Editing documents using centralised online cloud storage is an increasingly popular workflow adjustment, making documents more easily accessible and more transparently adaptable. There is great potential for academics and researchers to explore the variety of free services available. Kim Mann shares her experience here of using Google Drive to write a conference panel summary with long-distance colleagues. She finds the technology to be particularly conducive to the brainstorming stages as well as to the improvement of the finished output.
I’ve been working with a couple of colleagues to put together a panel for a conference we’re applying to. We worked on our rough ideas for the panel via a group email, but when it came time to write our panel summary, I suggested that we could try using a shared Google Drive document. My fellow panelists were game, and it ended up working really well.
The Technology Took a Back Seat to Our Collaboration
To get us started, I created a new document and shared it with my fellow panelists. They all had Google accounts, so it was easy for them to join me in editing the document I’d created. I pasted in some of the ideas about our panel from our email exchange to get us started, and we worked on it from there. Each of us put our individual paper abstract at the bottom of the document for reference, and then we started writing our panel summary together, and that’s when things got interesting!
Collaborative writing with a Google Drive document worked amazingly well. The best thing about it wasn’t that it had cool features (it does) or that it was “fun” to use (like some technology can be). No, the best thing about it was that the technology never felt like it got in the way of our collaboration. There weren’t any technological hiccoughs, and the technology faded into the background and was, at least for me, more or less invisible when we worked on our panel summary.
Asynchronous Commenting Across Two States
In Google Drive you can also view a history of the comments made on a document, so even “resolved” comments are preserved.
Since we have different schedules, and not all of the members of our panel live in the same state, we individually would go into the document on Google Drive and work on writing and revising it. This kind of asynchronous editing works really well with Google Drive, since it has a cool commenting feature I talked about briefly in this post. When one of us changed something we weren’t sure about, or had a question about, we would make a new comment. This way most of our conversation happened on the document itself, rather than via a plethora of emails.
We didn’t end up all getting together on the document at the same time to edit synchronously, but if we had, there’s a built-in chat feature that shows up on the right side of your browser window. This would let you talk to your collaborators while you’re writing if you needed to do that.
Sharing the Workload
Of course, like all conference panels, one was the official organizer (it wasn’t me), but since we all knew each other beforehand, we were all sensitive to making any one person do most of the work. Using Google Drive made it easy for us to share the workload of working on the collaboratively-written document, and we all at times played different roles, as initial drafter, editor, and reviser.
We all also were able to share and bounce ideas off of each other, from broad brainstorming about the panel and how to fit it into the conference theme, to individual phrasing and word choices. When my brain felt numb and out of words, like it sometimes does, I was able to stop working on the document with the knowledge that when I returned, someone else would have revitalized my prose, or appreciated how I’d reworded something of theirs. It truly felt like a collaborative exercise.
My Individual Abstract Improved
Another bonus that came out of this process was that I was able to improve my own individual abstract that I wrote by myself. I had an idea and a few sentences for my abstract when we started the panel summary, and I finished it as we worked on the summary together. I could tell when parts of my individual abstract didn’t communicate what I’d intended, based on the direction of the panel summary, and I was able to adjust my own wording to be clearer.
Having my abstract in the same document as the panel summary also made me more attentive to the fact that the others were using my abstract to help tie their own ideas into the overall summary, just as I used theirs. This motivated me to write for a very real audience of fellow scholars. As a result, I think it’s one of the most clear and polished abstracts I’ve written. It surprised me how working on a document with other people could help me improve my own writing.
A Successful Experiment with Technology!
Because of the unobtrusiveness of the technology, and the skills and good natures of my fellow panelists, I have to say that working on this conference panel was one of my best writing experiences of recent memory. It’s so different to write with others rather than sitting by yourself working on your dissertation. Working with two other scholars on our summary, thinking of ways of explaining our panel in a limited number of words, and having someone else reword it was a refreshing change!
The best part about this experiment, however, was that it felt like a successful piece of collaborative writing came out of the process, which was our goal — and as I think all good collaborative writing must be, eventually the words became ours, rather than mine or someone else’s.
This article was first published on the College of William and Mary Academic Technology Blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Kim Mann is the editor and a contributor for the College of William & Mary’s Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and she’s currently a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the College. Her dissertation is on the representations of machined bodies in literature and popular culture since the American Civil War.