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Guest Post

How to Build a Collaborative Writing Process

Matthew Guay
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It’s rather terrifying to check your email, first thing in the morning, and see a dozen emails from comments-noreply@docs.google.com. No editor writes that many comments simply because they’re in love with what you wrote, you think.

But then, on the other side of the table, editing is a tough job. You’re there on behalf of the readers and the brand guide, checking to ensure facts are correct, points are in order, i’s dotted and t’s crossed. You too know the terror of the red pen, and remember all too well how it felt to get essays back from teachers marked up beyond recognition. But now you’re the one editing, and heavy is the hand that wields the pen.

What formerly was reserved for the editing floor is now increasingly how business works. Your blog posts get edited, as do your designs in Figma, and your code in GitHub. These days, you don’t just draft and fire off an email to customers. Before the copy even makes its way to a draft in your email provider, it’s shared around in Slack with a request for feedback.

That’s why you need a commenting routine that works well for everyone. Here’s how to build one—from an editor who’s edited far too heavily in his time, and learned from scarred writers’ confusion how to do better.

Collaborate, but later

The editorial process—or the design process, or the coding process, or the process of creating anything new in a team—should start with collaboration. Brainstorming. Figuring out where we’re going and how to get there.

Then it’s time to go offline. You need to be heads-down, focused on research and creation, without worrying about what others are thinking about your writing. It’s a work in progress, it’s supposed to be messy. It’s your safe space, where you should expect a bit of privacy to explore and break the rules.

“I operate out of a private doc,” shared Mr. Snyder in a Wall Street Journal article about collaboration. “I don’t want even the sense of someone looking at my work.”

Part of the appeal of working with offline tools is that no one else can look over your shoulder unless they’re actually standing there. In Google Docs, you never know if someone might show up right when your article looks the worst.

So give yourself the space to create privately, first. Turn off the wifi as a digital do-not-disturb mode, if necessary, or don’t share your document just yet. Write and create on your own. Add comments for yourself—“I have a tendency to forget things, so I often leave comments for myself while writing the draft (and address them while editing),” shares freelancer writer Rochi Zalani. Edit once to catch the most obvious mistakes. Then, when you share your creation with your colleagues, you’ll be mentally ready to take the feedback. At the very least, it’s feedback about your finished piece, not about your half-strung thoughts spread across an unfinished page.

First, do no harm

Then, when you’re the editor, stop and think before you edit.

“Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn your way through a document in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules,” says Chicago Manual of Style editor Carol Fisher Saller in her book The Subversive Copy Editor, advise I could have used far earlier in my career. “Your first goal is merely to do no harm.”

For the terror of comments isn’t in getting your spelling and grammar fixed. It’s in a dozen of tiny comments that make you feel like your entire piece was unsalvageable. As Kyle Bazinet related to the WSJ of his experience with collaborative editing, “It was impressive and terrifying at the same time to see how quickly they were able to pick something apart that I’d been working on for days.”

So stop and think about what’s truly needed. “A certain amount of editing is optional and subjective,” says Saller. “What one editor considers acceptable is incorrect to another.” Let the writer get by with a few ungrammatical phrases if they seem to be added on purpose. Focus on the big picture, the structure of the piece, and its key takeaways. Does it make sense, and will the reader enjoy it? If so, the smaller things don’t matter quite as much.

Add comments about the core structure of the document, and about things you think should be added, cut, or rearranged, near the top of the document. “Give acknowledgement and reflection of the original intent,” suggests Cord founder Nimrod Priell, “and strive to suggest a specific rephrasing rather than just pointing out a flaw.” Lead with praise, if possible, then share what you think needs changed and why. Those comments will set the tone for everything that comes after.

“Editors have the hard job of being that invisible person who makes writers’ work even better,” says my former editor, Melanie Pinola. Remember it’s the writer’s piece, and that you’re editing for the average reader, not yourself, and you’ll be far more likely to make edits that the writer appreciates.

And remember how your comments will be taken. When working with an editor in-person, you can talk back and forth about the ideas. Online, everything comes together, the good and the bad. There’s a “psychological need to have a back and forth, say things in different tones, listen back,” says Priell, where on the internet, it’s “here’s everything, all at once.” Perhaps lead your edits with a comment at the top of the document containing your broad thoughts about the piece. Use that as a way to segue into the more critical feedback, with the earlier thoughtful praise making the more pointed changes easier to take.

Clean up quietly

Then comes micro-edits, and the question of whether to suggest changes, or add them quietly. Writers are possessive of their work, and rightly so. They want to know what’s been tweaked and to have the option to push back. But they also don’t want to be overwhelmed, and will likely feel like their editor is passive-aggressive if they have to approve every comma and capitalization change.

Saller suggests making those changes directly. “Some types of uncontroversial changes are not easy to display visually through tracking (such as eliminating double and triple spaces accidentally typed between words), so it makes sense to make them silently,” she says. “You want the redlined copy to be as readable as possible.”

For it’s not comments and feedback that writers dread. It’s the things that feel nit-picky, the busywork of approving dozens of comments, the dread of seeing their hard-written document covered in red strikethroughs.

Everyone has their own style. I previously added every change as a suggested edit, then learned it overwhelmed writers. Saller shares that she’ll comment the first time a smaller change is needed, then directly add those changes everywhere else they appear. Zapier managing editor Deb Tennen tries to guide, rather than editing directly: “I’ll leave comments and suggestions but will try to have them be the ones actually making any changes to the piece,” she says. And TNW editor Abhimanyu Goshal splits the middle: “I prefer to use GDocs’ suggestions tool for inline edits, and the comments tool for more substantial edits, like moving a paragraph or questioning logic/reasoning,” says Goshal.

Experiment to find what works best for your team. I’d recommend taking a page from each of the styles. Use comments to share broad feedback about the piece, and to point out exactly where changes should be added. Let writers know the first time you make smaller changes, then make subsequent ones silently. And add any larger things as suggested edits, so authors can choose if they want to use your wording or find another way to phrase that sentence.

Back to you

Then it’s back to you, the writer, with your marked-up document in hand. It’s time to take a deep breath, remember the editors have your and the audience’s best interests in mind, then dive in.

Clear out the smaller things first, those suggested edits about punctuation and capitalization, things that aren’t hard to agree with. Dig into the larger suggested edits, and accept the changes you can live with, tweak or push back on the ones you can’t. Then wrap up the larger feedback to polish your piece.

Along the way, acknowledge the feedback. Don’t just check off the comments; reply to the feedback as a way to “clear the air,” Priell suggests, to keep the conversation going with your editor as you work together in the interests of your readers.

And back at it again. Share your updated document again, this time evolved into something not exactly as you wrote originally, something different but better. It’s not easy, getting feedback on your work, but you’ll sleep easier knowing your most glaring mistakes got fixed.

The next time you write something, you’ll wonder how we lived without collaborative edits. You never love waking up to emails from Google Docs, but you’ll grow to appreciate them, too.

About the author: Matthew Guay is a writer and co-founder of Reproof, a new collaborative writing platform. Previously, he was Capiche’s founding editor and Zapier’s senior writer. Find him on Twitter @maguay.