Cultural anthropologists have often conducted research and written solo, as “The Lone Ethnographer” (see Renato Rosaldo and also Sally Galman).  But as time goes on, I find that I enjoy working and writing with other people, and certainly the “participatory turn” has dragged many of us solo authors into the world of co-authorship.  Co-authoring mostly depends on the chemistry and dynamics of the people involved–when it works, it really works.  I love being able to work on a project and then bat if off to my co-author, have her/him/them work for a few days, and then have them turn around the draft.

There are team/time management considerations and tools that make this a LOT easier.

1) MANAGING EXPECTATIONS:  Also known as communicating and reflecting.  Before you even start, talk honestly about what your expectations are in terms of the timeline for completion, who does what, and order of authorship–and then periodically revisit these questions as needed.  For scholars from solo-authored traditions, the variety of ways to order authors is befuddling. Most go in order of effort–but that can be hard to establish until further into the project.  Economists go in alphabetical order regardless of contribution, and if asked, they state the percentage effort for each author (Labor economists have even studied the career advantage of an early-alphabet last name!).  Natural scientists have an elaborate hierarchy based on level of effort and who paid for it all with their grant money.  If there are multiple papers expected, folks often make a “you-go, I-go” deal on who gets to be lead author.  The point is, don’t wait until the last minute to discuss it.

2) MANAGING DOCS:  If you are writing the same chapter or article (not “you take this chapter, I’ll take the other”)–USE GOOGLE DOCS! Period.  The amount of time, frustration, and energy saved from tracking changes, merging, etc. is just huge.  If your partner balks, take the time to have an in-person training session to walk them through the process of using GoogleDocs.

3) MANAGING REFERENCES: Early in the process, especially if it is a book, come up with a way of managing the bibliography.  It could be as simple as a GoogleDoc file, but if it’s a co-authored book or a series of articles, it’s smart to invest some time in learning Zotero, RefWorks, Mendeley, on another online reference management system.  My co-author and I used EndNote, but merging files made our bibliography a bit clumsy.

4) MANAGING WORKFLOW, PART I: Whether you are in the same town or on different sides of the world, regularly scheduled check-ins are key.  So schedule a weekly check-in by skype or in person, and use it to come up with a division of labor, do-able tasks, and realistic deadlines.  This is how you stay tuned in to each other’s needs, ideas, and expectations.  You’ll need to be flexible–it’s inevitable that you or your partner may sometimes miss a week because of illness or being overwhelmed with other projects.  That’s fine, but get back in the saddle even for a short time the following week.  Just as in solo writing, chipping away at those little tasks moves you forward.

5) MANAGING WORKFLOW, PART II: Use a project management tool like–this helps a pair or group of people communicate and coordinate what you need to do, are doing, and have done already.  Trello is amazing discipline for task management.

6) THINKING TOGETHER: A lot of the joy of co-authoring is the escape from your own single perspective, which can become paralyzing in solo writing.  Once in a while, schedule an in-person workday–this might mean staying on an extra day at a conference if your partner lives far away.  It is well worth it to have that face-time for planning, structural edits, or combing through a draft.  If you can’t be in the same place very often, a collaborative visualization tool like allows you to have a shared online whiteboard with post-it notes for brainstorming and re-ordering ideas.
So that’s my advice.  In general, I am all for co-authoring–it’s basically adding a peer review to the writing process and can be a very positive experience. However, two kinds of partnerships that don’t work well:
1) A dynamic that can be tricky for junior faculty is writing with your former advisor and having to assert your grown-up status.  But this very much depends on the specifics of the relationship and being confident enough to state what YOU need.
2) A co-author who rarely works on the project, or who is less invested in publication but gets in the way of the other author.  If you find yourself in this situation, it’s time for a heart-to-heart with your co-author and develop a plan for finishing.  Otherwise, you may need to cut your losses.

Well, that’s all–I’d better get back to writing my draft before my co-author finds out I am blogging instead!

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