13 – Collaborative Writing

Collaborative Writing Processes

Suzan Last; Candice Neveu; Kalani Pattison; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Matt McKinney

Collaborative projects are common in many fields and disciplines, as individuals with various realms of expertise work together to accomplish goals and create projects. Writing is a key part of communication that enables these projects to happen, but it also is often the —the final product that a team can pass on to another team, to executives and administrators, to consumers, or to the public. Working as a team to write a document usually means that each individual writes less content. However, to create a coherent document written in one voice, teams must plan carefully and revise thoughtfully.

The following section examines in more depth how writing in general, and collaborative writing specifically, is crucial to engineering. Engineering is a field that is often perceived as entailing a relatively small amount of writing. However, as you will see in this following section, such perceptions are often misinformed. The same misperceptions may also take place regarding other fields, so you should think about how this engineering-specific information might apply more widely to your discipline.

The engineering design process, at least in part, entails working collaboratively to gather, organize, manage, and distribute information.[1] This information is often carefully analyzed and used to make important decisions, so it is critical that team members collaborate effectively in managing these communications tasks.

Engineers report spending a considerable amount of their time writing, and they frequently engage in collaborative writing. A recent survey asked various professionals what portion of their work week was devoted to writing, collaborative writing, and international communications.[2] The results shown in Table 13.5 indicate that collaborative writing makes up a significant portion of overall writing tasks.

Table 13.5. Percentage of total work week that engineers and programmers report spending on communications tasks.

Activity % of Work Week for Engineers % of Work Week for Programmers
Time spent writing 35 25
Time spent planning and writing documents collaboratively 19 12
Time spent communicating internationally (across national borders) 14 18

Research has also shown that “writing in general and [collaborative writing] in particular have been recognized to be fundamental to most professional and academic practices in engineering.”[3] Figure 13.4[4] shows that engineers rate writing skills as extremely important to career advancement.[5]

This figure shows a pie chart that depicts survey data from employers in the engineering sector ranking the importance of writing for career advancement as follows: Extremely Important: 37% Very Important: 36% Moderately Important: 20% Slightly Important: 5% Not at All Important: 2%
Figure 13.4. The importance of writing for career advancement for surveyed engineers.

Like any kind of teamwork, collaborative writing requires the entire team to be focused on a common objective. According to Lowry et al., an effective team “negotiates, coordinates, and communicates during the creation of a common document.”[6] The collaborative writing process is iterative and social, meaning the team works together and moves back and forth throughout the process.

Collaborative Writing Stages and Strategies

Successful collaborative writing is made easier when you understand the collaborative writing strategies you can apply, the best ways to manage a document undergoing revisions, and the different roles people can assume. Figure 13.5[7] outlines the various activities involved at various stages of the collaborative writing process.

1) Team Formation Team introductions, getting to know each others’ skill sets Team bonding, building trust Operating agreements, setting expectations 2) Team Planning Review tasks to be done and roles of each team mate, create a work plan Set team goals and objectives: milestones, deliverables, due dates Determine processes for workflow and decision making 3) Document Production Plan the document: research, brainstorm, outline the document format and content Compose a draft of the document Revise: iterative revisions, consider using an outside peer reviewer 4) Wind Up Final document review to edit and approve content, organization, and style Final document processing (proofreading and submitting) External approval
Figure 13.5. Four stages of collaborative writing

Collaborative writing strategies are methods a team uses to coordinate the writing of a collaborative document. There are five main strategies: single-author, sequential, parallel writing: horizontal division, parallel writing: stratified division, and reactive writing. Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. Effective teams working on longer term projects tend to use a combination of collaborative writing strategies for different points of the project. When planning to switch between writing strategies, it is important to make sure the team is communicating clearly regarding which strategy will be used for which task. See Table 13.6[8] for a detailed breakdown of these strategies, their advantages, and disadvantages. Can you think of any other benefits or limitations?

Table 13.6. Collaborative writing strategies.

Writing Strategy When to Use Pros Cons

One member writes for the entire group.

For simple tasks; when little buy-in is needed; for small groups Efficient; consistent style May not clearly represent group’s intentions; less consensus produced

Each member is in charge of writing a specific part and write in sequence.

For asynchronous work with poor coordination; when it’s hard to meet often; for straightforward writing tasks; small groups Easy to organize; simplifies planning Can lose sense of group; subsequent writers may invalidate previous work; lack of consensus; version control issues

Members are in charge of writing a specific part but write in parallel. Segments are distributed randomly.

When high volume of rapid output is needed; when software can support this strategy; for easily segmented, mildly complex writing tasks; for groups with good structure and coordination; small to large groups Efficient; high volume of output Redundant work can be produced; writers can be blind to each other’s work; stylistic differences; doesn’t recognize individual talents well

Members are in charge of writing a specific part but write in parallel. Segments are distributed based on talents or skills.

For high volume, rapid output; with supporting software; for complicated, difficult-to-segment tasks; when people have different talents/skills; for groups with good structure and coordination; small to large groups Efficient; high volume of quality output; better use of individual talent Redundant work can be produced; writers can be blind to each other’s work; stylistic differences; potential information overload

Members create a document in real time, while others review, react, and adjust to each other’s changes and additions without much preplanning or explicit coordination.

Small groups; high levels of creativity; high levels of consensus on process and content Can build creativity and consensus Very hard to coordinate; version control issues

Document management reflects the approaches used to maintain version control of the document and describe who is responsible for it. Four main control modes (centralized, relay, independent, and shared) are listed in Table 13.7, along with their pros and cons. Can you think of any more, based on your experience?

Table 13.7. Document control modes.

Mode Description Pros Cons
Centralized When one person controls the document throughout the process Can be useful for maintaining group focus and when working toward a strict deadline Non-controlling members may feel a lack of ownership or control of what goes into the document
Relay When one person at a time is in charge but the control changes in the group Democratic Less efficient
Independent When one person maintains control of their assigned portion Useful for remote teams working on distinct parts Often requires an editor to pull it together; can reflect a group that lacks agreement
Shared When everyone has simultaneous and equal privileges Can be highly effective; non-threatening; good for groups working face to face, who meet frequently, who have high levels of trust Can lead to conflict, especially in remote or less functional groups

Roles refer to the different duties participants might undertake, depending on the activity. In addition to whatever roles and responsibilities that individual team members performed throughout other stages of the project, the actual stages of composing and revising the document may require writing-specific roles. Table 13.8 describes several roles within a collaborative writing team. Members of small teams must fill multiple roles when prewriting, drafting, and revising a document collaboratively. Which role(s) have you had in a group project? Are there ones you always seem to do? Ones that you prefer, dislike, or would like to try?

Table 13.8. Collaborative writing roles.

Role Description
A person who is responsible for writing a portion of the content
A person external to the project and who has no ownership or responsibility for producing content, but who offers content and process-related feedback (peer reviewers outside the team; instructor)
A person who is responsible for the overall content production of the writer, and can make both style and content changes; typically has ownership of the content production
A person, internal or external, who provides specific content feedback but is not responsible for making changes
A person who is part of the team and may fully participate in authoring and reviewing the content, but who also leads the team through the processes, planning, rewarding, and motivating
A person external to the team who leads the team through processes but doesn’t give content related feedback

This text was derived from

Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


  1. Susan McCahan, Phil Anderson, Mark Kortschot, Peter E. Weiss, and Kimberly A. Woodhouse, “Introduction to Teamwork,” in Designing Engineers: An Introductory Text (Hoboken, NY: Wiley, 2015), 14.
  2. Jason Swarts, Stacey Pigg, Jamie Larsen, Julia Helo Gonzalez, Rebecca De Haas, and Elizabeth Wagner, Communication in the Workplace: What Can NC State Students Expect? (Raleigh: North Carolina State University Professional Writing Program, 2018), https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pMpVbDRWIN6HssQQQ4MeQ6U-oB-sGUrtRswD7feuRB0/edit#heading=h.n2a3udms5sd5. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  3. Julio Gimenez and Juliet Thondhlana, “Collaborative Writing in Engineering: Perspectives from Research and Implications for Undergraduate Education,” European Journal of Engineering Education 37, no. 5 (2012): 471-487, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03043797.2012.714356
  4. Adapted from Jason Swarts, Stacey Pigg, Jamie Larsen, Julia Helo Gonzalez, Rebecca De Haas, and Elizabeth Wagner, Communication in the Workplace: What Can NC State Students Expect? (Raleigh: North Carolina State University Professional Writing Program, 2018), 5, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pMpVbDRWIN6HssQQQ4MeQ6U-oB-sGUrtRswD7feuRB0/edit#heading=h.n2a3udms5sd5. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  5. Jason Swarts, Stacey Pigg, Jamie Larsen, Julia Helo Gonzalez, Rebecca De Haas, and Elizabeth Wagner, Communication in the Workplace: What Can NC State Students Expect? (Raleigh: North Carolina State University Professional Writing Program, 2018), 5, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pMpVbDRWIN6HssQQQ4MeQ6U-oB-sGUrtRswD7feuRB0/edit#heading=h.n2a3udms5sd5. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  6. Paul Benjamin Lowry, Aaron M. Curtis, and Michelle René Lowry, “Building a Taxonomy and Nomenclature of Collaborative Writing to Improve Interdisciplinary Research and Practice,” Journal of Business Communication 41, no. 1 (2004): 66-97, https://doi.org/10.1177/0021943603259363.
  7. Adapted from Suzan Last and Candice Neveu, “Collaborative Writing Stages,” in “Collaborative Writing,” Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  8. Adapted from Suzan Last and Candice Neveu, “Collaborative Writing Strategies,” in “Collaborative Writing,” Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The original authors note that this table is adapted from Paul Benjamin Lowry, Aaron Curtis, and Michelle René Lowry, “Building a Taxonomy and Nomenclature of Collaborative Writing to Improve Interdisciplinary Research and Practice,” Journal of Business Communication 41, no.1 (2004): 66-97, https://doi.org/10.1177/0021943603259363.

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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by Suzan Last; Candice Neveu; Kalani Pattison; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Matt McKinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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