Writing collaboratively

This is a summary of our Spring 2017 Information Skills Programme: Session 2

We trialled a new format for this session – a discussion group where all participants were invited to share their experiences and ideas, learning from each other.

There were five participants and we started the session by sharing a summary of our collaborative writing experiences. All of us had some experience of collaborative writing and we had also all used the same tools – MS Word (with email) and Google Docs.


Just sit down and write

Amy shared a method she has used to co-author documents, which she felt this was the most successful method for co-authoring if you’ve got the time. It’s also a great method when you’ve got a tight deadline.

Take all your co-authors + a room + a significant chunk of time and just sit down and write.

Amy told us about using this method to write both a journal article with one co-author and a funding proposal with three co-authors – using Google Docs for both. By setting a time and place for writing you can get away from distractions and focus on writing. There is also the benefit of instant editing and feedback from your co-authors.

A structured approach as a lead author

Amy also shared a workflow she is using as one of two lead authors on a journal article with a large number co-authors from across the world. Each section is allocated to someone and everyone is given a 24-hour window to write their section. The document is then closed down for further editing while the lead authors comment on the draft. The authors will then be given another 24-hour window to respond to comments and edit their section, before the document is opened up to comments from all co-authors.

This system is being used to combat a previously experienced problem – without structure and deadlines, it can take a long time to obtain input from your collaborators!

Using ‘suggesting’ mode

suggestingNibu shared with us a feature of Google Docs that she has found useful when lead-authoring a paper, but which not everyone had come across before – suggesting mode. When a document is in suggesting mode, any edits anyone makes appear in square brackets as suggestions – a bit like track changes – making it easy to see what changes have been suggested and by whom. Nibu used suggesting mode when all collaborators were reviewing and suggesting edits to the paper. The lead author can then easily see the suggested changes and accept (or reject!) changes with one click. Collaborators can also comment on suggested changes.

Google’s instructions on using suggesting mode

suggesting2Another way to use the commenting mode if you ‘own’ the doc is to invite collaborators to the document with commenting rather than editing rights – this way they will effectively always be in suggesting mode.

When your co-author(s) don’t want to use Google Docs

We also discussed what happens when some of your co-authors don’t want to (or can’t) use Google Docs. If the problem is specifically with Google you could try one of the other tools outlined below. But more often, it’s simply that they just want to stick to what they’re used to using (almost always MS Word).

If it’s only a small proportion of your collaborators who don’t want to use Google Docs, and there’s not a problem with them being one of the last to review the document, you can still include Google Docs in your workflow. Write and review as normal in Google Docs with the other collaborators and then download the doc and email it to your non-Google Doc-using collaborator for review.

If there are a lot of collaborators who don’t want to use an online collaborative tool, you’ll need a workflow for managing all the comments and suggested revisions. We’re probably all familiar with the scenario where a document is emailed around to a number of collaborators and you end up with a confusing mix of versions which someone has to try and merge. We didn’t have an easy solution to this one, but you can instigate a system where once someone is working on the draft they ‘flag’ it and no one else works on it until they’ve finished. You should(!) then end up with everyone’s suggested edits on one version of the document. Although you will still end up with a document title with lots of initials stuck on the end and you have to be careful that you’re using the most recent.

Other tools

Google Docs is certainly popular as a collaborative writing tool, but there are some other tools that you might want to consider. Here’s a handpicked selection.

Dropbox Paper

  • A new product launched 31 January 2017 (although a beta version was previously available)
  • Similar to Google Docs, but you can easily add lots of different types of content
  • Feels more like a webpage than an online version of a print document

If you want to know more about Dropbox Paper, Gizmodo has a useful article titled 5 Reasons You Might Ditch Google Docs For Dropbox Paper

Zoho Writer

It’s quite possible you’ve not heard of Zoho. Zoho Writer was the first of Zoho’s applications, launched in 2005, but is now one of a huge number including everything from email to accounting to survey-building. The version of Zoho Writer shown here is free, but you can get more storage space and have more collaborators with a subscription.

Zoho Writer is fairly similar in functionality to Google Docs and Dropbox Paper, but there are a few features that might persuade you to create yet another online account and opt for Zoho over Google or Dropbox.

  • More formatting options than Google Docs or Dropbox Paper (to me it feels closer to MS Word)
  • Easy and flexible locking of parts of the document
  • Redacting functionality (potentially useful if you’ve got a document with financial information you don’t want all your collaborators to see)


Overleaf is a bit different to the other tools presented here. It is designed specifically for writing academic articles. Originally, Overleaf was designed for LaTeX, but it now has a Rich Text editing option – so it’s good if you’ve got a co-author who wants to use LaTeX, but you don’t! One feature of Overleaf that elicited some excitement in the session is that it can reformat your paper for different journals’ formatting guidelines.

If you’re a member of Cambridge University, you can get free access to an Overleaf Pro account.


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