That's the Story of, That's the Glory of . . .:

Multiple Perspectives on Co-Authoring


Stanley B. Straw
Laura E. Atkinson
Sandy P. Baardman
Pat Sadowy

University of Manitoba

NOTE This manuscript was published as:

Straw, S. B., Atkinson, L., Baardman, S. P., & Sadowy, P. (1996). That's the story of, that's the glory of . . .: Multiple perspectives on co-authoring. English Quarterly, 28, 51-59

and is reproduced here with the permission of EQ. We're grateful.

We began writing this series of papers by writing reflections on our experiences with writing: our development as writers and what we saw as some important milestones in our development as writers, our teaching of writing and our observations of and about our students, our research on writing and our observations and interviews with our research consultants. All of us mentioned collaboration as one of our milestones, and each of us discussed co-authoring as one of the significant aspects of our becoming writers. What we have done here is to take up a number of issues related to collaboration and co-authoring mentioned in our reflections and to expand on their meanings to us.


To begin with, it is probably safe to say that we are all accomplished writers: we have all published our work in a variety of venues, we have all been intensely associated with editing a variety of publications, and, though we write very different things, we all write as one of our daily activities. Secondly, it is also probably safe to say that, because we study writing as well as participate in it, we are all very aware of the processes we employ in generating, molding, and finalizing written texts. Thirdly, we have all been intensely involved in collaborative/co-authoring situations, primarily the co-authoring of academic texts which have had specific goals (papers for publication, conference presentations, course development, technical reports, and the like) associated with them. In addition, we have all written academic texts alone (i.e., as a single author) and have written a variety of what we refer to as personal, expressive, fictive, or "literary" texts (none of which, by the way, have been co-authored, but more on that later). We also do a variety of other writing in our daily lives from songs, lyrics, poems, and stories to comments on students' papers. Finally, we have observed our students, colleagues, and research consultants as they have attempted, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully, to write collaboratively.

Some of us see co-authoring as more central to our writing than do others, but all of us feel that co-authoring has been a powerful means of developing academic texts. All of us use a collaborative pedagogy in our teaching to some extent, asking our students to read, respond to, and help revise one another's texts, both oral and written. And finally, all of us became involved in formal co-authoring circumstances through a mentoring relationship with someone who had more power than we did.

But, we have all seen collaboration/co-authoring as a powerful means of writing and as a means of informing our own writing processes. One of us, for example, said: "I gained more insight into my own writing as a result of the collaboration." Another person wrote about co-authoring: "My writing also changed because my understanding of what was going on when I wrote deepened. My understanding of writing and rhetoric grew more sophisticated." But not only have we become more aware of our own writing processes and, therefore, gained more control of them, we have also recognized the power that comes from being a member of a successful collaboration and of the power of the writing that is a result of co-authoring. One of our members talked about "the rich stew of collaboration" and then said: "I feel more at home in this group than anywhere I have yet been academically." All of us, at one point or another, talked about "how powerful collaboration is in writing." Another person wrote: "The most successful writing experiences I have ever had have been collaborative writing experiences. . . . I find co-authoring the most productive kind of writing I do."

The Nature of Collaboration and Co-authoring

Lunsford & Ede in their book Singular Tests/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing identify two "modes" of collaborative writing from the data in their studies: a "hierarchical" mode and a "dialogic" mode. They also describe a number of patterns of collaboration--from the writing group doing all of the work together, to one member assigning all of the tasks with individual members carrying out different tasks and one member compiling the parts and revising the whole.

From our research with students' writing collaboratively in a graduate course and from an "analysis" of our own reflections, we found that our collaborations and the collaborations of our students and consultants spanned the entire spectrum laid out by Lunsford and Ede. Each of us has observed and participated successfully in both of Lunsford and Ede's modes, and each of us describes participating in a variety of group patterns. None of us expressed a preference for any of the working arrangements; those arrangements were most often decided on based on the nature of the writing tasks and the expertise of the people participating in the collaboration. Furthermore, none of us expressed a feeling of "being cheated" as a result of these experiences.

We did, however, discover a mode of collaboration not identified by Lunsford and Ede, one we are calling "unauthorized" collaboration--that is, the help that one person gives another as a matter of personal or editorial support rather than as an explicit partner in writing. We have chosen the term "unauthorized" since these include collaborations that are not co-authorings. Many of the consultants in our graduate student study mentioned that "they would talk over ideas with their spouses, read text to these long-suffering folk, and compare what they said to what they had written." One of our members talked about this kind of unauthorized collaboration in referring to a friend she went to high school and university with and with whom she worked on all of her assignments. It was anathema, of course, for either of them to admit to co-authoring, so they subverted that in this way: "We discussed topics together, helped each other focus, traded drafts to detect lack of clarity, awkward phrasing, redundancy. Although we each ultimately submitted separate papers, as was required, we had no qualms about adding a sentence or two for one another, changing a word or a phrase, fixing spelling, and otherwise amending the other's paper to improve it. . . . It was our perpetual proximity to one another that resulted in natural, comfortable collaboration." Two of the four of us talked about using absent people as unknowing collaborators: "If I can't get going I pretend I'm explaining the topic to my mother. This always gets me going because she has always served as a patient and interested listener, and she is always eager for my success." Another person stated: "Because of the strong oral component associated with writing for me, I always imagine that I am speaking to someone (usually a real person who is somewhat critical) when writing."

We also talked about editing as a kind of collaboration that all of us engage in. One of us wrote: "Another landmark in my writing was when I began working with my own students as 'an editor' of their writing. Like many young academics, I was as committed to my students' writing as they were. I'm convinced that I worked as hard on their papers as they did--in some cases, I worked harder than they did. And my first co-authored pieces were with them, though that was never acknowledged. . . . Now, many people may think that editing is not writing (WRONG), and that an editor only edits (WRONG, AGAIN). Being a good editor means that you become a co-author again, though it is seldom acknowledged. That is, you take on the same commitment to a piece that the author took on, and you try to understand the writing from an authorial point of view." All of us have worked and continue to work as editors of other people's writing, in particular, of their academic texts. And though the academic world, at least in the humanities, values the motive for writing so much more than the molding of the text, editors are often seen as merely proofreaders. Our experiences with editing are usually that we spend fully as much time and energy as the author in working with the ideas and the textual realization of those ideas; we serve as "ghost co-writers" of the text. (Of course, this isn't true of all the texts we have edited, but it is true of many of them).

We should make it clear that the kind of unauthorized co-authoring we are talking about is much more substantive than asking a colleague to proofread the text or requesting a trusted friend to suggest a different wording. It is more akin to LeFevre's (1987) "collaborative perspective" (p. 50). This kind of co-authoring may or may not focus on a textual representation of ideas. That is to say, the co-authoring may center primarily on invention or working with the ideas or notions that will ultimately be contained in a piece of writing, such as having a discussion with a colleague over coffee. Or, the co-authoring may be primarily text-centered. Our point is that much collaboration takes place -- from the initial generation of ideas, largely unformed, through the forming of those ideas, through the casting of ideas in a general organizational form, to the generation of early texts, to revision, to editing -- that is unauthorized and usually unacknowledged. In fact, sometimes we are unaware of when co-authoring has taken place because we are unable to trace the tracks of our own invention. When such help is acknowledged, it is often a note of thanks for support rather than an acknowledgement of another's roles in the generation and crafting (i.e., the authoring) of text.

This unauthorized collaboration was evident in the academic work we were doing. Not only did we recognize that we bounced ideas off of one another constantly, and then incorporated those perspectives in our own writing, we identified specific instances of it. One of us said: "Even when I have had singly-authored pieces published, those pieces were written in collaborative frameworks--that is, I was in the midst of an active collaboration about the material while I was writing the pieces. . . . I remember a day when a colleague and I had been 'working it over' in her office. I left that meeting really revved up, and, on the back of an envelope wrote the skeleton of a section of the chapter I was working on on the subway on the way home. I could never have written what I did if we hadn't been arguing over whatever the issue it was that we were arguing over. Clearly, she is as responsible for the ideas in the text as I am. Though the text is mine, the ideas are ours."

This additional mode of collaborating, from imagining explaining something to your mother, to reading aloud to your spouse or partner, to arguing ideas in a colleague's office, is, in many ways, a problematic one in that we have little means of giving appropriate credit for such help and support. Is a mere thank you at the bottom of the first page of an article adequate? Is co-authorship always required, even if the person isn't in the discipline? What level of support and help needs to be formally recognized? This was expressed by one of the reflections: "Part of what I am now trying to do is to recognize that all writing is collaborative and give credit to those people who collaborate with me. Instead of saying, 'You've given me an idea, I think I'll write that down,' I now say, 'You've given me an idea, why don't we write it down.'"

Of course, there is the problem of people not wanting recognition, even when they have played a significant role in the development of the text, or when we see our texts as so "personal" that we do not want to admit to collaboration. This became most obvious when our discussions moved away from the academic writing that we do to the more personal, expressive, or fictive writing that we do: "One day, a colleague and I were futzing with a poem that I'd written. If we had done as much with a paper of mine, I would have called her a co-author, but I didn't think of her as a co-author of that poem, even though the changes she made are still a part of it." "I do know that if I began to write academic papers differently, infusing an aesthetic element, if I began to craft them, that would all change. There would NOT be an open invitation for other to come in on a collaboration. What's more, I would see them as much more my texts."

There is some question, of course, whether or not this kind of unauthorized collaboration should really be seen as a kind of co-authoring. One of us wrote in response to another's writing: "The ideas in a paper have been collaboratively developed, so the text itself is automatically assumed to be a result of that collaboration. But suddenly I am questioning whether or not all texts are collaboratively written merely because all texts arise out of some sort of interaction. . . . I want to say that some utterances, especially those which I have deliberately and self-consciously crafted, are mine." How far back must we reach in order to recognize (at least publicly) our debt in the invention process. If we are, in fact, (to mangle and misquote Tennyson) a part and a product of all that we have met, and if, in fact, as Lefevre argues, invention is profoundly social, how can we fairly recognize others' contributions to the development of the ideas presented in our writing? And furthermore, how critical are the dialogues we have with one another in developing our ideas? We have all had the experience of becoming "inspired" to write something because we heard someone else postulate what we thought was a very wrong-headed point of view. Does that person qualify as a co-author even though s/he may vehemently disagree with your perspective? As one of our group said, "I have to ponder this."

In addition to this unauthorized mode of collaboration, we also found numerous examples of the two modes, hierarchical and dialogic, that Lunsford and Ede identify. Most often, the hierarchical mode was evident when one of us was working with our mentor/s, while the more dialogic mode was evident when we were working with someone we perceived as an equal. One of our group described writing a research article with her Master's advisor, a collaboration that was certainly hierarchical: "I worked with my advisor on a research project in which I did field observations and interviews. . . . I wrote copious notes on my visits and observations and later wrote up, for him, all the material I had gathered that related to the particular themes he was interested in. He wrote the introduction and literature review, included material that he had gathered in a third classroom and wrote the conclusion. The resulting article was published." Another person wrote about working with her advisor. She stated: "Part of the problem of working with others is power. Who wants power? How do we get it? Why do we want it? How do we use it when we finally get it? There was no doubt who had the power in our consortium."

This issue of power, however, does not mean that those hierarchical collaborations were not very productive for all of us. One person wrote about the hierarchical collaborations: "Through his sponsorship, I began to see myself in relation to my discourse community differently. My writing also changed, and my understanding of writing and rhetoric grew more sophisticated. . . . This is a powerful thing to have happen. I felt protected and privileged. . . . I have always taken advantage of my mentor's status when it came to writing. . . . I have been able to share in the prestige of doing it, but I didn't necessarily have to share in the risks. If things didn't go right, I was always the novice, the little guy along for the ride. It was always the mentor who would be responsible for what went wrong, so I could act with relative freedom, take risks, and be free from worry." As Lunsford and Ede point out, "The hierarchical mode can be, and indeed often is, realized in situations that locate power in structurally oppressive ways. . . . But the hierarchical mode can also comprise scenes of shared power and authority and lead not only to efficiency but to great job satisfaction." (134)

One of our members wrote when writing about working with a former teacher and a former student: "I think the difficulty arises for me in part because of a shadow of a feeling that I am still being evaluated. Consciously I know that this is not true, but it is a feeling I am conditioned to. I know that the former teacher does not grade me any more than I grade the former student." In our survey of graduate students working together, we found that it was not necessarily hierarchical collaborative modes that were problematic, but when different members of the collaborative team did not share the same sense of hierarchy or when a hierarchy was imposed on someone without his/her consent and agreement.

We also have all been involved in dialogic modes of collaboration. All four of us wrote about dialogic collaborations; however, two people in the group who have collaborated on a number of writing projects provide the best description of how this has worked for us. One of the members talked about the success of that collaboration and said: "Part of the success of our collaboration, I think, came from the fact that in many ways we were equals, working at similar levels." This is clearly a different kind of collaboration than that described in the hierarchical relationships above. In describing their working relationship, one of the co-authors stated: "Generally, he had more background and general knowledge than I did, but I had a different perspective on the material and could play 'devil's advocate' because the concepts that he took for granted weren't always obvious to me. . . . This seemed to work really well and we had some lively and interesting discussions. . . . Once we got down to actually writing, we really did collaborate. We would work independently on our computers but phone each other frequently to talk over progress and difficult points. . . . It was not my style at all to discuss what I was writing with anyone and sometimes I was initially reluctant to pull things apart that had just been put together. But invariably these sessions were enjoyable and productive. Several times we talked through approaches and ideas that had been raised and dealt with in our discussions but that came up again in the writing. We read text to each other over the phone and gave each other encouragement. We praised each other for writing and thinking ability. . . . Finally we sat side by side at the computer and worked together on the text. . . . We both read together and decided on changes, taking turns dictating linking sentences and modifications to the various texts, and working to combine, correct, and harmonize. . ."

These kinds of collaborations take an immense amount of time and energy as can be seen from the above description. However, all of us have agreed that our collaborations have resulted in more papers being written than if we had written individually, and generally resulted in better papers.

Again, it should be noted that these experiences were all around academic texts of one sort or another. There is clearly a different feeling about co-authoring when it comes to more expressive, personal, literary, or fictive texts. We feel that our own experiences are our own and cannot be co-authored or told collaboratively. Though we share our personal writing, appreciate interested and meaningful feedback, and even let others help us revise that writing, we do not "invite others in" to be co-authors in the same way as we do when writing academic texts. Although we seem to have given up "the concept of authorship as an inherently individual activity" (Lunsford & Ede, 73) in our academic writing, we have been unable to give up that Cartesian notion of identity as it is associated with more "literary" texts. Somehow we have not entirely escaped the privileged position of the author (and his/her associated authority) in the literary text. It is interesting that a group of people so dedicated to collaboration in teaching and co-authoring in one venue are so individualistic in another in that we privilege our own aesthetic experiences over those shared with others.

Personal or fictive texts seem more resistant to being co-authored than do academic texts, though all of us agree that we employ a great deal of unauthorized collaboration in working with all of the texts we write, regardless of venue. Though we may seek collaboration in writing literary texts, we have a greater commitment to those texts and so they are less likely to become co-authored texts. Furthermore, the collaboration we offer others in working with their expressive, personal, or fictive texts may be qualitatively different than the collaboration we offer for academic texts. Our discussions have led us to conclude that we may collaborate differently depending on the kind of texts any one of us may be attempting to create. The personal, literary texts we work on together may require a more unauthorized mode of collaboration than the academic texts we write. This may be the reason that Lunsford & Ede did not identify this mode of collaboration from their data with professionals writing for professional purposes.

Feelings about Collaborations and Co-authoring

You've got to give a little,
Take a little,
And let your poor heart break a little. . . .

You've got to laugh a little,
Cry a little,
Until the clouds roll by a little. . . .

You've got to win a little,
Lose a little,
And always have the blues a little.

That's the story of
That's the glory of. . . .

Though Billy Hill's lyrics were written about love, in many ways they characterize many of the feelings associated with collaboration and co-authoring. One must have a similar kind of trust, respect, and commitment needed in a love relationship for a co-authoring situation to work successfully (though many of the respondents to the Lunsford & Ede survey might find this very problematic). As one of our members stated: "I'm enjoying the collaboration and I'm anxious as hell about it."

In our study of graduate students collaborating on coursework papers together, one of the major problems was the lack of trust and respect that some members of the collaborative groups had for other members of their group. In our own experiences, we clearly observed that co-authoring experiences were successful when all members of the group trusted and respected one another and were equally committed to the project. Trust is related to whether a person sincerely and fully participates in the collaborative venture, regardless of the power circumstances among members of the group.

All of us expressed some trepidation when faced with our initial co-authoring circumstances. One of our members stated: "When we began talking about trying to implement for ourselves the kind of collaborative writing that everyone recommends for young children at the elementary level, I was not enthusiastic. . . . I was afraid of losing control over one of the processes in my writing that I had always had complete confidence in." Another person wrote: "I didn't want to get teamed up with someone. . . who would let me down or make me do all the work. I didn't want the extra hassle."

This person went on to talk about other group work she had been involved in during her educational experience and stated: "Some group work I had found frustrating because my group members had different ideas or were not interested in some topics in the way I was. . . . Sometimes I had been in groups with members who did not do their share." In a more positive statement, another member talked about what he considered his first collaborative experience: "In retrospect, I realize that this was the first time that I had ever written collaboratively though it wasn't called that. I will admit that the level of collaboration was at a pretty low level, but it was the first time that I realized that someone else was as committed to my writing as I was--It made a difference to him whether I achieved clarity in my writing, and he was willing to take some of the responsibility for achieving clarity. My writing, suddenly, had become our writing--a giant step for me."

A number of people talked about how co-authoring would make them lose control of their own writing processes: "The idea of writing something as a group was not attractive mainly because I thought there was nothing I could gain from it. I thought that collaborative writing would be harder and take more time than writing alone. Also there was something I was afraid that I would lose. That something in jeopardy was control." After working in the collaborative setting, however, this person had different responses to the co-authoring situation: "I really enjoyed having a colleague to work with and realized that I had seldom approached this kind of working partnership with anyone let alone a fellow student. . . . Another important side benefit was the way that working collaboratively allayed many of my typical anxieties about writing. This partly occurred because my partner was invariably positive when we faced difficulties but also because I knew very quickly that I could rely on the quality of his work." Another person in our group talked about the problems associated with co-authoring: "One has to get to know the other writers--what their writing style is, how they think, what their expectations of a task are, what their strengths are, what their difficulties are. Much of this is very hard to figure out and often makes the task like walking on eggshells. But the power of mutual decision making is strong--secure and reinforcing. I love being part of a group for the power it affords me and for the sense of belonging I get."

We found on a number of occasions that co-authoring circumstances were not successful when there wasn't a feeling of trust and respect among the co-authors. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that some of the most successful continuing co-authoring circumstances have been between pairs of people. It's often hard to find entire groups of people that have mutual respect for and trust in one another. Furthermore, there needs to be a trust in the value of collaboration. In our study of graduate students, a number of them did not believe that writing collaboratively would result in a better paper. In fact, they believed it would result in a far weaker paper with serious jumps between "voices." One of our group members, however, who has been collaborating successfully for a long time wrote: "This was especially true of the chapter we wrote for an editor. I felt some ownership for that and felt some confidence in writing it. If I had been going about it individually I surely would have done many things differently, but I know that, ultimately, it would have been a weaker product. Because we were all able to contribute areas of expertise, the content is much richer than any one of us alone could have created. Also, because it was revised by us all it became more precise and accessible to our intended audience. . ."

The second issue--commitment--has a number of interesting twists to it. While co-authoring may very well increase the commitment of the members to one another and to the task, we found that co-authoring often decreases the authors' commitment to the text, though these same people may have tremendous commitments to their personal, expressive, or fictive texts. In terms of increasing the commitment of the co-authors to the task, one of our group wrote: "My collaborations are more for the need to be with the people than they are for the quality of the writing. My collaborative involvements help me produce by providing deadlines and goals. I accomplish something in part because someone is expecting it. I am not sure if this is good or bad, though it is mostly good." On the other hand, all but one of our group talked about co-authoring decreasing one's commitment to the text itself since the text had to be open to negotiation. One person stated that: "One odd result was that I didn't feel that I owned the papers that I wrote collaboratively in the same way that I owned the ones I wrote alone." Another person wrote: "Although I value the products created collaboratively, I do not necessarily feel a strong ownership of them."

A number of statements by members of our group suggest that a lack of textual commitment is a necessary pre-requisite for successful co-authoring. One of us stated: "I met and wrote collaboratively with my co-author, learning gradually to see invention and not text production as the central issue in writing." Interestingly, this person said to her co-author: "As a collaborator you are generous to a fault and may need to be more attached to your text, to make it more uniquely your own." The co-author wrote: "When I am writing an academic paper, I would invite ANYONE who has anything intelligent to say, to come in and work with the text. . . . These texts are manifestations of the broader discourse of my professional life. I do not see them as belonging to me AT ALL." This is the same person, however, who stated above that when writing aesthetically, "there would NOT be an open invitation for other to come in. What's more, I would see them as much more my texts." In our discussions, furthermore, we have talked about how, in the successful co-authoring circumstances, the text must remain open and pliable in order for the blending of voices to happen that becomes a successfully-written co-authored text. One of us wrote: "I also began to write in collaboration with others. More than anything, the effect of this was that my relationship to text has changed significantly. I became somehow dissociated from the texts that I wrote. They became mutable, alterable, and subtly disconnected from me. There is little ownership." So, when co-authoring, we really do have to give a little, take a little, and let our poor heart break . . .

But like love, perhaps, its absence is more frightening than its presence. One of our members wrote about taking time off to become a "professional writer," attempting to do this by retiring to solitude in order to write: "It was horrible. The lonely writer in the garret. Did I mention that it was horrible?"

Works Cited

Lefevre, K. B. Invention as a social act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Lunsford, A. & Ede, L. Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.