Collaborative (Dare I Say Pair?) Writing

I enjoy writing, though I’m not as prolific as I’d like to be. I tend to re-read what I wrote many times, often second-guessing it. Like any writer, I also find difficulty from time-to-time, getting stuck on how to phrase a paragraph or a sentence. I’ll typically mark things and return to them later. All-in-all, I can slam out text, but getting polished product out the door can be challenging.

ball point pen writing
source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2004-02-29_Ball_point_pen_writing.jpg

I read and enjoyed Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method when it came out. I already had been employing its core idea to an extent: capture thoughts as they arise (index cards work great!), then incorporate them as appropriate in an article or book. Each idea on a card might act as a central idea around which writing can build, or it might be used to fill in a “hole” in the text. Emphasizing this technique has made writing a lot more fun, and I tend to not lose great thoughts that had popped into my head.

My best writing experience, however, has been collaborating online with Tim Ottinger, originator and co-author on Agile in a Flash. We had a slow winter–after writing a pile of articles for PragPub, we both got very busy with work, and did little writing. We finally found some time to commit to delivering a new Agile in a Flash post, Is Your Unit Test Isolated?

Two days ago, we got our headsets on, started up a Skype conversation, and talked for a few minutes to agree on what we’d work on. We started some single-threaded editing on a very rough draft at Blogspot, but that wasn’t effective, so I pasted it all into a Google Doc.

Google Docs doesn’t provide the best document editor in the world, but it is highly effective for collaborative writing. You can see each others’ cursor and typing as it occurs, and you can look at offline revisions if necessary for comparison.

Mostly we’re not talking via Skype (and in fact sometimes we’ll collaboratively edit without a voice conversation at all). Instead we’re communicating through the document. Tim will start re-working a paragraph that I might have just finished writing, and I’ll get out of the way. Sometimes I’ll watch and toss in a comment–just typing it right into the document–and other times I’ll go off and stab at a paragraph that Tim wrote. Or I might go off and re-read the document, looking for flow and completeness problems. It’s pretty haphazard, yet it works, and it’s fast. We might go back and forth at a paragraph a few times before we figure it works.

Collaborative writing works best if you grow a layer or two of skin. We’ve learned to be pretty direct: “[[ I don’t like that ]],” Tim might type (the brackets are our way of setting off comments). Ok! Good technical writing requires harsh critique. Better Tim drop a pointed comment than a few thousand readers.

At times I’ll return to find something I’ve written completely gone or gutted and rewritten. It was a little disconcerting at first, but I’ve learned to trust Tim’s reworkings. I can always look at the old revision if I thought an important idea got deleted.

The unit test article took us about an hour to get to 98%. We let a couple outstanding concerns sit for a few hours, made some offline changes, and published it the following morning (yesterday).

As with pair programming, I’ve found such highly collaborative pair-writing to go much faster than writing on my own, and produce a far more effective product.

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