Write. Wrangle. Repeat: The Joys and Frustrations of Co-Writing

Hanna Leonardsson | 23 June 2020

In October of last year, a group of ten scholars at the School of Global Studies initiated a process to collaboratively write a research application for the Formas call on ‘Realising the SDGs’. As part of the coordinating node of the group, I will tell you the story of how we made it happen, what we learned, and whether we would do it again.

In academia, or at least our corner of the social sciences, we value collective input to our writing. However, we rarely write or produce text in collaboration, and particularly not in larger constellations of five or more contributors. This is somewhat a characteristic of the social sciences where we are encouraged to collaborate but where ‘academic institutional processes […]privilege individual achievement, progression, and promotion’ (Gale & Wyatt, 2016, p. 355). Thus, to write collectively requires the right motivation. In our case, the call, asking for transdisciplinary constellations in the quest for knowledge on how to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provided such motivation.

I will not dwell on how the group of scholars was formed, but what matters for understanding how the writing process unfolded is that they were a group of people who had not worked together in this constellation before. Also, they incorporated knowledge from the different academic disciplines present within the school: from social anthropology to environmental social sciences, peace and development research to human rights. To steer the work of the larger group, Annica Kronsell, Anders Burman, and myself were part of the coordinating group who planned the initiation of the collaboration, managed the process, and took final decisions. Our main resource was a shared online folder with the instructions to save your changes as a new document, including your initials and date in the title.

As we formalised the group in November 2019, we initiated a co-writing process. After our first meeting, we asked the participants to make sure they entered their CV and publications into the online application system Prisma. A simple and individual task it seemed, but we soon moved into writing in a way that required more from the participants. Departing from a first sketch of the application drawn up by the coordinating group, all co-writers took turns owning the text for 24 hours. The aim was to create a feeling of ownership over the application among all members of the group. The instructions were simple: the text is yours to add, delete, or change in any way you see fit. You can add comments, but you are also asked to address comments raised by the writer before you. Keep track of the number of characters allowed in the application. And, send it back to Hanna at latest 7.30 am the next day. With these instructions, we foresaw a process where each author would add their expertise on application writing and knowledge from complementary fields. Through that knowledge, they would answer each other’s concerns along the way. As simple as the instructions seemed, we soon realised that this process did not create a text that consequently improved with each author revising the text. Or at least not in the way that we had hoped.

After seven rounds of co-writers owning the text, the application had turned into a mess filled with track changes, comments, and overall more questions than answers. At this stage, the application included comments highlighting the lack of coherence of the project, such as:

‘I’m concerned about coherence in how we set up what we are to study.’

‘Aims, RQs and levels/scales, the focus, hypothesis need to be formulated more clearly and presented in the beginning. At the moment, they are formulated in different ways and spread around.’

Or more bluntly pointing out the application’s lack of specificity:

‘In general? Would be nice to specify.’

Or where the application had drifted off to inventing its own terminology:

‘”Non-linear learning” is new to me. Would “(collective) learning processes” or simply “learning process” be better? What is “linear learning”? I’m in a haze…’

At this stage, all co-writers were not necessarily convinced by the application, nor that the process of writing in this way together was the best way to go. This frustration was not necessarily based on an unwillingness to contribute to the project or a feeling that the project idea was not good enough, but co-writers were not sure how to contribute to the writing process when so much seemed to be undecided, and the theme of the project spanned over the different competencies of the project participants.

The frustration expressed at this stage can be understood by the common perception of writing as a product, or as (Colyar, 2009, p. 424) claims: ‘writing is imagined as a mechanical activity used to document what we already know’. Moreover, this imagination of writing as a product is hard to ignore even by experienced writers, such as our co-writers. Even if we know that writing is a process, which ‘puts on its trousers one leg at a time’ (ibid. p. 424), we, as humans, do not visualise a writing process that includes uncertainty, ambiguity, and even failure. However, the co-writing process that we pursued demonstrated more than anything that writing is a process.

In her reflections about writing, Colyar points out that writing ‘allows us to “pause, cycle back, reread, and rethink the very descriptions and ideas we are formulating.”’ (Osterman and Kottkamp, 1993, p. 73 cited in Colyar 2009, p. 426). However, in a process that sets out to involve multiple writers and combine multiple fields of expertise, allowing the process to flow generatively is hard. Whereas a single writer, or a small group of writers, can rely on the writing process being more of an exploration on how to formulate ideas that are already known, our co-owned process had not yet developed or specified the ideas it was setting out to explore.

With the first co-writing stage creating more confusion than clarity, it was time for the coordinating group to make decisions. After taking turns on working with the text during the Christmas holidays, we had a revised application text delivered to our co-writers by the beginning of the new year. This text was not complete, but the text that was there was more coherent and specific in formulating its ideas. Again, we sent out the text to our co-writers and met to discuss it with the group.

Less than a month before the deadline, and with a planned seminar to get input from an external scholar only two weeks away, it was time to speed up the process. At this point, we moved away from everyone working on the same text to dividing the tasks and prioritising what had to be done now and what could be done later. With a week to finalise their tasks, co-writers worked in pairs or groups of three on separate sections for the application, such as work packages, ethical considerations, or societal relevance of the project. They took turns working individually on their tasks, and most of them were working on more than one task. At this point, we had reached a level of ownership and common goal among the co-writers, which meant that they were all highly engaged and motivated. However, we also lost one of our co-writers. One who had enough research applications going on in other constellations, and who felt the topic of our application was less than a perfect fit.

This period was accompanied by a buzz. Or, at least for me, who was coordinating writing tasks and collecting drafts and finalised sections, this period was filled with emails, conversations in the hallway, our shared kitchen, or offices. I cannot recall these conversations in detail, but I do remember that they were crucial in forming a feeling of working in a group and moving forward together. To confirm that we were thinking the same. A question to clarify the task. A note to say ‘I finished my part’.

The last weeks continued with this same feeling of moving forward together. The seminar with the external scholar gave important input on what was maybe clear to our group but not to someone from outside. The coordinating group revised the whole application again, and all co-writers contributed to individual parts. Yes, we were starting to feel that time was running out, but with the division of tasks and the many eyes that had revised each text, we could also finalise the different parts. Yes, we passed our imaginary deadline set 48 hours before the real one, and we did have problems uploading the final texts into the online application system, but when I had pressed the submit button, I was happy. Happy, not mainly for submitting an application of this size but for having pulled through this process together.

So, though we pulled this off, the main question now is would we do it again? A few months after submission, the answer to that question was a loud YES. Having written the application together, all nine of us are now setting out to write a conference paper based on it. This time we know more about what we are writing, and we have a plan for how to write, but we know that there are uncertainties ahead.

Keywords: #writing #process #collaboration #researchapplication

Hanna Leonardsson is a researcher at the School of Global Studies. She defended her dissertation titled, “Navigating ‘the Local’: Municipal Engagement in Lebanese Local Peacebuilding” in 2019 and is now working on a project on local participation in municipal decision-making in Lebanon and Kenya.

The co-writers were: Erik Andersson, Ruy Blanes, Anders Burman, Karen Da Costa, Malin Hasselskog, Annica Kronsell, Hanna Leonardsson, Olga Stepanova, Joakim Öjendal.

Project title: Climate Change Adaptation and Peacebuilding: transformative governance in realising ‘glocal’ SDGs

Funds applied for: Formas, Realising the global sustainable development goals.


Colyar, J. (2009). Becoming Writing, Becoming Writers. Qualitative Inquiry, 15(2), 421-436. doi:10.1177/1077800408318280

Gale, K., & Wyatt, J. (2016). Working at the Wonder: Collaborative Writing as Method of Inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(5), 355-364. doi:10.1177/1077800416659086