How to write in teams (without losing your sh*t)

 

At a Grade 8 parent-teacher conference, my math teacher told my mom that I needed to "lower my standards."

Here's why: those of us who were a little ahead in math class got to work on a special project during the Winter Olympics. I was INTO IT. And I wanted everyone else to be into it, too. (Told you: I'm a die-hard Olympics fan)

So. Like any enthusiastic 13-year-old, I started directing the group. I wanted it done MY WAY. There's a story here about gender norms for young girls that probably belongs in Sheryl Sandberg's next book, but for today's purposes, it's probably fair to assume that I was being an a--hole about it. Which is (one of the reasons) why my math teacher told my mom that I needed to play nice.

I can still picture that determined, industrious little pre-teen with her poster boards and scissors, barking at everyone else to get it right. On a BONUS project. For FUN. This kills me.

Turns out that you can't run from who you are.

I might have a little more self-control now than I did back in eighth grade, but the desire to do things my way still runs pretty deep.

Which can make writing in teams kinda tricky.

 

Whether you're writing a grant proposal, an academic journal article, or another big project, it's likely that at some point you'll share the workload with someone else (or many someones).

 

There are some big advantages to writing in teams: mostly, it's that many hands make light work. But there can also be a huge benefit to having intellectual contributions from many different people. (This can also be a disadvantage. See above re. Winter Olympics Bonus Project.)

Sometimes, though, writing in teams can be brutal. It's disorganized, it's chaotic, two people write the same thing, there are disagreements. If you're writing for a deadline, it's like Lord of the Flies.

No matter how you feel about writing in teams, you're probably going to have to do it more than once. I've had a ton of practice with this over the years, and I've learned a few things about team writing that prevent me from losing my sh*t:

 

1. Somebody's gonna need to be in charge

(And that someone is ME.)

Seriously, though, you will need someone to lead the writing team. This is essential for a few reasons:

  • Someone needs to set internal deadlines for team members
  • Someone needs to follow up with each writer to make sure they're on track
  • Someone needs to make the final decisions about the writing project
  • Someone needs to be responsible for getting it out the door

It's nice to think that this can be done by consensus, but in my experience this just doesn't work. It's much easier if the team can choose one person to lead. And it should be someone who's willing to crack the whip when necessary.

 

2.Give everyone a job

Everyone on the writing team needs two things:

  1. A specific task
  2. A deadline

Tasks should be assigned according to preference and aptitude. Let's face it: people are just happier doing things that they like doing. So wherever possible, assign tasks based on people's preferences.

Dividing the writing into tasks is something that generally goes better when it's done by consensus. Everyone gets a say on what they'd like to write, and sections can be assigned based on those requests.

Then it's up to the leader to set a deadline and hold people to it. See what I mean about whip-cracking?

 

3. For Pete's sake, talk to each other

If you've ever worked in an office, you'll know that most face-to-face meetings are a waste of time. Anything useful can be condensed into about 15 minutes.

One of the few exceptions to this is writing team meetings. Especially before you start writing. But periodic check-ins throughout the writing process are useful—and pretty much critical when you're writing for a deadline.

Most communication can happen by email or on productivity platforms like Basecamp or Asana, but if you're able to sit down together and hash things out, this can really speed up some of the online back-and-forth.

 

4. one person needs to make the team sound like one person

Designate an editor on the team to pull all the writing together. It should not surprise you that I ended up in this anchor position on most of the team writing I did (see lesson #2 above re. doing a job you like).

This is important for a few reasons:

  • One person needs to have a bird's-eye view of the whole writing project to make sure it hangs together logically and isn't redundant
  • People have different writing styles. It's important to make the sections sound cohesive
  • Someone needs to do a final check to make sure everything got covered

This is important: no one else should be working on the document when it's in this final editing stage. This is why you need those internal deadlines: to get everything in to the editor.

Leave time for a final review by all the team members, and then it's ready to be sent in.

So there you have it. Four ways to make writing in teams go a lot more smoothly. No more Lord of the Flies, and no more losing your sh*t. Hopefully.

 

What has team writing been like for you? What will you do differently from now on? Tell me in the comments!