What could be worse than team writing projects?

Joe Moses and Jason Tham

Is anything worse than team writing projects that sound like this?

Students

Where are we?
I thought you were doing that.
You spent three hours? That section is already done.
Where’s Alex?
Where’s Taylor’s feedback?
Where’s Pat’s research?
What happened to my beautiful paragraph?
Why are we doing this?
When will it be over?

We’ve asked students who don’t like team projects why they don’t like team projects, and they say they hate when other team members don’t do their share of the work, when they miss deadlines, or when they simply disappear.

Since we’ve been testing collaborative writing (CW) ideas in college classrooms, we have asked students to share the positives and negatives of team writing. In that time, we have identified something that’s much more difficult and stressful for students than collaborative writing.

Something more anguishing than having to share ideas with teammates and worrying about whether the ideas are going to sound stupid.

Something that leads to more daydreaming, binge watching, dog walking, spice-rack alphabetizing, and bathroom cleaning than any team writing project.

Something that is also, by the way, a serious contributor to writer’s block.

It’s a habit we pick up in school because most schools demand it, even though in many cases it’s a really bad idea:

It’s writing alone.

Alone with dozens of questions and no one to tell you which ones matter.

Alone with fears about writing, fears about failing, fears about being wrong.

Alone with the days that seemed so long just a few days ago and the hours you still had until just now — the final hour. And the minutes now counting down to the deadline convincing you that you are in fact the dope you suspected yourself to be.

Time is the vital, non-renewable resource. It’s an obsession for all of us. How should we spend it, save it, invest it? Time for learning, time for earning a paycheck, time for fun, friends, and family, time for thinking, reading, analyzing, writing, and rewriting.

Writing in teams changes everything about time. When working in teams, students can multiply the precious commodity of time. If one student has five hours to work on a writing project, 6 teammates X 5 hours each = 30 hours of intellectual energy. Teamwork multiplies the non-renewable resource.

Well, then you have to feel good about that. You should also think about why you like it and whether liking it is the same as excelling at it. Many students report a preference for writing alone because it’s less complicated. They don’t have to coordinate schedules with others or be held accountable to teammates. The thing is, academic and professional writing is no different from every other kind of work you will ever have to do: it requires coordinated effort and accountability to others. In that respect alone, collaborative writing is a truly authentic learning experience.

And in many respects, students who write alone miss vital learning opportunities. How might a your solo ways be limiting your exposure to diverse points of view? What are you missing out on by not subjecting your ideas to challenges from others? Teammates challenge each other in ways that individuals can’t challenge themselves, and that’s a good thing.

We think the advantages of team writing far outweigh the disadvantages and that so-called disadvantages are less problems than they are learning opportunities. Good writers, like good teammates, are good problem solvers, and collaborative writing problems are some of the best ones to take on because they prepare you for the world of work no matter what your field of interest.

Finally, writing together helps you overcome the most common obstacles for writers who work alone: thinking too narrowly about what to write; being easily distracted; holding yourself to unreasonable expectations that can lead to self-doubt, false perceptions of your own ability, recurring frustration, writer’s block, and missed learning opportunities.

Don’t take our word for it

Here’s what our students say they get out of working in collaborative writing teams:

Working in teams emphasizes the social aspect of learning that often leads to understanding of group dynamics and personal contribution to the whole.

  • Bouncing and building ideas off each other
  • Clarifying by talking with teammates
  • Learning that I can contribute to a team effort
  • Learning new skills from others
  • Finishing project faster/on time!

Many students don’t realize this at first, but writing in teams actually benefits them individually.

  • Developing my strengths
  • Gaining more insight into my writing skills individually and as part of a team
  • Reviewing and revising together
  • Seeing improvement while working together
  • Improving writing seeing peer examples

As for most collaborative projects assigned in college, instructors want students to practice working as a unit with shared goals. Collaborative writing helps students learn the intricacies of team dynamics.

  • Learning about communication with others
  • Using the skills at work and in other coursework
  • Learning better collaborative working skills such as communication and note keeping
  • Sharing documents helped us work more efficiently
  • Relaying important information to the whoever missed class

Our students report that collaborative writing results not only in collective achievement but in personal rewards.

  • Feeling more confident in myself
  • Bringing me out of my comfort zone
  • Feeling proud of our work together
  • Gaining appreciation that many documents are not authored by a single person but by a team of writers
  • Happily admitting my weaknesses because I know everyone has been in my shoes

Students share how much their teammates have helped them perform better as individual writers.

  • Having more confidence in my communication abilities
  • Gaining perspective on my talents and others’
  • Helping to eliminate some stress and anxiety
  • Scrutinizing my writing more carefully
  • Pushing me to work through boundaries

Stop using traditional writing process models for team-writing projects

Four ideas for creating a collaborative writing environment that works

5 collaborative writing roles that make sense — and some that don’t

How we use design thinking to support collaborative writing

Senior Lecturer, Writing Studies, University of Minnesota. Collaborative writer.

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