Collaboration is a term that might cause panic in the lives of people who are used to working alone. These days, technical writing projects come in all sizes, and collaboration during a project is a critical discipline and skill. Perhaps you’ve never had the opportunity to collaborate or it’s been a long time since you last collaborated with someone on a project. Or, maybe you’ve had a bad experience with collaboration and you’ve just been asked to collaborate again. Regardless of your reason, you can benefit from some general guidelines that can help make your next collaboration experience a success.
Project Management 101 dictates that step 1 is developing a plan.. Planning is the foundation of any successful project, and this is especially true when we collaborate. Why? Because collaboration combines people with differing styles, tones, and ideas into a pool of creativity that needs a foundation to function effectively. If these creative differences cannot mesh properly, the project can turn sloppy, unprofessional, and eventually fail, leading to loss of credibility for the project team.
Planning ensures that the technical writing team is on the same page and moving in the same direction. The plan will include a stated goal for the project, which serves as the target all team members will aim at. A solid plan will also include key milestones that mark the way. Together, team members should regularly ask “How are we doing up to this point?” and measure the answer against the plan milestones.
So how do we start and manage the planning aspect of a project? Simple, and not surprising, it all begins with communication the essential ingredient to connecting and collaborating with one another. It’s important that the project team connect at the start of the project with agreed upon rules for how collaboration should occur throughout. This ensures that the team identifies and agrees on the specific deliverables, their component sections, responsibilities and timeframes, as well as the style, the tone, and the editorial process to be followed.
No matter how complex the assignment, regular communication is critical. You can use instant messaging, email, and the telephone but, remember that the more complex the project, the more frequent the updates on the project should be. This becomes especially important when the inevitable changes occur. Verbal updates by all team members decrease the possibility of miscommunication, but it’s even more important to document what is communicated during those progress meetings. Tracking issues, action items/assignments, and changes means that all team members stay on top of all the updates. Multiple communications methods often work best, for example, quick questions or updates regarding technical writing deliverables or assigned tasks can be handled by IM or email, but to prevent confusion or reluctance to act on decisions, schedule a face-to-face meeting or pick up the phone and call.
The rubber meets the road in the project details and strong planning and collaboration will help team members really shine. Whether the project is a single article, a design document, embedded help, or even a book, details such as editing and proofing the assignment are as important as the foundational activities. If you have a solid plan and outstanding communications but you neglect the details, the end result will be less than it could be. Do not underestimate the details!
Editing is a detail that you must not shortchange, especially when collaborating on a project. When you collaborate, you are attempting to blend differing styles from multiple distinct authors, so editing becomes even more important than when you write solo. By carefully editing each other’s work on a regular basis, the suggestions or tweaks that are offered can help to blend these distinct talents into one coherent chef-d’oeuvre.
Flexibility also plays an important role in collaboration especially when it comes to details. You and your co-author(s) are individuals and will approach a project from differing angles. That means you will not always agree with one another. The art of compromise relies on flexibility. The project is not a battle of egos, but a chance to merge various talents into a masterwork for the masses. Compromise on the details, rather than squabble over every creative difference. Otherwise failure is assured.
Tools for Collaboration
Here’s an increasingly common scenario: You’ve been assigned a co-author to work with on a new project. You’re hundreds, if not thousands, of miles apart. You have talked and have a plan. You’ve agreed upon the foundation and now you’re ready to begin building. How do you accomplish the things discussed in this article? Tools. Every good craftsman uses the right tools to get the job done in the right way. Even those best laid plans for the latest project will go awry if you have miscommunicated about the tools to use. For instance you could use snail mail to collaborate but the chances of finishing the technical writing work by those pesky deadlines are minimal, so this particular tool is not very useful. Email and instant messaging would be better, but these tools also have limitations. Time to head to the internet for a plethora of great tools to collaborate on creation, review, and presentation—often in real-time. And many of them are free or almost free.
What should you look for to ensure these tools are useful for your project and work styles? Think of the right toolset as one which helps meld individual minds into one. The tools you choose need to allow you to access the project from anywhere, allow you to access your work from any platform, and allow simultaneous document editing. Cloud computing is ideal for this purpose and is gaining momentum in the world of collaboration, and it provides the tools that meet the requirements of any collaboration project: Calendars, word processing, spreadsheets, mind maps, graphics and various other tools. At the end of this article, I’ve listed a sampling of great collaboration tools you can check out. There are many others out there; you just need to pick one that serves your purposes the best.
Time, Time, Time
Time is one factor that affects all things and no project is exempt. Often assignments requiring collaboration with another technical writer don’t afford the time to completely follow best practices for project management or collaboration. (Or perhaps you’ve discovered this article too late to use these suggestions for your current project.)
Regardless of the time allotted to your project, communication is vital. My first collaboration effort for TechWhirl was accomplished via instant messaging with a young lady several hundred miles away. We were crunched for time and we did not have the benefit of these tips until after we had finished the article. So to get to the finish line, we used a simple method: my partner did the actual writing and I supported the project with research. This is a viable option when the stern hand of time does not allow proper planning or editing to mold two distinct styles into one coherent article.
Another method is for both writers to contribute to the project and, in the introduction, encourage the readers to enjoy the differing styles of the authors. If done well, this can bring a certain spice to the results.
However you view collaboration, if you approach it in a logical and disciplined manner you and your team members have a greater chance for success. Planning the work, setting milestones along the way and laying the foundation for the deliverables up front both require collaboration, and set the tone for it. You need attend to the details, especially with regard regular editing of each other’s work, not only for clarity and proper mechanics, but also to fuse differing styles into a unified voice. Proper tools are vital to accomplishing this task, and the criteria for selecting them include availability, real-time, simultaneous editing, and interoperability. When the creativity of individual minds is blended into one outcome, you are virtually assured that someone will be impacted by reading it. Whether it’s “helpful help”, a clear and concise procedure, a snappy feature article, or an important book, if you impact the reader you have done your job and done it well.
**I would like to send A HUGE THANK YOU to Connie Giordano, Tony Chung, Mike Mcallister, and Craig Cardimon for sharing their collaboration wisdom with me. This article is based on the advice they gave to me in regards to collaboration. THANK YOU one and ALL!
Do you have experience with a collaborating tool you’d like to share with our readers? Let us know.
Check out these collaborating tools:
- Keep and Share: http://www.keepandshare.com/
- WhiteBoard: http://writeboard.com/
- ooVoo (has some creative possibilities for collaboration): http://www.oovoo.com/home.aspx
- Vyew: http://vyew.com/site/index2
- Mashable – (60 collaboration tools to investigate!): http://mashable.com/2007/07/22/online-collaboration/