Collaborative Writing in the Humanities: Lessons in Co-Authorship

History is a relatively solitary field. The vast number of articles and books written have just one author, and many historians go their whole careers publishing alone. I don’t mind doing that, but have found the Atlantic World projects I’m most interested in generally require more than one person’s worth of expertise to do well. No one person can cover the scope of the Atlantic World: 4 continents over 4 centuries with primary sources in dozens of languages. So when I find opportunities to collaborate, I jump on them.

I’m pleased to announce that The Historical Journal is going to publish the results of one of these collaborations. It’s a co-authored article entitled “Projections of Desire and Design in Early Modern Caribbean Maps.” This article came out of a collaborative map analysis project funded by the John Carter Brown library’s relatively new Collaborative Cluster fellowship that allowed my partner and I to meet up for two weeks in Providence to analyze maps and plot out an article. After the two weeks, he and I finished the writing together electronically, and we learned a lot about workflow when it comes to collaborative writing and co-authoring in the humanities.

There are a lot of good resources for collaborative writing of all kinds out there, so I don’t need to write just one more. Instead, I’ll leave some more specific lessons learned along the way.

  1. Whatever division of labor you’ve agreed on will likely change, and a good indication of success is how well the team can adapt.
  2. People may drop out of the project, and it’s far better to trust that the project can adapt and to give them the benefit of the doubt and an open door. Don’t be afraid to ask mentors for advice about how to be the most fair in these breakups so that everyone walks away with something useful.
  3. Sometimes, there will be one specific skill or task that is necessary, but that no one on your team will possess and/or enjoy doing. It’s important that that is acknowledged, and the person(s) doing it anyway gets mad credit for that. Let’s just say it wasn’t me formatting more than my fair share of footnotes.
  4. Be generous with your collaborator’s time so that you can expect the same in return. Sometimes your partner can get a next day turnaround, but sometimes life gets in the way and it takes a month. Sometimes the thing that takes a month is 30 minutes worth of work, and that’s just how life goes.
  5. Don’t be afraid to admit when the collaborative software you’ve chosen doesn’t work for your group, or stops being useful at some point in the collaboration process. For example, we used Slack in the pre-research phase, to drop links and discuss the background reading needed before we left for the JCB. But at the JCB, we found organizing our analysis as comma separated values (CSV) in just a shared spreadsheet to be far more effective, so we switched over. No harm, no foul.
  6. Respect everyone’s workflow and style. My collaboration partner was a powerhouse of concentration. He ate a huge breakfast and then worked nonstop until closing time to maximize his time at the library. I work and write more efficiently if I divide the workday up into thirds and mark those breaks with something physical away from my writing space- either making coffee/tea for everyone in the break room, or going for a walk around the campus, or grabbing lunch in another building. Each third of the day was for a different task- analysis & data entry, writing, or editing my partner’s writing. In the end, we both were able to bring our best selves to the project by allowing ourselves to work in the ways we felt most comfortable.
  7. Acknowledge the varying goals each person in your team has for the project, and the power differentials in your team and try to level the playing field. My partner was an assistant professor on the tenure clock and was hoping to use this article in his portfolio, while I had an academic-adjacent job where the publication expectations were different. Being up front about who is expecting what and how each can support the other helped us be aware of everyone’s needs and regulate the workflow.

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