What is Collaborative Writing?

Almost every book and article on collaborative writing begins by asking, "what is collaboration?" In most cases, the authors proceed to tear apart the reader's preconceived notions and to leave the question more confused than when they began. While often impractical and unproductive, this approach is understandable and usually justified; collaborative writing is a slippery concept. It is clear that collaborative writing refers to writing in groups but there are as many ways to write in groups as there are possible combinations of individuals. Where does "a little help" and editorial assistance end and collaboration begin? There are no definitive answers.

Additionally, left to operate in an individual work/collaborative work dichotomy, defining collaboration involves defining what is not collaboration. Can individual writing involve borrowing, citing, appropriation and synthesis? How much? Where does one draw the line. There are no definitive answers. Ongoing academic discussions on the theory, definitions, and virtues of authorship and collaboration begun decades ago show no sign of resolution and continue to grow in size and scope. They demonstrate that there are no definitive answers.

While from one academic perspective, these questions are pleasantly unresolvable, an analysis of collaboration without a definition to frame it remains problematic. For a limited but piratical working definition of collaboration, one can turn to technologists who define collaboration in more mechanical terms. In an article on the technology and processes of collaborative writing, David Farkas offers four possible definitions useful in approaching collaboration through an analysis of processes. For his purposes, collaboration is:

  1. two or more people jointly composing the complete text of a document;

  2. two or more people contributing components to a document;

  3. one or more person modifying, by editing and/or reviewing, the document of one or more persons; and

  4. one person working interactively with one or more person and drafting a document based on the ideas of the person or persons. ([Farkas1991] p. 14)

By breaking the common-sensical concept of group-based writing into a four distinct types of work, Farkas' definition paints a picture of what is, and is not collaboration; it provides a useful place to begin.

However, in introducing the concept of "collaborative literature," one must also define "literature." Partially in an attempt to avoid this definition—defining literature can be as perilous as defining art—many who study collaborative textual production simply choose the term "collaborative writing." However, collaborative writing tends only to imply synchronous and fully consensual group work. Literature, on the other hand, is more than just the act of putting pen to paper. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, a "body of writing" or a "culture" of letters. In the following analysis, I use the term "literature" in a inclusive sense. For my purposes, it is almost synonymous with writing but implies connections between, and unity among, different written works over time and between authors in a way that "writing" does not. These connections may range from traditions and conventions to subtle allusions to quoting and, in their most extreme form, to plagiarism. While not always defensible, these connective acts are always literary. Literature is always collaborative.

Referring to this networked approach literature, Peter Jaszi extends Farkas' definitions in describing a fifth type of collaboration he calls "serial collaboration," a process he defines as borrowing, synthesis and appropriation. Serial collaboration flows from the manipulation of existing knowledge and can be widely asynchronous. For example, through revision and a close relationship to his texts, I might be able to "collaborate" with Charles Dickens in a serial manner by fixing what I felt was an error, elaborating on a set of descriptions, changing an ending, or rewriting an entire story. In the following chapters, I try to afford each of these models of collaboration a place.

In discussing collaborative writing in today's literary world where the dominant paradigm is a single author theory, many models describe collaborations as groups of individual authors working in an micro-economy model. Other models present collaborations as a group of writers occupying the role and space of a single corporate or collective individuality. Yet other models present collaborations as complex organizational entities and aggregations of individuals. By providing a more nuanced and complex model of collaboration and reducing the impact of systemic control, these models occupy an increasingly privileged and "meaningful" place in the following analysis.