Discussion on Collaborative Writing between Carol Taylor, Jonathan Wyatt and Rachel Handforth

In the first event of the International Writing with Impact Network, we discussed collaborative writing with Dr Jonathan Wyatt from the University of Edinburgh. We used an interactive discussion tool, Telegram, to have a conversation about our experiences of engaging in collaborative writing, which can be found below. Jonathan’s papers and Carol and Rachel’s slides on the subject are also available under the relevant tabs.

Carol Taylor
You’ve been doing collaborative writing for a good while haven’t you?
Jonathan Wyatt
Ok. Yes. I’ve been doing collaborative writing since around 2005, when I first wrote a collaborative paper with Ken Gale for our doctoral programme.
That was our first publication – came out in 2007, I think.
Carol Taylor
Was that before you did your joint PhD? Which seems pretty ‘far out’ as a way of doing a doctorate?
Jonathan Wyatt
The Narrative Inquiry Centre in Bristol, where we were doing the doctorate, was already very active in collaborative writing. Jane Speedy and colleagues and other students.
So there was a culture there, already established, though still in its early days. That really helped.
Carol Taylor
I think one of the questions that interests me is – why do collaborative writing? it’s certainly not because its ‘easier’ than other forms of writing!
Jonathan Wyatt
We got through the system Ken and I doing a couple of joint assignments in the ‘taught’ part of the doctorate, so when we came to the thesis it all seemed straightforward – though it wasn’t. Jane Speedy had to work very hard behind the scenes.
Coming to your next question now!
Rachel Handforth
Were you encouraged to write your PhD collaboratively, or was this something you came round to eventually?
Carol Taylor
Doing a PhD seems to be about producing something that looks recognizable AS a PhD, which usually means an individually authored original entity, and a collaboratively written one is pushing at academic boundaries, on a number of fronts.
Jonathan Wyatt
There was encouragement but it came from us. Jane Speedy was supportive. We pushed at the door…
Yes, Carol, that’s the issue the University had with the finished product. We handed in and then the exams office were concerned. Someone senior had to approve we could be examined. Until then it had seemed easy enough: the School said as long as our different writing could be identified we could do it.
Carol Taylor
Yes, that hooks into the PhD as ‘giving and account of oneself’ as Butler would say. There’s also something about writing and feeling, isn’t there? A link between writing and identity too which I’m interested in exploring – how certain forms of writing call to us?
my spelling is going haywire as I’m typing fast!
Jonathan Wyatt
Never mind! And it’s difficult also to know which thread to follow. For example, Rachel, I think your question opens up further ones that Carol was referring to about motivation…
How did each of you come to collaborative writing?
Carol Taylor
I guess for me I love writing and I like working with people. Research can often be a lonely business so working and writing collaboratively seemed to emerge at the same time!
that’s ‘lonely’ …
It was also a way to learn from others in terms of working out what worked for me in terms of writing. Writing is skill, craft, inspiration, creativity etc but its so personal to us, and I always learn something about how to be a better writer through writing with others – as well as sharing exciting ideas along the way.
A key question is – who to do collaborative writing with? How do we choose our writing partners and why?
Rachel Handforth
For me it was something that came about through necessity really- I was recruited onto a research project at the Humanities Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University which investigated the representations of gender in popular music, and already had multiple researchers engaged in the work.
So potentially it isn’t always a choice- and my situation was interesting in the power dynamics of the collaboration. I hadn’t even begun my PhD and was working with a Professor and two research fellows
Jonathan Wyatt
So that leads me to think about what we mean by collaborative writing. And as you say, about power.
And to think about Carol’s question about how and whom we choose – sometimes there’s no choice!
Collaborative writing can be the more traditional form – two or more co-authoring a paper or book, where, say, one tends to take the lead and others chip in; or where the authors take different sections. (Richardson and St. Pierre did the latter for their Sage Handbook chapter on writing as inquiry in 2005.)
And then there’s how the Bristol groups often wrote together – by going away for a weekend and sitting in a room together and talking and writing around a particular theme
Carol Taylor
There’s also the writing I’ve done, which is where we sit at the computer and literally write each sentence together. That takes a long time – but all writing does. These are interesting things to think about! It might be that the more collaborative writing you do, the more ‘choice’ you may have over whom to work with but that might not be so if projects dictate outputs. There the first, second, third author question may also be about power dynamics.
Jonathan Wyatt
Yes, absolutely. One is – to be simplistic – more instrumental perhaps; the other more interested in the process itself…
I’ve never done the sitting at the computer thing… sounds agonizing!
Carol Taylor
In some ways it was – very time-consuming; in other ways, it was fun. We took breaks, we chatted, and got to know each other really well. That was the paper I did with Lindy Nahmad-Williams on mentoring.
Jonathan Wyatt
Yes, I can see how that could feel productive and enjoyable – that commitment to the task and to each other and to the process
Duoethnography, collective biography, collaborative autoethnography, collaborative nomadic inquiry, collaborative writing as inquiry… a few of the terms people have used to describe different approaches to collaborative writing. There are more.
Carol Taylor
The other way of doing collaborative writing is through virtual platforms. i’m doing one now with a bunch of people form USA, Italy, south of England, Manchester, Helsinki – it wouldn’t be possible otherwise, or at least not so easily!
Jonathan Wyatt
Like we’re doing right now too. Is this collaborative writing? Talking and responding to each other…? Some collaborative writing can read quite conversationally.
Carol Taylor
Jonathan, you’ve listed various different types of collaborative writing – I’d be interested to hear your views on the form, the ideas, and the writing collaborators/ partners.
Absolutely, this is a form of collaborative writing.
BUT writing, particularly academic writing for journals, is also subject to judgement and evaluation in ways that this sort of writing isn’t – particularly thinking of ‘quality’ criteria here (REF-type stuff).
Jonathan Wyatt
Yes, indeed. I know of some papers that have been written ‘in real time’ and submitted with only very little (or no) revisiting – and been accepted. In good journals too. Though I think that’s rare. Most collaborative writing papers require the same level of crafting and honing as any others.
Carol Taylor
What happens to the body when we’re writing in virtual platforms – like this, Onenote, etc, – it’s not absent but its not present either, like when I was writing in the room at the desk as when I was writing papers with Lindy and Rachel
Jonathan Wyatt
The differences between the approaches are slippery, I’d say. Some might position themselves within a more consciously humanistic autothnographic tradition (duoethnography, perhaps), while others are looking to do more theoretical work – decentring the subject, plugging in Deleuzoguattarian ideas concerning the subject (collective biography, nomadic inquiry).
And/or are positioning the approach as political – challenging the individualism of the academy, for example – some do this by ‘losing’ the individual author (the ‘Bristol Collaborative Writing Group’ has a paper under that name rather than the collection of people who contributed).
Carol Taylor
Can I come back to some questions which were implicit in what we were discussing earlier? There’s the collaborative writign that get’s done because we’re on a project for example, but let’s take up the question of the choice of partners – what makes a collaborative writing partnership work?
Also, want to respond to your earlier point Jonathan – our attachment to the ‘I’. This may be a Humanist ‘myth’ but it is deeply entwined in our identity as academics. indeed, we are continually required to produce ourselves within the mode of the competitive ‘I’ in the individualising, neoliberal academy. Do you see non-I collaborative writing pushing against these dynamics as well as doing something different with the actual writing?
Jonathan Wyatt
Hmmm…. yes….. going with the latter first
I would argue that (some) collaborative writing does that kind of work – and it’s not without its risk. Claudio Moreira and Marcelo Diversi tell (and write) the story about how in their collaboration an element of their resistance is to attempt to kick back against the notion first and second author. They can’t – we can’t – but they refuse to choose. They toss a coin. Claudio says that he was advised by his department (in the US) against collaborating with others as it would harm his tenure application. He didn’t take that advice – though did publish sole-authored papers too – and got tenure.
They’ve written together a lot – ‘Betweener Talk’ is their book
And, for me, it certainly feels like it’s a form of resistance. An act of activism, as Soyini Madison would say.
Carol Taylor
Great stuff! And that of course takes us into the politics of collaborative writing – as a feminist, collaborative writing does hold out political opportunities to work with and mentor emerging researchers – although the power dynamics there are not straightforward either.
Jonathan Wyatt
No, for sure. And I really appreciated being part of collaborative writing groups with more established scholars as a doctoral student – and publishing with them – and now seek to offer the same opportunities.
Rachel Handforth
That’s great to hear!
Carol Taylor
We’ve got about 10 minutes left for our chat so it would be great to think about two related questions. One I mentioned earlier – What makes a good writing partnership? And what difficulties might arise – and how to deal with them?
Jonathan Wyatt
Thanks, Rachel. We got a university grant to run a collaborative writing programme here last year – a group of us, early career researchers and me – have presented at seminars and at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry – very exciting.
Carol Taylor
Final reflections from each of us.?
Jonathan Wyatt
I think a shared commitment to the work – whatever it is – is one key element. So each contributes, not necessarily ‘equally’, but enough! Enough to work through the difficulties when they arise.
Rachel Handforth
That sounds fantastic Jonathan. I think for me a good writing partnership requires a commitment to be being absolutely frank (but obviously being tactful) about the aims of the project, things like authorship, and both being respectful of each other’s time and other commitments.
Jonathan Wyatt
Which they surely do. Ken Gale and I have this phrase we use, which is that whatever arises, whether it’s about something ‘out there’ or something between us, we ‘write to it’.
Trying as far as possible to work through the difficulties *by writing*
Carol Taylor
And Susanne Gannon and I have been talking about ‘writing into it’ It has been brilliant to share this conversation
Rachel Handforth
So writing as a method of problem-solving, I like that
Carol Taylor
Writing as a method of inquiry!
Rachel Handforth
Indeed!
Jonathan Wyatt
Yes, exactly! Although sometimes the problems might not be able to be ‘solved’ exactly but they can be worked at, worked with.
I like ‘writing into it’
Carol Taylor
Which is one of the exciting things about all writing – the best journeys don’t always have a detailed road map, a sometimes the detours turn into the best bits!
Jonathan Wyatt
Yes – that’s another thing to add about writing collaboratively too – how it/others take us by surprise
Surprise is not necessarily easy, of course…
Carol Taylor
I think what we’re getting at here is the idea of being open to where things take us – where the writing takes us – rather than where we take the writing. Which may sound counter-intuitive but as my marvellous PhD supervisor said ‘you don’t know what you know until you write it down’.
Rachel Handforth
And how sometimes the article you set out to write is very different from the one you end up writing!
Carol Taylor
Always!
Jonathan Wyatt
Yes to all this!
Carol Taylor
So, as we start to move things to a close, shall we each say a few words about our ‘take’ on collaborative writing, and what we each get out of it?
For me collaborative writing helps me get somewhere I couldn’t have got to on my own. Its about having space and time to work with others in a deeply considered way. And also a considerate way – it makes you take other views into account, and to deal with differences respectfully and tactfully. It always pushes my thinking on. It gives me leeway to experiment.
Jonathan Wyatt
I identify with all of that. So, to add to what you say, collaborative writing for me is hard, troubling, and joyous. I am addicted to it but also need to do other kinds of writing. I need to keep different kinds of writing space open. And it’s vital, important work. We have to keep doing it, keep publishing it, keep theorising it, keep exploring the work it can do.
Carol Taylor
Totally agree – and keep supporting others to do it too. We were all students once – still are in some ways.
Jonathan Wyatt
Exactly.
Carol Taylor
And finally … what about today’s collaborative writing discussion? Any thoughts?
Jonathan Wyatt
It’s gone very quickly and been very enjoyable. I’ve enjoyed having to think and respond quickly
Carol Taylor
Yes, its been great.
Jonathan Wyatt
go to the bathroom before it starts
Rachel Handforth
I’ve really enjoyed our discussion- and for me it has emphasized the political nature of collaborative writing, and has given me time to consider how and why we engage in these practices.
Jonathan Wyatt
Yes, working out the timing is tricky. As we’ve gone on I’ve found myself relaxing and not rushing so much, which has helped!
Carol Taylor
I need to go to the bathroom now!
There’s some great food for thought here. Now, must go and work on that article. Thanks both. See you soon.
Rachel Handforth
Thanks very much!
Jonathan Wyatt
Thanks to you too! Bye for now.