ries, where the “teacher” exemplifies
what the “student” is to emulate, and
they collectively finish the document.
The fifth pattern, the cleanup, is a
solo kind of work that appears in many
of the stories. For example, in our own
writing, there was one big simultaneous
session and then Judy took over to both
re-organize the stories into clusters
and write the text that represented the
discussion captured in the table. In the
committee report, the chair took on the
role of cleaning up the rough text and
synthesizing content. In BuildIt, Ricardo takes on the responsibility of cleaning up the text and coordinating tone,
turning rough text into good prose.
The sixth pattern, again often represented in many of the stories, is the
hand-off, where different authors are
“in charge” for periods of time for reorganization or fact-checking and simpler editing. This often accompanied
sessions of simultaneous work.
We also note that collocation for
synchronous writing was important
but not necessary. Collocation provides
immediate access to other participants
for things such as clarification, seeing
people’s expressions, indicating that
one wanted a turn to speak, and so
on. However, many of the stories had
successful contributions from remote
people, even without audio or video
connectivity. In one case, remote participants only saw the evolving Google
Doc. For some purposes, this level of
participation was sufficient.
Epiphenomena. Late in our discussion of the similarities and differences
among the stories, we noted some epiphenomena—unusual behavior generated by the fact the work was being created synchronously in view of all.
One epiphenomenon involved
humor, often an important social component of intense work. For example,
as the scribe in meetings where the
minutes are projected, Gary would
often type slightly snide comments
about what was being said and quickly
erase them. For example, if someone
was talking too long, Gary would write
in big letters but out of the speaker’s
view, “Is it time for lunch yet?” and
then quickly erase it.
A student in one Project Manage-
ment team, deep in discussion in a
long simultaneous-editing session
about their client, pasted in a funny
picture of a grizzly man wearing a bear
hat and the text “this guy!” The picture
was in the document for about a min-
ute then deleted. The Visiting Commit-
tee read emerging debates inside the
report, eliciting giggles occasionally. At
the end, one member of the committee
also remarked for humor, “Where is
the Clean-It-Up button?” The collective
laugh was one of appreciation and re-
lief that the session was over.
A second epiphenomenon we noted
is that visibility is motivating. In using
IDE to write the textbook, the visible
presentation of progress on the book
motivated people. Similarly, while the
document is live and worked on simultaneously, one can see where the activity is and be motivated to read carefully
and talk about any arising issues either
through text chat or voice conversation. When there is visible activity,
people feel compelled to focus on the
document being created. One attends
to “seismic activity.” We believe the
student who pasted in a funny picture
during a simultaneous working session used the humor to induce motivation to keep working. One student in
another team pasted in a picture of a
shovel and wrote “Work Hard!”
Writing simultaneously is an extremely powerful capability, now widely
available in commercial software. It
is often successfully mixed with some
hand-off writing and some sessions
where one person takes charge to integrate the material and voice. But
technology alone does not make enhanced productivity and satisfaction,
people do. What we offer here are a
number of stories and commentary
on what makes this kind of writing so
We follow the stories with six pat-
terns of writing when simultaneous
work is possible. Team members now
need to plan the style of work (some of
which will include simultaneous writ-
ing) that would fit the kinds of goals at
hand. As outlined by Glushko3 some
of the overall collaborations will be
preplanned (what he calls hierarchi-
cal collaboration), co-developed by
the authors (what he calls consensus
collaboration), or a free-for-all (what
he calls open collaboration). Each
approach has its strengths and weak-
nesses, so choosing appropriately for
the task at hand is important. And, as
mentioned earlier, not all teams and
occasions will benefit; cooperation
and trust are essential.
We have provided a set of examples
where we have worked in new ways
that are very productive, and therefore
satisfying. The next step is for you to
analyze the collaborative writing situations you are in day-by-day and craft a
method that best suits. The possibilities are very rich.
Acknowledgments. Portions of this
work were supported by National Science Foundation grant ACI-1322304
and a Google Focused Research Award
to Judy and Gary Olson. Helpful comments on an earlier draft were provided
by Tom Boellstorf, Bonnie Nardi, and
Bob Glushko along with anonymous
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Ricardo Olenewa is a technical writer living in Waterloo,
Gary M. Olson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor
Emeritus of Informatics at the University of California at
Judith S. Olson ( email@example.com) is Professor Emerita of
Informatics at the University of California at Irvine.
Daniel M. Russell ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior
research scientist at Google, Mountain View, CA.
Copyright held by owner(s)/author(s).