Writing in the open

On Monday I had a paper deadline for a journal special issue. It wasn’t the final deadline but the only free day I had between then and the actual deadline in which I could write a first draft. Typically, I hadn’t started the paper. I had a vague idea what I wanted to say, but it was all in my head.

I got my head down by mucking around on Twitter.

“Today I have to write a paper with a deadline of… hmmm… today. Expect lots of action on Twitter.”

I got an interesting suggestion from Lawrie Phipps:

“Take a risk, write in an open google doc and allow comments. Tweet out the link every hour and ask for feedback. It’ll be fun.”

What a stupid suggestion I thought, what kind of idiot would write a paper in public? Me, it turns out.

I make it a policy to always revisit something that I find initially scary or challenging, and do it anyway. This has led to adventures such as treetop exploration at Go Ape (never again), presenting my work through stand-up comedy (never again), and singing live karaoke (absolutely never again). While there is a pattern emerging here, I am always glad afterwards that I did the thing.

So I set up an open google doc and set to work. The #openpaper project was born. Thanks to Lawrie kindly tweeting about the endeavour, many times, there really wasn’t anywhere to hide, and it wasn’t long before there were lots of people watching, and comments started appearing.

Initially this was really weird. I had not envisaged how exposed I would feel with the anonymous menagerie that kept appearing and disappearing in the corner of my screen. The anonymity of viewers was really hard to deal with, and it took me nearly an hour to write anything at all. However, once I’d actually got some words on the page and got more used to the set up it became easy to ignore the observers and they became more of a positive validatory presence. In fact, there was a period between about 3 and 4pm when I was completely alone in the document and I felt completely abandoned.

The comments were also initially difficult to deal with. It’s definitely disconcerting to have someone comment in real time as you write (and in one case before I’d written something). Once I realised that I didn’t need to address the comments straight away then life became easier. The constant Twitter back-channel was distracting too (although in a good way) so I had to start being really strict with myself about how often I checked and responded.

Where the process really came into its own though was in the final evening stretch. I was tired. I was sick of the paper. I had no creativity left. This was the point a which the constant observation and comments were so useful for keeping me going and providing a purpose for the writing. The introduction of wine at 9pm helped too.

Finally, at 10:40, over thirteen hours after I’d started, the first draft of the #openpaper was completed. I’d like to say that I couldn’t have done it without being open, but I would have, because I had a deadline. However, I wouldn’t have felt so supported, so much part of a community, and the feedback will certainly make a sounder and more robust paper (at least I hope the reviewers agree).

You should try it. It’ll be fun.

#openpaper is now locked for comments, but in the spirit of openness is available here.










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