Efficient writing for teams

How to work well together when writing collaboratively

The pressure is on and we are all rushing around to get a grant application or report submitted on time. We have found (from bitter experience) that there are good and bad ways to do this as a team.

The usual approach seems to be to send round various drafts of the document by email but this soon leads to disaster, trying to keep everything in sync. Now, this will sound a bit rigid but we now use these rules to keep the tears to a minimum:

  1. Version control:
    1. who has the master copy? what is your starting document?
    2. avoid circulating drafts by email, especially in the early stages
    3. use a shared drive like OneDrive or Google Drive so everyone is working off the same doc
    4. edit in place — both of these drives will allow multiple team members to edit the doc at the same time. DO NOT DOWNLOAD IT. Edit it in the cloud.
  2. Track Changes:
    1. The old Microsoft way of doing things – it works but…
    2. use the Reviewing mode in OneDrive, or the Suggesting mode in GDrive, to make highlighted changes that can be accepted or rejected.
    3. Use Comments to
      1. ask questions and discuss semantics
      2. make notes about references and citations
      3. mark ToDo items
      4. DO NOT BURY these within the body text. Too easy to overlook.
  3. References
    1. Assign one person to do the Reference Wrangling
    2. Add enough info into the Comment when you add a reference so that the RefWrangler can find the correct citation
    3. Leave all reference formatting to the VERY END.
    4. Do not allow edits after the reference formatting is done. It is too easy to clobber them.
  4. Final drafts
    1. when you get down to fancy formatting, styles, word counts etc, move to a desktop version of the MS Word app – it is more powerful than the online version.
    2. Be careful re version control: you need to download the document to work on it this way. Others who make edits while this is offline will lose their changes.

If anyone is interested in exploring how to do this better, we wrote a more extensive article here, with some additional tips and tricks.