My favorite way to write

Author: Brianna

My friend Meaghan is in town! Thanks to the Ernst Mayr Grant, she’s here at Harvard to take photographs of lots and lots of skulls in our Museum of Comparative Zoology. She is equal parts brilliant and hilarious, and it’s great to have a former labmate come spend time at my new institution.

Meaghan is also a collaborator of mine – in fact, she is the one driving the bus – on a really, really cool Pleistocene project. Not only is she the queen of successful undergraduate research mentoring, it turns out she is also a very, very skilled project manager. Everything is organized. (This is not surprising, if you know Meaghan.) The overall plan for the project and its sub-parts is easy to find and understand. Everyone’s next tasks are clear. Everything moves along at a pace varying between steady and rockets-on-full-blast.

I love it. (This is also not surprising, if you know me.)

So, as I mentioned on twitter…

My favorite thing about being in the same place as my collaborators is the writing.

My favorite way to write? Sitting down with another person.

Face to face or side by side, as long as it’s in actual physical space. Someone’s office, someone’s house (Meaghan and I are both blogging at my kitchen table as I type), or my perennial favorite, the coffee shop. Comes complete with background noise, refreshments, and a sense of slight urgency because you don’t want to be That Guy hogging the prime table and outlets all day. Why is it important to be in the same physical space? I’ve found it vastly expedites the process. Clarifying the intent/message of the piece of writing becomes much simpler, because you can talk it out. Problems or confusions that aren’t big enough to email about, but are still tricky and slow you down, can be resolved instantly.

Another major bonus of this method: it is a great way to teach better writing. I say this as someone who wrote my first manuscript all by myself, then sat down with my project advisor for a couple hours and walked through it sentence by sentence. A big time investment? Yes, but it probably takes only slightly longer than going through and commenting by hand. For me, at least, seeing the corrections discussed and then made in real time provided a major boost to the quality of my future drafts.

You can write together in several ways. The two best ways I’ve found are:

1. One person types while the other looks over the writer’s shoulder. The non-typer makes suggestions and/or heckles. This dual-writing method is very fast for several reasons: the faster typist can be the one at the computer; you rarely get stuck on how to phrase something, because you’re both talking it out and you have another person’s perspective; you can urge each other on in “write the shitty first draft” mode (link to a PDF – go read!), pushing past a desire to nitpick in the early stages; and it’s more fun than sitting alone in a room somewhere.

2. Both people have a Google Doc (or some other simul-editing setup) open to the paper/outline/whatever. You should still be sitting next to one another! For this it’s best if you are working on slightly different sections, or at least one person is following slightly behind the other to provide input, complete sentences, or tidy up phrasing. This method provides a little more “divide and conquer” style and may work better if you can’t handle conversation + writing at the same time.

As it turns out, I usually prefer the first method, and that is what Meaghan and I are planning this weekend. Just the two of us, a coffee shop, and some serious progress on a Really Sexy Manuscript that we hope will be coming soon to a journal near you.

Go try it!

(And if you’re interested in a blog that is irreverent, hilarious, and informative, go check out Mary Anning’s Revenge, which Meaghan co-writes.)

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