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The Collaborative Writing Sprint: Product and Process

posted: 6.17.11 by archived

If you’re interested in having your students write for the Web, first look at the Writing Spaces Web Writing Style Guide, which came out earlier this month as part of the Writing Spaces open textbook project. The style guide covers writing with social media tools (blogs, wikis, Twitter), including rhetorical, ethical, and design considerations, and it’s aimed particularly at college writing students. Like all of the material in the Writing Spaces project, its Creative-Commons licensing allows it to be freely distributed (with attribution) for noncommercial purposes.

I first learned about the style guide when I read its CFP a few months ago, and it was the process that intrigued me as much as the potential usefulness of the final product in my classes. It was a collaborative process begun in Google Docs as an outline (open to changes midstream) to which anyone interested could contribute; this part of the process was termed the writing sprint, and the encouraging guidelines suggested that contributors write fast: “Write and edit what you want. Got a better metaphor from what is already written? Change it. Feel like you can adjust the style better to be more student-friendly? Want to significantly revise a section or add a new section? Want to reorganize the text?  Do it. Just write and rewrite.”

So I did. After reading through what had been written, I found a few places where I thought I could add some information: on building an audience for blogs, on the differences between blogs and wikis, and on blog conventions for crediting sources. I was interested to see that even with my experience as a blogger I did have initial anxiety to overcome, the sort of psychological barriers I often face as a writer but compounded by the public (though anonymous) nature of my potential contribution. I felt a wave of empathy for many of the bright students I’ve had who just couldn’t start writing. I’ve started to talk about that resistance more in my classes, but I still need to do more to understand it and help students overcome it.

With end-of-semester pressures, I didn’t participate in the next stages of the process: discussion and editing of the sprint-results. The time-span, though, is astonishing to me: not much longer than a month, maybe five or six weeks, from initial outline to finished product (pdf and epub versions will be available shortly).

What I’ve been thinking about is whether and how I could use such a process in my freshman comp classes. Last semester’s collaborative writing project didn’t go very well. On the whole, most groups didn’t make effective use of class time I gave them, and compounded procrastination didn’t allow time for students to work together to give feedback and help with revision. In addition, although I graded the project as a whole for informational purposes, I made the mistake (I think) of counting only individual contributions for the grade, so that diminished the incentive for group members to work meaningfully together.

An online sprint could have possible benefits for collaborative writing in the classroom:

  • I like the idea of students working together to produce some sort of publicly useful guide or report (cf. audience and exigence).
  • The writing sprint metaphor and the encouragement to keep writing with the knowledge that things will change and evolve (cf. writing process) could help reduce student anxiety levels.
  • Making the whole composition process visible on some online space such as Google Docs could help get students writing through a sort of peer pressure; also, it will allow me to monitor progress and apply some prodding, if necessary.

There are also potential challenges:

  • A key challenge would be to find a topic for students to write that they either knew about or could research. (I wouldn’t be able to rely on students having common interests, and I would not want to fall back on lame topics like “how to be successful in college.”) Instead, I’d like students to be able to collect and report first-hand data of some sort.
  • I have had logistical problems in the past with students using Google Docs; a session or two in a computer lab could help with this.
  • I’d also need to figure out how best to deal with assessment (group grade vs. individual grade).

If you’ve tried anything similar or you have any suggestions for such a collaborative writing project, please feel free to comment.

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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