Collective writing

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1 Definition

Collective writing is an example of collective intelligence because it involves collaborating with others in order to create or improve contents or knowledge. Group projects have always existed but in the era of social computing, new technologies have made these projects easier to organize and develop (e.g. eliminating the problem of people being unable to meet at the same time, of single students doing the work of the whole group, etc.). Each student can contribute, at any moment and from anywhere, adding new ideas or editing existing ones.

(For more information on writing as a cognitive tool see Writing-to-learn )

2 Advantages and disadvantages

Collective writing can be very useful on two levels:

  • on a group level because the possibility of adding new ideas and editing each others’ work leads to a better developed text; examples of this are wikis like Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia anyone can contribute to;
  • on a personal level because contributors are stimulated to use precise language and express their ideas concisely but clearly. This involvement, often leading to a greater interest in the topic, may in the end result in better learning.

In order to take part in a collective writing project involving new technologies you need to have at least some basic technical skills such as typing (writing in italics and bold for example) and all the essential features of a word processor. You can then go on and increase your knowledge to use more complex applications (for example you need to know a little bit of HTML language to be able to edit wiki pages or your personal blog). People who are not very good with computers might feel a bit under pressure and they risk concentrating more on “how-to-write” than on “what-to-write”. Another risk of collective writing is that sometimes people might get offended when they see their work changed by someone else.

Sarah Simpson, a retired teacher now back to school at the Bemidji State University, summarizes the collective writing experience very well on the website How the wiki changes writing :

“ It has taken me more time to become 'comfortable' writing on a wiki than on a blog. Just my personal problem, however, learning all the mechanics has been difficult for me. At first I was uncomfortable with the idea that anyone could change what I write, but I'm finding out that that is a good thing about wikis! Ideas can be expanded, added to, made clearer by the collaboration of a group of writers.”

3 Tools and Software

There are many writing tools that can be used for collective writing. These tools allow people working on the same project to contribute from anywhere and at any time. See also the list of web 2.0 applications that may list more tools.

  • Standard wordprocessors offer collective writing features.
  • Writely.com A Google project which lets you save and work online on documents and spreadsheets so that you, and whoever you choose, can always keep them updated.
  • Writeboard is another website which lets you save documents online and gives you the possibility to update them from wherever you want, comparing changes and having different people working on the same project.
  • Wikis, in particular systems like mediawiki that are currently developing models to prepare printed books (e.g. Wiki readers)
  • Blogs as well can be used for group projects and are very useful for online discussions.

As pointed out by Washington University, these applications are transforming the Internet from a means of uploading and gathering information to a means of collaborating to create new knowledge.

4 References

  • Carol L. Winkelmann, Electronic literacy, critical pedagogy, and collaboration: A case for cyborg writing (1995), Computers and the Humanities, Volume 29, Number 6, 431 - 448.
  • The BYU GE Newsletter on Writing Across the Curriculum,Writing Matters, Volume 2, Number 5, February 2001
  • Washington University in St. Louis, Teaching and Technology, ITeach Newsletter, Spring 2007