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Collaboration in Professional Writing with the Computer: Results of a Survey

Stephen A. Bernhardt and Bruce C. Appleby

Within the past year or so, collaboration has become a keyword for writing teachers. The 1985 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Minneapolis featured no fewer than thirty pre-entations focusing on the ways writers work together in school and business settings to produce texts of shared authorship. English teachers are just beginning to recognize that professional writers often find themselves part of a team. As teachers gain greater familiarity with composing processes in the workplace, classroom methods should begin to reflect revised concepts about how writers work, with the result that students will be urged to explore collaborative processes.

One tool that is fostering new patterns of collaboration is the computer. The computer is a natural tool for collaboration because it makes it easy for writers to share text by passing them from one writer to another, to compose together in front of a screen, to cut and paste texts written under various circumstances, and to edit a text through multiple revisions with input from several writers. To find out how writers in

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the field of composition studies collaborate via the microcomputer, we surveyed a group of professionals concerning their practices, attitudes, and problems as they undertook collaborative projects. We report our findings here, including responses to both structured and open-ended questions, with the hope that teachers will find this information useful as they shape classroom practices and pursue collaborative research projects.


We decided to seek respondents who were likely to use the computer to write collaboratively with colleagues--those on the mailing lists of two publications directed at professionals who use the computer and have interests in teaching writing. We sent 420 surveys to people on the mailing lists of the Computers and Composition and the Microlab Registry. Seventy-four surveys were returned (17%): 60 from university or college faculty, 5 from high school teachers, and 9 from people working outside education. Forty-six respondents were English teachers; 28 were in other fields. Approximately half the respondents had used the computer for less than 3 years; half indicated more than 4 years of experience, with 10 of these reporting 8 or more years of experience.


The hardware set-ups described by the respondents were diverse, including a total of 40 different kinds of machines (figures presented

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here, and those which follow, are expressed in raw numbers unless percentage is indicated):

 	IBM PC			31
	Apple			30
	DEC			 9
	IBM Mainframe		 6
	Other mentions		29

The respondents listed micros 105 times and mainframes 25 times, suggesting that the majority of the collaborators do their work on micros. Many respondents mentioned that they work on several different machines. One implication of this diversity is the difficulty of collaborating via incompatible systems, a limitation mentioned by several respondents.


Diverse, multiple uses characterized the responses to our request for a rank ordering of the most frequent uses of the computer. Ranked from most frequently mentioned use to least, the responses were as follows:

 	Research writing		63
	Instructional materials		58
	Tool for class instruction	47
	Administrative records		36
	Bibliography			32
	Editing journals/newsletters	31
	Statistical analysis		25
	Access databases		21
	Database management		21
	Classroom management		19
	Graphic design			12

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One implication of this diversity is that English teachers are using micros in ways not traditionally associated with English departments. several respondents remarked on the usefulness of microcomputers in assembling grant applications, while others are using computers to manage budgets and construct bibliographic databases.


When we asked the respondents to indicate what percentage of their writing time was collaborative, the responses were again characterized by a wide range:

	 0- 9%	10		50- 59%		14
	10-19%	15		60- 69%		 4
	20-29%	15		70- 79%		 1
	30-39%	 4		80- 89%		 2
	40-49%	 2		90- 100%	 2
				No answer	 5

Over 30% of the respondents indicated they collaborated more than half the time, with several indicating that 80% to 100% of their writing was collaborative. We might compare these relatively high percentages with our own estimates of how much collaborative writing takes place in most writing classes, noting that teachers, as well as professionals in the work place, write collaboratively much of the time. We think there is an argument in these data for increasing the number of class assignments which require collaboration by students.

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Respondents were also asked to indicate their motivation for using the computer to collaborate on writing projects. The results suggest that efficiency is a key motivation:

 	Easy editing 			78
	Saves composing time		62
	Saves typing time 		61
	Increased productivity		53
	Combining expertise		48
	Improves organization		47
	Improves correctness		47
	Improves ideas			37
	It's fun! 			34
	Improves style      		33

As suggested by the first four categories, collaborators use computers primarily because the machines save time. Note, however, that other motives were frequently mentioned which have larger implications for teaching writing. Writers use the machine because they believe the written product will be better in terms of ideas, organization, correctness, and style. Even the least-offered motive for collaborating via the computer, that it improves style, was cited by 45% of respondents.

These responses concerning motives for collaborating via the computer were reinforced by responses to a question about changes in writing habits:

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	Revise more freely						48
	More productive							44
	Spend more time writing						30
	More comfortable about having others look at my writing		29
	Spend less time in approach/avoidance activities 		20
	Tend to compose at different times of day than in the past	20
	Less demanding about where and when to compose      		17

At the top of the list are the same indicators of efficiency--ease of revision, increased productivity, and use of time. But computer collaborators believe the tool does more than just serve them efficiently; they also feel that it changes their writing habits. This combination of motivation and result also suggests that computer collaborators are changed psychologically by the tools they use. The changes tend to be those we most encourage in our student writers: ability and willingness to get started, to spend time at the task, to share writing with others, and to revise freely.

All stages of the writing process appear to be affected by computers. Respondents mentioned that using the computer made it easier to get started; that it cured writer's block; or that it increased awareness of one's own writing processes, with one writer claiming "I am no longer intimidated by writing." Other writers remarked that the computer helped with the thinking process, that it helped organize and clarify their ideas, and that it helped them gain new insights. One open-ended comment was particularly revealing in its implications for

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prewriting: "I can make better use of unstructured writing to get started. Pre-word processor, I felt too much pressure to control structure before I actually started. Now I use my early notes via block moves and file merging, and they seem much more valuable."

More than any other aspect of writing, revision was a constant focus of comments in our survey. Those who use micros for writing soon realize why this tool is so helpful: a writer can spent time changing what needs changing, while the rest of the text remains intact. There is no need to retype, no inertia of the printed page Respondents indicated they were more willing to try the doubtful (given the ease of deletion), more willing to throw away a first draft, more creative in their revisions at all levels, and more willing to use a rough draft for thinking rather than seeking perfection. While one person commented that "writing is no longer a dirty, messy job," another mentioned using more paper than ever because of the ease of churning out drafts. The ease of revision with computers does seem to exacerbate one writing problem: knowing when to quit. As one writer commented, "I have difficulty declaring a piece finished, as do my editors. They keep asking for changes because they know they are possible." Fortunately, another respondent offered a solution to this difficulty: "Sometime, someone has to say `Enough, stop, it's done!'"


We noted a wide variety of relationships when we asked the respondents to identify their primary collaborators:

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	Several colleagues from department	35
	Primarily one other colleague		30
	Colleagues from other disciplines	27
	Colleagues from other institutions	23
	Students on class projects		13
	People outside academia			 4

We see from these data that people are working in variously structured teams, often in collaboration with people from other institutions or disciplines, and, most surprisingly of all, even with their own students. Composition as a field is, by its very nature, cross-disciplinary, and those who use computers to collaborate seem to be making many connections with people in other fields.

No consensus on a preferred working relationship emerges from our data. Respondents identified their primary collaborative relationship as follows:

   Shared authority						43
   One in charge/one helping					34
   Our collaboration is a deliberate attempt to take
	advantage of differing perspectives and expertise	34
   Our collaboration is primarily a result of our sharing
	similar perspectives and expertise			27
   Collaboration leads to similar views				17
   Collaboration leads to divergent views			 9
   Collaboration on writing projects has led to 
	collaboration in other areas				14

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Our data do not allow us to suggest the most productive structure for a collaborative relationship. While some writers collaborate on a basis of shared authority, almost as many seem to prefer having one person definitely in charge. Almost as many respondents reported collaborating because they share similar perspectives, as reported collaborating to take advantage of divergent expertise.

A question on the exact nature off the collaborative writing process again elicited a wide variety of responses:

   Projects grow from conversations and shared activities	46 
   We typically divide a task and take 
	responsibility for separate parts			39
   We generally collaborate at all stages of composing		29
   We typically write out an outline or notes and then 
	compose at the computer					19
   We write up sections on paper, then cut and paste on
	 a word processor					18
   We often sit together before a screen and draft text		18
   Projects are typically initiated by one person		16
   Usually the same person ends up doing the typing		16
   We draft on paper before going to the computer		11

These responses suggest that the collaborative relationship is less one of worker to supervisor and more that of co-worker to co-worker. Many

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collaborators choose to delegate responsibilities while maintaining shared authority, so that portions of a text are delegated to individuals and then revised and edited by the collaborators. In other relationships, one collaborator will write a first draft of the full text, which is then given to the other partner, who responds, comments, and edits. In a third pattern of collaboration, the collaborators actually sit together at the terminal and compose text (as this text was composed).

Although there was no preferred mode of operating, to judge from comments offered by the respondents, the dominant feature of the working relationship is a fully integrated paper-review process. One commented, "I enjoy having someone directly involved with my own work. I have come to count on peer review at various stages." "It's easier," another remarked, "to give and receive criticism; I have a thicker skin with regard to my writing." A third comment was "I am more receptive to suggestions. I have greater confidence in my writing."

The process of continual peer review appears to heighten a writer's sense of audience because of the immediate feedback from the collaborator. Respondents indicated they were better judges of audience and were more aware of arguable points as a result of collaboration. One writer commented that collaboration has brought about ". . . an increased emphasis on writing as a task in communication rather than an indulgence in individual expression." This increased emphasis on writing as communication can be a useful corrective to the practice of many English teachers, who tend to pay more attention to

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felicities of style than do people in other disciplines. In the words of one successful collaborator: "I am now more willing to compromise rather than insist on `perfect wording.'" The opportunity to collaborate with people from other disciplines can lead to increased emphasis on substance rather than style.

A number of open-ended comments underscored the improved quality of ideas which results directly from collaboration. Different respondents mentioned "increased expertise," "broader perspective on thinking and reading processes," and "greater and often fresher perspective on something I thought I knew." Many writers found the opportunity to work closely with others intellectually invigorating. One respondent commented that "several minds together outstrip the single mind in isolation," while another thought that "collaboration increases the need for multiple second thoughts."

We do not want to create the impression that collaboration is problem free. Working with others demands more rigid scheduling than working alone, and several respondents commented on the need to establish clearly defined responsibilities early in the collaborative process. If responsibilities are not clearly delineated, breakdowns can occur. One respondent noted, "I have grown very frustrated with my collaborators for their non-productivity because mine has increased so much. One collaborator can't type and is lazy. I get the burden. This collaboration will end." Collaboration creates editing problems as well: "Sentence length and complexity need to fit smoothly with your partner's.

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Co-authored reports need more editing for consistency of style and format."

Ease of producing multiple drafts can result in problems of managing texts, with as one respondent noted, " . . . there are too many variants floating around without anyone knowing which is the real draft." Ease of revision can create problems of authority over a text. When sections of one document are cut-and-pasted into another, the boundaries of individual contributions tend to be obscured. It is all too easy to change someone else's writing, which leads to " . . . a problem of authority over texts: when one person is in a text editor, it is too easy to make changes rather than comments; procedures and levels of collaboration need to be defined in advance, since they aren't limited to technology." Use of the computer for collaboration creates a new set of problems for writers that we are just beginning to understand and that have no easy resolution.


Collaboration in publishing research has a well-established reputation in many academic disciplines. Within many fields, the process of collaboration is sufficiently developed as to have established protocols for recognizing the individual contributions to collaborative research. To gauge the acceptability of collaborative writing within respondents' working situations, we asked how collaborative projects were viewed within their departments:

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   Articles written under joint authorship receive 
	the same recognition as those produced individually	30
   My department views collaboration with suspicion, 
	comparing it unfavorably with individual authorship	15

Although we had hoped that one respondent's comment, "Collaboration is part of our work as a community of scholars," would be widely shared, a significant proportion of our respondents felt that there was some prejudice against collaborative scholarship within their departments. As a field, we tend to romanticize individual authorship, deriving models from creative writers. (How many co-authored poems or novels do you know of?) Our respondents noted that "joint articles are common, but are probably devalued quantitatively" and that there is ". . . a stigma attached to those who only collaborate." Others noted that "there is much suspicion of collaboration" and that " . . whoever has his/her name first gets the most credit." However, not all the comments were negative. One respondent noted that his recent favorable tenure decision was in large measure due to his collaborative work. Another mentioned a collaborative grant proposal that received much in-house praise. Just as we need to evolve methods for working together productively, we also need to evolve standards for evaluation of collaborative scholarship. These standards are not likely to take the form of a recent

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evaluation of one associate professor, who was asked to underline all of "his" words in a co-authored book.


The computer is bound up with changes that are affecting the discipline of English as a whole. No longer concerned solely with the history of literature, English departments are beginning to attend seriously to the processes of reading and writing. As these more pragmatic concerns occupy the attention of English departments, faculty are increasingly involved with empirical research, often with a cross-disciplinary orientation. More emphasis, time, and resources are being devoted to teaching composition. This activity is buttressed by research into how people compose not only within the academic world but also within business and industrial settings.

As our research suggests, computers are intimately bound up with the changes English departments are experiencing. On the one hand, computers are simply new tools that enhance the efficiency of those who traditionally work with words. On the other hand, these tools change basic writing behavior: how we write, with whom we write, how often and how much we write, and how we evaluate writing and authorship. As research on, and teaching of, collaboration in writing increase, the computer will play an increasingly central role. We need to watch closely how the computer both serves us and changes us.

Stephen A. Bernhardt and Bruce C. Appleby teach at Southern Illinois University in the Department of English.