Approaches To A Group Writing Project

All my writing so far has been on an individual basis. I framed a plot, wrote a story, and contributed to the editing and publishing of the book that emerged. I also contributed a short story to a publishing house which produced an anthology of short stories from some thirty different authors, like me. The task of the editor here was merely to liaise with the authors and make sure they sent in their stories within a defined time frame and with a certain quality. The challenge I now speak of is totally different. I am at the start of a book project which involves writing the history of an institution. I thought I would share my thoughts and experience.

Firstly it is a collaborative project which means that I am not the only author, not by a long shot. There will be a group of us who will make contributions so in a sense all of us are the authors of the book. For the base material, we shall depend on the archives of the institution we are writing about and therefore that institution has certain rights in deciding the kind of book they would like to see published. I am clear in my mind that the copyright for the book rests with the institution. This is important to clarify because though some of us contributing authors may help facilitate the printing of the book, including bearing all the costs associated with the printing, the right to receive royalties, and decide on distribution rights etc must vest, not with us contributors but with the institution.

In my view the approach to the group writing project will largely depend on your starting point. If, in your case, you are commencing a green field project where you are starting from scratch, without a word being written till then, you could profitably farm out sections of the book to people best equipped to write about the subject. You can get them to contribute the first draft, which will go into the master document I shall speak of later in this post.

If on the other hand, you are starting the project based on heaps of material already archived, there is no point, in my opinion, of having different writers in the group start afresh. They may write reams only to find out later that most of what they had to say has already been captured in the archived material. It is, you will appreciate, tedious if not impossible, to share all that is archived with every member of the project because that adds enormously to everyone’s work without getting commensurate benefits.

There are several interesting options open to write the book. The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has this handout on the basics of Group Writing. The first approach is that all of work independent of each other and write whatever we want after deciding, of course, on the broad contours of the book content. We then compare notes, study each other’s writings and get the best by picking and choosing what we consider the best contributions. This method has some advantages, in that there is certainly more participation.  More heads, as is said, is often better than one. There are disadvantages too.  You could face the “too many cooks spoil the broth” syndrome. Matters discussed in committee will be discussed forever without any specific conclusion, leave alone the best solution. There could be ego clashes as to whose material should be selected, there could be more time taken as there is that much more material to read and go through. Last but not the  least, an already complex project could get that much more complicated if there is no agreement as to which parts of the book need to be shortened and which strengthened.

The second method is for one person to consolidate all the material received from all the contributors in a master document. This will be that much more comprehensive. Then everyone gets the base document and suggests edits, additions, deletions, and gives general and specific feedback. As there is only one control document, the project is easier to manage through this process. The disadvantage of this method is that the other contributors may feel they have no role to play till  the base document is delivered to them. Also, admittedly, a lot is expected of the person preparing the base document. He would be expected to prepare it without fear or favour. He should include matter based on its quality and how it fits into the book and NOT on the basis of who has sent in that material. I am in favour of the second method as I believe the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Lastly, every member of the team contributes when it comes to the editing process. Be it developmental editing, copy editing , or proof reading, having one master document makes the whole group writing process that much more manageable.

My idea is that we will give very little individual credit for articles, if at all. Instead we will have a list of contributors. The reader will have no idea who has written which part of the book. I think there are no strong reasons for them to know either. The writers concerned know what they have written, in any case!

What are your thoughts? What are your suggestions? Is there any other pro or con that I am missing out on? Your ideas and suggestions would be appreciated.

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