From Different Throats Intone One Language?

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Matt Sponheimer as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Matt is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. He conducts research on the ecology of early hominins in Africa, among other topics including Neandertals and poetry. He is the author or co-author of numerous articles, including “The diet of Australopithecus sebida” in Nature 2012. Note: The title is from Jeffers’ Natural Music.)1

I’ve been thinking a lot about collaborative writing of late, and not the internecine conflict it sometimes engenders within U.S. anthropology departments. We are all certainly aware of subdisciplinary differences with regard to multi-authored manuscripts and the occasional contestation that occurs when credit for such undertakings must be meted out.2 No, I’m talking about something rather different, and I also hope much less charged. I’ve been gingerly contemplating the act of collaborative writing itself, both what it represents from a practical standpoint and as an intellectual exercise.

Dual authored pieces can be a joy to write. At their best, they are natural collaborations where two people riff off each other and push each other to deeper insight and synthesis. For such work it can be quite easy to negotiate the overall structure and one’s respective topical coverage. This assumes, of course, that the writers are more or less compatible, and bend rather than break when buffeted by intellectual crosswinds. I’ve been lucky in this area, and my experiences with dual-authored papers are among the most rewarding I’ve had as a writer.

But what about papers with 5, 6, or more authors? Such experiences will vary tremendously depending on the nature of the participants, their relative positions of power, and common practices within and between research groups, making it difficult to generalize, and I won’t really try to do so here. I’ve published with biomedical researchers, botanists, philosophers, anatomists, geochemists, veterinarians, engineers, and anthropologists of various stripes, and this has taught me there are many effective ways to approach multi-authored projects. Yet there are always potential hurdles, such as negotiating the Schylla of co-author disagreements on matters of interpretation and the Charybdis of radically different ideas about writing style. While such issues are legitimate and occasionally frustrating, most of us are reasonable most of the time, and my co-authors have always been understanding of sincere, if not entirely effective, attempts at interpretive and stylistic triangulation.3

What is rarely discussed about such endeavors, however, is how one makes them truly collaborative intellectual exercises, rather than quilt-like products where the efforts of individual contributors are sewn together after the fact. Now, understand that I am not arguing the typical multi-authored paper should be deeply integrative in its bones. It will often make sense for individuals to stick to their scholarly lasts, and for papers to be built in an orderly and modular fashion. However, there are also times where one would prefer a true group voice, such as in reviews or other highly synthetic efforts. I’ve found this easily achieved with one or maybe two collaborators, usually after hours of discussion to frame the paper, followed by a cooperative outline to work through arguments and apportion writing assignments. All of this is certainly possible with more authors, but not easy to pull off in practice.

After all, co-authors bring different data and knowledge sets to bear on the questions at hand, and as a result there will typically be sections or data that can only be provided by particular individuals. I do not see any way around that. It is, however, the next step that interests me–the confluence of individual effort where interpretation and synthesis flourish. In my experience, there is often some general understanding amongst the group, and the interpretation may even appear to be self evident, but in practice usually one or two people make the requisite decisions for construction of a first draft. It is then typical for others to chime in, usually making small comments here and there, which tend to be focused on matters of fact or small matters of interpretation. What I’ve rarely seen at this stage is a significant conceptual advance.

I think this is almost inevitable. The act of writing closes doors even as it opens them, especially the sort of academic writing in which many of us regularly engage. Each paragraph is another nail in the project’s frame, so what began with unwieldy and limitless possibility soon becomes manageable and canalized, allowing of fewer interpretive alternatives from page to page. This is fine and dandy, as it helps produce writing that is on point and lucid. It is not, however, an unalloyed good because the very process that makes a manuscript highly readable, also makes it less subject to amendation. Who has not seen a manuscript that would be best served by immolation and a fresh start, but nevertheless had to struggle to make improvements on its shaky foundation? In short, a draft often curtails a co-author’s ability to contribute.

So what approaches minimize such difficulties? In fields and in research groups where lab meetings are a regular occurrence the collective can hammer through an outline over the course of one or a few meetings. This should elicit broader input and increase the likelihood that whoever undertakes the initial draft speaks for, or at least understands the positions of, all co-authors. Of course, anthropological collaborations frequently occur across institutional and national boundaries rendering such in-depth face to face discussions impractical.4 In such circumstances where I am first author, I sometimes send out a brief outline to perhaps two co-authors. This strikes me as a reasonable balance between improving collective representation and the chaos of processing many (and sometimes contrary) voices at once. Overall, this seems an acceptable approach, although I am sure there are others who find it a bit lazy. After all, isn’t it the job of the first author to take care of such things rather than spread the onus across the crew?

The second step I sometimes undertake is almost certain to invoke criticism, and convince people that sloth, rather than any theoretical disposition, is driving my choices. Once the outline is settled, I write up a draft and do some very basic spelling and grammar checking and nothing more. The manuscript is very rough at this stage, but I nevertheless send it to two or three co-authors, warts and all.5 My thinking here is that the more polished the manuscript the less likely I am to get substantive comments, and I hope that the obvious roughness of the text serves as an invitation screaming “please improve me!” Now, I do try to warn my colleagues to not worry about grammar and style, and rather focus on the substance of the arguments, but I have to admit that this may be a losing battle. After all, many of us are probably academics because we have a hard time letting such “trifles” go. I send a draft to all co-authors only after these initial comments have been addressed, and after I’ve spent a bit more time sharpening the arguments and polishing the prose.

So what have been my results? I think it is fair to say that these steps ensure that I get more substantive input than I do when I simply produce a polished manuscript and send it our for comments. When I do the latter I am likely to get two or three small comments from a few people and no input from others. After all, in such instances the manuscript arrives in collaborators’ email inboxes more or less fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Even if people are inclined to take things in a different direction, the manuscript is usually sufficiently coherent that the potential benefits of significant revision are outweighed by the certain costs. As for my co-authors, I suspect the process is not entirely a pleasant one, and it no doubt convinces some that I’m either a pitiable soul or layabout–but I think I can live with that.6 I would never have considered such a strategy when I was a graduate student or postdoc, however, as at that career stage being labeled inept or slothful would have carried more sting.

In the end, I’ve been lucky to work with some of the sharpest and most amenable people around, so the above should be considered less a lament than the ramblings of a compulsive worrier. Nonetheless, I think the goal of deeper cooperation for multi-authored projects is a sound one, even if its lack is rarely a salient problem. I close with a few words about my kindred spirit, The Distracted Centipede:

The centipede was happy quite
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch
Considering how to run.


  1. This line from Jeffers’ Natural Music kept coming to mind as I was writing this. I’ve learned to respect unexpected and unbidden connections, so I thought it might serve as a title. 
  2. Contributions to multi-authored manuscripts can be of various sorts, and need not involve much writing. Indeed, non-writing contributions can represent much more of the intellectual heavy lifting than writing the manuscript itself. Who does what, and what this means in terms of authorship order, is also likely to vary a good deal across disciplines, research groups, and individual projects. Hence, evaluating an author’s relative contribution can be complex and is beyond the scope of this small contribution. 
  3. One does hear horror stories about certain multi-authored projects, which is why when choosing collaborators, one must choose wisely! I’ve been very lucky to work with some remarkable people. 
  4. It is getting easier to get around this constraint with free tools such as Skype and Google Hangouts. Nevertheless, I still find it much easier to engage in meaningful dialog face to face. I confess, however, that I can’t rule out the possibility that such conversations are enlivened, or appear to be more profound, due to their frequent co-occurrence with the consumption of fermented libations. 
  5. I write initially in a logorrheic flood. Rather than getting bogged down with the wording, I write quickly so as to capture basic ideas and their underlying logic before they have a chance to evaporate. I’ve found this to be effective, for even though the initial text is far from stellar and littered with fragments that do not entirely capture what I want to convey, it is much easier to fix this after the fact than to struggle with language from the outset. As a result, the first drafts I send out may be rougher than is evident from my description above, even though I do rectify the most egregious problems before the draft is shared. 
  6. Although I could tolerate this, I’d be lying if I said it would not bother me. Moreover, I’m not at all convinced that the benefits of this approach exceed the costs, so it is possible I’ll abandon it entirely in the near future. It is certain, however, that I will continue to look for better ways to do my job. 

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.