Open publishing – Collaborative writing

It’s not just publishing that is becoming an open process, but also writing. The advent of wikis and blogs allows people to collaborate on creative works with complete strangers, regardless of geographic divides. The idea seems a bit strange to creative writers used to what is most frequently a solitary pursuit, but for certain types of writing it can work very well. Opening your work up for proof-reading and criticism right from the beginning can be an emotionally difficult task for some, but bringing together a number of experts to work on a book and provide feedback can result in a much better end product.

Some types of writing are clearly good for collaborative writing – technical books, such as books about computer programming, or factual books with a lot of fine detail benefit from the insight and expertise of more than one person. One such example is The Django Book, written by Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss. Here’s a very quick tour of their site:

Clive Thompson did something similar way when writing a feature on radical transparency for Wired. He published his initial ideas about what the feature should cover, and asked his readers for their input. They gave him information and links to use in his research; discussed the implications of his ideas on secrecy, transparency and the hivemind; and helped him shape his feature with views from around the world.

And a project that De Montfort students might already be aware of is the Million Penguins wiki, a join Penguin/De Montfort project attempting to bring strangers together to write a novel. Rather than using a blog and comments to solicit feedback, this wiki allows people to write and edit the novel directly. Unlike The Dango Book or Radical Transparency, which are examples of factual writing where people can pool their expertise on a given subject, A Million Penguins is an experiment to see if people can write fiction together.

The problem with writing fiction is that it’s not just a series of scenes put into a logical order, it has to have an internal structure of its own, and that usually comes from one person’s imagination, or collaboration between a small number of people (frequently two). It’s also difficult for a group of strangers to write with a consistent voice, to avoid cliché, and to develop working plots, sub-plots, themes and motifs. But A Million Penguins is an experiment to see if people can self-organise, and to see how parallel storylines develop as individuals and small groups pick up a concept and run with it in different directions.

It reminds me somewhat of the email role playing games (RPG) that I’ve been a part of in the past, where people come together, each create a character and weave a story together email by email. Sometimes, email RPGs work really well – when you have a cohesive group who respect each other’s contribution, not only is it a lot of fun but the story that unravels is creative and interesting. But it only takes one person being difficult to turn a fun RPG into something tedious and annoying, and I fear that the same is true – possibly more true – of a wiki novel. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Wikis can also be used for non-fiction, just as blogs can be. Justin Patten is currently writing a book called Blogging and Other Social Media: Technology and Law, and is using a wiki to open up the writing process to other social media experts. Again, I think it’s slightly easier to write a non-fiction book on a wiki than a novel, but either way it’s a non-trivial task.

One issue that springs to mind is, how you deal with someone else posting content that infringes someone else’s copyright? It’s not feasible to double-check every passage added to the wiki by every user, particularly if your wiki takes off and you have a lot of contributors. It could be troublesome if such a passage was not picked up until the book was in print, potentially forcing all copies to be pulped if legal action was taken.

The answer is, I think, not just that you can generally trust your contributors, but also to encourage contributors to add in references if they spot a passage they recognise as being quoted from another source. Then, inclusion of infringing text – whether innocent or malicious – could be picked up fairly early in the process. Of course, there are no guarantees, but we’ll have to wait and see if this sort of concern is even valid.

One final method that I’ve used a lot for writing up collaborative conference notes is simultaneous note taking, using software like SubEthaEdit (on the Mac). SubEthaEdit allows multiple people to edit the same document at the same time – so you can see people typing, letter by letter. It’s an amazing tool for real-time collaboration, and I’d love to experiment with writing something substantive with it. Certainly it’d be a fun tool for co-writing a novel, so long as your collaborators are in the right time zone!

But this openness isn’t suitable for everyone or every project. Sometimes, the joy of writing is sitting, on your own, somewhere quiet, and just working through your own thoughts, figuring out what you really mean, getting your own words out of your head and into a medium where they can eventually be shared – when you are ready. Much of writing for me is about self-expression, and that’s something that’s never going to go away, no matter how much technology provides me with the tools and opportunity to collaborate. That’s not a rejection of collaboration, but recognition of the fact that I like to put my self into my writing, and no one else can do that for me. Neither way of writing is right or wrong, it’s just horses for courses.

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