Writing Process vs Written Product

I started working with a client in the middle of last year who had a writing ‘problem’.


He’d been publishing consistently, and publishing in great outlets. Nothing wrong there.


But, for someone in the social sciences, he had a disproportionate number of co-authored papers compared with sole authored ones. And his senior colleagues had pointed out to him that he needed to reverse that ratio.


Now, there are perfectly logical reasons for co-authored papers in the social sciences. For instance:

  • The projects you’re publishing results from may have been collaborative, hence you weren’t the only one to contribute to the study or its findings (or the writing up of it), so it makes perfect sense that your project team shares authorship of the publication with you; or
  • You may have applied your research into a relatively new field (for you), so you collaborate with someone else (who is established in that field) in order to tap into their intellectual expertise

But neither of these reasons explained the many times he had co-authored work. Rather, these decisions had been driven by three recurring motivations:

  • he hates the solitude of writing
  • he likes writing…but hates finishing
  • he lacks confidence in his ideas


Unfortunately, none of these reasons in themselves confers co-authorship status on his colleagues. (Just to be clear, most Universities will have policies on authorship rights, roles, and responsibilities. If you’re not sure about your University’s policy, seek help from your Research Office, University Librarian or search your University’s online policy library).


That aside, there were other solutions to overcoming these features of writing that he dislikes so much (he and many others, mind you!). I offered up the following suggestions to him to help him think about alternatives to co-authorship. You may be able to think of more:


  1. To break the isolation, he could join a writing group in his area (or start one with a few peers), or initiate ‘writing appointments’ with others to do nothing other than bring laptops to a shared space and write in silence.  Or he could write in a café or public library, if ambient noise wasn’t too much of a distraction.


  1. To ensure he finishes incomplete writing projects, he could deploy the motivational power of loss aversion and public accountability. For instance, he could make it public in his School or Centre or to a colleague what date he would submit his next article by, and name something he would give up/lose if he did not meet the deadline (for some, the risk of losing ‘face’ is enough, but for others, the risk of losing money, or going without coffee for a week, or having to do something they hate, may be more effective disincentives to letting a self-imposed writing deadline languish). (Websites such as stikK are based on these very principles of human motivation to help people achieve their goals).


To address poor confidence about his ideas, he could seek peer feedback on his written ideas at early stages from people with whom there is high trust – whether the above-mentioned writing group, or a departmental seminar group, or from colleagues whom he trusts – to help test and tighten his ideas, before they are subject to wider scholarly scrutiny. He could also stick a reminder above his computer that confidence comes after doing something, not before doing it!


For my client, these courses of action involved stepping outside his comfort zone many times, which is never easy. But over time, they have helped him reconcile and refrain from a pattern of misplaced co-authorship.


I’m in full favour of research and writing collaborations when they are justified. But if feelings of loneliness, procrastination or intellectual inadequacy are affecting your track record in the form of excessive co-authorship, a different type of collaboration might be helpful: collaboration not on the written product, but in the writing process.  

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