The unwritten rules of collaborative courtesy

Collaboration on writing is hard enough. It can work only when there is a shared understanding of process and assumptions.

Some rules and conventions regarding writing collaboration seem obvious to me — so obvious that I never mention them, because an experienced writer would find it insulting. Then a perfectly well-meaning collaborator will break such a rule, never even realizing that they’ve gummed up the process and made me gnash my teeth.

These conventions are the writing equivalent of holding the door open for somebody after you go through, or returning calls or emails after you’ve interviewed someone. They’re common courtesy. When you follow them, it’s not at all notable, but when you don’t, it’s shocking and disappointing.

So I’m writing down the unwritten rules. They are symmetrical: they apply equally well to writers, ghostwriters, coauthors, editors, and publishers; or more generally, any group of people who work together on a piece of text. I’ve written them in the first person so you can take the pledge to follow them.

Raise your right hand and swear to agree to these. None of them are hard. But failing to follow them will create pain for your collaborators, destroy your relationships, and force everybody in the process to spend time on pointless rework. Spend the time on great writing, instead.

I will not lie or steal

It’s hard to believe I need to write this, but based on hard experience, I do.

Don’t tell stories about yourself that are not true.

Don’t write things about others that are not true.

If someone tells you something that you know is not true, don’t repeat it in print.

Don’t pass off others’ work as your own. Copying text is plagiarism. Copying ideas and stories without giving credit isn’t quite plagiarism, but it’s still wrong.

Cite others’ work with links or footnotes. Citing others’ work doesn’t detract from your own, it improves it.

I will keep things consistent

It’s entirely valid to criticize text based on inconsistent terminology, internally conflicting content, lack of parallelism, varying grammatical conventions, or other forms of inconsistency.

Sometimes there are good reasons for inconsistency. But in general, you should fix it, to avoid confusing the reader.

I will not respond emotionally to the editing process

Criticize the text, not the writer. “This text is wrong” is fixable. “You are a loser” destroys relationships — and doesn’t help the text get better.

As a writer, respond to edits with a similar degree of dispassion. If the text could be better, make it better, even if you feel hurt by the criticism. Put your energy into improvements, not being defensive.

If you like it the way it was, there’s always “stet.” But justify logically why it’s better the way you wrote it.

I will settle the process or workflow at the start of a project

Before you start, agree on a process. For example, writer creates draft, editor marks up and send back, writer revises, editor reviews again, writer creates final version. There are many workable processes. What’s best depends on the particular project. The point is to choose one and have everyone agree on it before you get started.

I will use Microsoft Word or Google Docs in collaborative workflows

Outside of specialized environments like newspapers, writers collaborate in Word or Google Docs. It’s fine if you want to start authoring in something else, like Scrivener, but if you want to send drafts back and forth, Word and Google Docs are your options. (Once a designer creates pages from the text, you can collaborate on PDFs.)

In 2020, printed material on paper is not an option for efficient collaboration.

I will not continue editing after handing off text

When you hand off a draft for review, don’t keep working on it. (If you have a brainstorm about a better idea, save it elsewhere, then re-integrate it in the next draft.)

After you finish editing and hand a draft back, don’t keep editing.

You will create a version control nightmare.

(The exception is the 15-minute rule — unless your colleagues are very fast, you have about 15 minutes to add last-minute edits to a Google Doc after you tell people it’s ready.)

I will always edit the most recent version of the text

Dealing with feedback on obsolete versions is maddening. I swear that this is what sends writers into therapy.

Appropriate use of file names, emails about draft reviews, and deadlines can help ensure that this nightmare never happens.

I will properly use the markup features of Word or Google Docs

How do you indicate desired changes? You put the changes and queries into redline edits and comments. In Word, you use Track Changes; in Google Docs, you use Suggesting Mode.

If you are editing, you must track every change, so your collaborators can see what you changed.

If you are responding to edits, you should accept, reject, or otherwise address every edit and comment. You can respond by raising a query or writing new material, but you can’t ignore an edit.

If you are marking up laid out pages, use the comments feature of Adobe Acrobat.

Markup with red pen on paper is an abomination.

I will communicate through email and the occasional call

After marking up a draft, send an email indicating that it’s done. (In some workflows, you attach the file to the email; in others, you include a link to the file in the cloud.)

Respond to email by replying. (But don’t conduct extended conversations over email.)

Do not use Twitter DMs, Facebook messages, LinkedIn messages, WhatsApp, texting, voicemail, Skype, MSN Messenger, TikTok, comments in Python code, shouting across the cubicles, or a message tied around the neck of a Saint Bernard. Use email.

Anyone seeking to track the conversation should be able to find it in the email thread, not track it all over the vast sphere of communications technologies.

Telephones are fine for developing a shared perspective on comments on a draft. Videoconferencing with screen sharing is even better. But these are supplements to email, not replacements for it.

(I’d be very interested in the analogy to this rule that applies in workspaces that don’t use internal email. I’ve encountered a few.)

I will not use email regarding reviews as a soapbox

Emailing about controversial issues tends to create more heat than light. But go ahead, if you want, have at it. Just don’t do it on an email thread about documents and reviews.

I will follow agreed-upon conventions for filenames

Name your chapters and documents in a way that indicates the stage of the draft, the chapter name or number, and who edited it last.

If you create an edited version of a Word document, give it a new name. You could add your initials to the end of previous filename.

Do not name files “book” or “article” or “marketing chapter.” Do not give an edited or updated version the same name as the previous version. We all have crowded hard drives and cloud storage. We want to be able to tell which file we’re working on.

I will share information in an online space

For simple back-and-forth editing (say, when a copy editor reviews the manuscript of a whole book), this isn’t necessary. You can just email versions to each other.

But if you’re sharing research background, graphics, bits of text, and collections of chapters, it’s a lot easier if there’s a place online where you can see everything, organized in a way the collaborators agree on.

I prefer Google Drive. I can work with Dropbox. Some of you may be using OneDrive. The point isn’t the tool; it’s the agreement to use and share the tool.

I will respond to deadlines

Send all drafts for review with deadlines. If you provide no deadline, expect no response.

Complete tasks by agreed upon deadlines. If you are going to be late, either tell the person to whom you owe the comments why they should wait, or tell them to go ahead without your comments.

These guidelines apply regardless of the level of importance of the person doing the review. CEOs need deadlines, too.

I will not surreptitiously go over people’s heads

Sometimes you don’t agree with editorial comments.

You should attempt to resolve these issues with the writer or editor.

If you feel an absolute need to go to a higher authority in pursuit of your favored spelling of “favoured,” your hatred of the word “that,” or your abominable opinion on the serial comma, tell your collaborator that you are going to do that. You’ll pay for it by destroying your relationship, but go ahead, if you feel you must.

But going over someone’s head regarding text without telling them is rude, beastly, and indefensible.

I will not bring in extra reviewers

Writers deserve to know who is reviewing their work. Managing multiple reviews is hard enough.

If you feel a need to get another opinion on a piece of text, you should (1) tell the writer, (2) manage that reviewer yourself, and (3) include their comments in your feedback.

It’s a gut punch to get an unexpected review from somebody you never heard of or worse yet, somebody three levels above you in the company. Don’t do this to the writer.

I will not make big changes in late drafts

If you’re writing a first draft, make it complete enough to edit.

If you’re editing, concentrate on early drafts, don’t wait and pile on at the end.

In the final stages, only small edits are appropriate. Larger changes generate errors that won’t get caught.

People who pile onto the last draft with major edits are rude. They make writers want to commit felonies. Don’t be that person.

Now you know

There’s no law that you’re breaking by violating most of these rules.

You’re only ensuring that no one else will want to work with you.

If your workplace is the kind of place where people break these rules frequently, the best writers and editors will leave. Then what will you be left with?

Now it’s your turn. What unwritten rules are your colleagues breaking, that I should add to this list?

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  1. “Do not use Twitter DMs, Facebook messages, LinkedIn messages, WhatsApp, texting, voicemail, Skype, MSN Messenger, TikTok, comments in Python code, shouting across the cubicles, or a message tied around the neck of a Saint Bernard. Use email.”

    Hilarious list. But, yes, they just don’t hit the mark for a number of reasons to make a decent collaborative workflow.

    As an alternative / addition to email, one might consider tools like Slack, or Microsoft Teams, where chat messages can be categorized / threaded, archived, and searched. They facilitate document sharing. There are ways to integrate with email, Google Docs, or other online tools that would be useful in a variety of scenarios. They also include one on one (or group, depending on the package) videoconferencing capability.

    1. If your organization typically collaborates by Microsoft Teams, use that. If you use Slack, use that. If you use email, use that. I’m not an email zealot.

      Put for any given organization, pick one and stay with it.

      When the collaborators don’t work for the same company (for example, an outside editor working with an author), use email.

  2. There isn’t really a barrier to using Slack or Teams (or similar), if collaborators don’t work for the same company – both/all sides just need to agree what they are going to use at the start. Yes, email is a great baseline to agree to.

    Thought it worthwhile mentioning these for your audience, as they do address some of the issues you identified – which I found humorous as I can identify with you on them, not to imply you were an email zealot.