Writing collaboration

a ‘work in progress’

3e. word by word…

with 2 comments

Next! An experiment. Early in 2008, a PhD student from Kansas – Heather Putnam – was visiting Exeter to work with me and, with another Exeter PhD student – Kerry Burton – had mentioned that we should write something together before she went back. We couldn’t think of an idea until a package arrived in the post, containing a moleskin notebook, which was being sent around like a chain letter. It was being used by geography school teacher Dan Raven-Ellison – a key character in an emerging ‘public geographies’ collective aiming to cross university-school-media-public divides (e.g. see) – to create a book called The geographers’ guide. You had to decide …to what?, submit your idea to a project website to prevent duplication, then you could write what and how you liked, in pencil, on just one page. When I got it, 3 or 4 pages had been filed out, some with text and one with scribbles, shading and words. So I asked Heather and Kerry if we should write something on collaboration. We arranged to meet up for a coffee, and decided to fill our page by writing one word at a time, passing the pencil around like a relay baton. Over the next hour, we wrote the Geographers’ guide to collaborative collaboration (whole thing above).

Again, this was half serious and half tongue-in-cheek. What we were writing was a thoroughly collaborative piece of work. We had no idea where it was going, but we went there together. It started as a list, but then turned into a complex diagram, with arrows connecting words that produced a far from linear text. Each word or arrow (and a cat drawing) was placed like a chess piece. We really had to think about how we were working together and what we wanted to say together. This turned into a valuable and thought-provoking exercise in collaborative writing. And it produced the kind of messy text that – we thought – readers would really get caught up in, navigating through the arrows, turning the page around to follow things, reading plenty in to what we wrote. We can’t tell if it’s crap or the best thing we’ve ever done! We’d recommend this exercise to anyone. See what you come up with…


Written by Ian Cook et al

September 2, 2008 at 5:41 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thought I would put my own two cents in on this one.

    The exercise of sitting around that table for an hour while we passed the notebook and pencil around became more difficult as the hour went on. I found myself holding my breath while I watched Kerry staring at the notebook, turning it around, deciding what to write. Within a short time, it got to where I was imagining what Kerry could write, which word where, and then anticipating how that would affect my own ideas for what I wanted to write. Each time, I had to let it go. I had to not be in power. I had to rejoice when Kerry wrote a word, or crossed one out, that made the overall document better, that made messages emerge that I could never have imagined or written alone. It was, as is noted elsewhere on this website/paper, a supreme act of anti-individualism, a knock on the head of anti-imperialism, a painful overcoming of the rigours of identity.

    I am now engaging in another, more formal co-authoring process, involving an academic article. It is the same kind of process.

    Heather Putnam

    September 7, 2008 at 9:31 pm

  2. I have a copy of the page on my desk, it always makes me laugh, and I still find myself following word trails in the hope of uncovering hidden sentences, unfound meanings…and lost cats! Making time and space to write with friends was a lot of fun. I think the page illustrates the joy of writing and thinking ‘in the moment’. With no pre-proposed plan, style guidelines, or academic agendas we were freed from expectations. Liberated! By setting ourselves free we were able to explore and enjoy the art of pure, unprompted, collaboration. The work is a jumble of spontaneous word eruptions, controlled only through a lack of control. Trusting each other meant we could embrace the act of ‘letting go’, momentarily losing control of ‘our’ work, and enjoy, as Heather notes, the excitement and challenge of each new word/correction/image. We seldom allow ourselves the opportunity to play with words, and I certainly felt a childish enthusiasm toward writing whist we passed the page to each other.


    September 9, 2008 at 4:57 pm

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