A Simple Hack for Productive Collaborative Authorship

I recently used GoogleDocs to write a grant proposal with a few other people, and during one particularly productive day we were able to make significant progress by trying out a process that involved working together simultaneously, assigning different parts of the document to different people. This process is a variation on Merlin Mann’s “Procrastination hack: ‘(10+2)*5’.” Essentially, it involves 5 repetitions of 10 minutes of focus on a task followed by a 2-minute break. However, instead of working alone, you work with others on the document you’re creating collaboratively. What follows is a description of that process.


  • Some discipline on the part of the collaborators. During the 10 minutes that everyone is writing, don’t stop to ask others questions, for example. Just write.
  • Everyone working on their own Internet-connected computer. Given the ease with which one can communicate in real-time with others online, it’s not necessary to be in the same physical location… although that wouldn’t hurt.
  • Everyone logged into the same GoogleDoc. Each person can see who has logged into the document by looking at the list of participants in the right-hand side of the screen. Real-time chat can also take place to the right of the document being written.
  • The document has already been outlined. I think this process would not work at the very early stages of creating a document… but it’s not like I have any research to back up that opinion.

The process

  1. Assign a given paragraph to each author. This is where the “already outlined” part comes in handy. If everyone understand what content needs to go in which part, then it’s easy to divide the writing of those different parts. Furthermore, if one person is especially knowledgable about a particular topic, then that person is the obvious candidate to tackle the part of the document concerning that topic.
  2. Set the timer for 10 minutes. You can use something like a kitchen timer that sits on the table in front of everyone, or one person can use a timer program on their computer. I’d recommend something that sounds a gentle “bong” when the time is up rather than a jarring alarm.
  3. Write for 10 minutes. Don’t talk. Don’t daydream. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you think what you’ve written is terrible. There will be time to spruce things up later. If someone needs to take a little more than 10 minutes, that’s probably okay, although too much of this runs the risk of throwing off the whole process.
  4. When the timer goes off, each author looks at another author’s paragraph and edits as necessary. Try not to talk too much during this step. Just make what you think the necessary changes are. You don’t need to justify the necessary changes.
  5. After 2 minutes of editing, move on to writing the next paragraph for the next 10 minutes. Again, if someone needs to take more than 2 minutes, that’s fine. But try not to do this too much

After an hour’s worth of work, you won’t have a perfect document, but you will have made a great deal of progress in a relatively short period of time. We found it to work pretty well for us.

How about you? If you’ve ever participated in collaborative authorship, what tips do you have for making the process more productive? Let’s hear from you in the comments!

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Joe Goldberg]

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