole-authored. I would strongly suggest trying the collaborative route for your first experience. However – and this needs to be emphasised – I’m not suggesting starting with a collaborative publication because it’s easy to do and sole-authored work is difficult. It’s not as simple as that. Despite the difficulties that can arise, generating and bouncing ideas off your writing partners is often less lonely, more interesting and more productive than doing it alone. Especially for a first-timer.
Getting started means finding people to write with. In my discipline, collaborative articles are often written by very small teams (2-3 people). In other disciplines (eg. the sciences), it’s common for large groups of authors to publish together. Even if you’re brand new to academia you already know one or two academics – your supervisor/s. You could consider writing with them, especially if you’d like to write about something stemming from your PhD topic. Chances are they will be interested in it too if they’re supervising your PhD project.
If you’d rather not write with your supervisor, then seek out people who are interested in similar topics and talk to them about what they’re writing about and your ideas. Over time your common interests will clarify and they might invite you to write with them,or you can be brave and suggest a writing project to them. Once you’ve got a couple of people (or more) to write with and a project in mind you’re ready to start. But before you do, there are a few other things to think about.
Collaborative writing involves a combination of writing and process styles. Not everyone works or writes the same way. It may take you a few experiences of writing collaboratively before you work out what your preferred writing process is and the kind of writing that suits you best.
Conceptualise the project with your fellow collaborators as much as you can before you start writing the article itself. This means talking together about what the article is going to focus on, particularly the contributions to knowledge. Try white boarding together as a group as you synthesise your ideas and clarify purpose of your article.
As you conceptualise the focus of your writing project, choose a publication or conference to target the final product of your labours. Wendy Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success” has some great strategies. Consciously focus on the style of the publication or conference you are targeting as you write.
Set a timeframe to work in. What period of time suits the authors to have the finished article written in? Twelve weeks? Longer? If you’re writing for a conference a deadline will be set by the organisers, which can make this decision easier.
Make use of the great collaborative writing tools out there. I’ve used Google Docs for two recent collaborative projects with great success. Any collaborative writing tool that enables you all to write in the one space (thus saving version control headaches involved when emailing drafts to each other) is worth its weight in gold.
In the draft stage, ask each person to write in different colours so that it’s easy to see who has written what. This way if you want to clarify, or question, a part of the writing you know who has contributed the area and can work from there. At the final stage, when all writers are happy, you can then change the text colour to black.
Work out what the collaborative writing process will be in advance. Will each person write a section or not? Some collaborative writers are able to work quite fluidly, dipping in and out of various sections without carving out sections for specific authors to write. Other combinations of people are not able to work like this. There is no one right way in terms of process. But it is important to talk about and to work out an agreed process to try.
Discuss and review the article you are writing at regular points during the writing project. This keeps everyone on track.
When you feel ready, give a good draft of the article to a ‘critical friend’ to read and ask for feedback on aspects that you (the group of writers) nominate – eg. structure, flow, engagement of the reader etc. Ensure the critical friend you approach has academic publications and can give feedback with a degree of experience.
Collaborative writing can be hugely rewarding for early career academic writers, however, communicating honestly and well with your writing partners is key! An added bonus is you can establish some strong networks which can lead you into more exciting writing adventures in the future.
Have you written papers with others? Or with your supervisors? Do you have any tips or techniques to share – or traps to look out for?