Agilewords Blog

3 reasons collaborative writing for businesses is overrated

  • By Fabrice Talbot
  • November 05, 2010
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box_collaborationThere’s a lot of hype around collaborative writing these days.  Online editors such as Google Docs seem very powerful indeed compared to the classic Microsoft Office approach where you write documents locally and use email attachments to send files to collaborators. But similar to Google Wave before, online collaborative writing may be overrated and provide only limited benefits to your business.


Let’s start by listing the benefits one would expect from an online collaborative writing solution:

  • Writers can access the same document online
  • Writers can simultaneously make changes to the document
  • Writers can edit, proofread others’ text
  • Version tracking makes it easy to track and resolve editing conflicts
  • Documents are written faster and are of higher quality

It sounds great on the surface. However the devil often lies in the details. Sometimes, a cool feature introduces more issues than it brings benefits… And I am afraid this is the case. I see three arguments you should carefully consider before jumping into the fan club of collaborative writing:

1. Lack of clear process

Writers receive an email invitation that asks them to join and contribute to the document; there’s no clear deadlines, tasks to complete, or rules defined to work collaboratively on the document – remember, in the end Google Docs remains a simple online editor. Nothing prevents someone from editing content that you considered final, or to work on a section reserved for a subject matter expert. Moreover, edits are hard to track with so many versions of the same document created. Online document editors do not come with built-in change tracking and the ability to approve or reject changes as a content owner. This lack of control makes it hard to get efficiency gains in a multi-writer environment.

2. Anti-pattern approach

The closest pattern I have in mind to describe collaborative writing comes from sports teams. Since we’re proud of our San Francisco Giants (they just won the World Series!), I’ll take the example of a baseball team whose goal is to win games (i.e.: release business documents). To do so, they have specialists – pitchers, catchers, batters (i.e.: the writers) – who excel in their positions. When they play a game, every player knows his role, when he has to step in, and what’s expected from him, thanks to the coach (collaborative process). The team’s success relies on a combination of individual talents and the members' ability to follow instructions and ablility to use their skills in a timely manner. Collaborative writing brings a team of specialists together. However, it lacks a coach to tell everyone what to do, make sure everyone follows instructions. The result? A bottom-of-the-league team …

3. It did not work for professional writers

My wife is a technical writer so I’ll talk from that perspective even though my point should apply to other writing professions. I learned that technical writers never try to share content ownership on documentation. Instead, they split responsibilities by manuals (admin guide, user guide) or take ownership for smaller chunks of a large document (usually in a single-source environment). Very often they’ll work with a peer for document editing and proofreading (ownership is temporarily passed). Group collaboration takes place during the review cycles (from first to final draft). But keep in mind that the content owner is always responsible for making appropriate changes and releasing information reviewed and approved by everyone. So, if professional writers gave up on collaborative document writing, isn’t it pretentious to think that business writers can do a better job?

To sum, the ability to collaboratively write documents online seems pretty exciting on the surface. In practice, things may not look as rosy, especially when you need to collaborate on sensitive business documents –contracts, business proposals, or legal documents. There is probably a middle ground to find between the level of flexibility you want to give writers and the processes and controls needed to achieve quality results. We believe in content ownership and think that bringing too many cooks in the kitchen may be the best recipe for disaster!

Have you collaborated on business documents using Google Docs or another online editor? Do you agree with us? Have you had a different experience? We’d love to hear about it!

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