In the pandemic, with classes online, teams working remotely, and conference rooms empty, managing group work (and writing with a group) is a challenge across industries.
I’ve been taking on this challenge for the past few years as a teacher of policy writing. Despite student protestations, I continue to assign group papers. I probably do so because of the pushback, along with what I hear from alumni. They tell me that while they’re confident in their own writing abilities, they have no confidence—or rather systems—to write as a group.
These systems are highly important because most professional writing involves some sort of collaboration. To write well as a group, members must start by coming together to establish norms and procedures. For instance, it’s important to address how to write, not only what to write. Your entire group will more easily gain consensus, as well as relieve fears, when you collectively work through this element of “how.”
Understandably, team members like to understand the deadlines and see a path to completion. Clarify with which medium collaborative work will take place. Will writing happen within a Google Document that everyone can dump their writing into? Or will email make up most of the sharing? In essence—how will work get done?
Moreover, process is an important part of the puzzle. I encourage my students to think about the writing process as three layers: Planning, followed by writing, and then revising. An equal and efficient process saves enough time (so, well before a deadline) to sequence all team members through these three steps.
Planning is the hardest because it’s the most abstract. This is the moment when groups debate what to say with their work. These days, this is most likely happening over a Zoom meeting. Without agreement in this step, the report, opinion piece, or even presentation will fall apart. Once everyone understands the center of the argument, groups can discuss what tone to bring to their writing. For example, maybe the group is writing about post-pandemic climate change policy and deciding between a hopeful or disappointed tone. Either way, tone is the group’s “north star,” and it keeps everyone driving toward the same direction. With the main point and tone covered, team members can create and divide up the work and assign roles.
The literature on group writing recommends that team members assign roles narrowly; then rotate. This type of assigning process is more equitable, since the roles of “researcher,” “writer,” and “editor” do not equally distribute writing responsibilities and may not highlight talent within the group. Moreover, when one teammate is left out, collaboration may suffer from brewing resentment. Also worth mentioning, this set of three roles leave little room for one member to lead revisions—a crucial step to checking consistency and tone.
Overall, your roles should be defined early and equitably. Groups can match these roles with overall goals, to ensure they are met. In other words, if you want to be really compelling and hook the reader early, assign one person to check for and solidify the most compelling elements.
It works well to agree on the core message, tone, and roles directly, through a live video meeting. After you log off, rest your eyes and then prepare to work independently. When working on your own, use online platforms to keep in contact with your group, without disrupting real work from getting done. As video meeting fatigue sets in, groups often prefer to only come back together to iron out the very last kinks before a deadline. For example, some groups like to meet live to read a final draft through one last time.
When writing as a group, challenge yourself. Maybe you can switch gears from your comfortable role as “editor” to “data collector.” Look for opportunities to improve your writing. And be honest about your comfort zones and where you face difficulties, since this mindset can help your group divide work more evenly.
To make a success of group writing while remote, set new norms through planning meetings, divide up roles narrowly, rotate roles, and return to polish up your document through one final, joint video session.
Lauren Brodsky is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University. She teaches policy analysis and communications in the school’s degree and executive education programs.