Communities

Co-Writing, Peer Editing, and Publishing in the Cloud

Jack Dougherty

Most of today’s college professors came into the profession, or adjusted more than a decade ago, using conventional word processing tools. The most common writing implement on campuses today is Microsoft Word, which prevailed over competitors such as WordStar, WordPerfect, and MacWrite during the 1980s and 1990s. Word can be a wonderful tool, and I still rely on it when drafting much of my single-author scholarship. But in 2010 I began to realize how most of my student writing assignments were framed by what Word could (and could not) do. Asking my students to co-write an essay, or simultaneously peer review each other’s work, or publish directly to the web was not easy, because our primary word processor was not designed for these tasks. The tool limited how I taught writing.

For years I told myself that it’s the writing that matters, not the technology, which was a comfortable philosophical stance. But a recent wave of networked writing tools—such as Google Docs, WordPress, and others—have nudged many of us to rethink our practices and to look for better ways of integrating meaningful writing into a liberal arts education. In some ways, newer technologies have challenged our traditional norms about what kinds of writing matter. In a twist on the philosophical puzzle about the sound of a tree falling in the forest, I began to ask myself: if a student writes a paper, and the professor is the only one who reads it, is it meaningful writing? Stated another way, if the broader purpose of expository or persuasive writing is to exchange ideas and consider alternate views and evidence, then liberal arts faculty should strive to create more authentic writing assignments that connect authors with audiences beyond the individual instructor.

If that mission sounds overwhelming, you are not alone. Many college faculty consider ourselves unofficial teachers of writing, even as we embrace the importance of writing without having had specialized training in helping students to enhance their prose. We claim to know good student writing when we see it, but few of us have a formal background in fields such as rhetoric and composition. Moreover, keeping pace with the dizzying array of new tools is difficult, because we lack the crucial ingredient—time—to sort out which technologies will help or hinder our teaching. Therefore, it is no surprise that many faculty simply rely upon the traditional word processors we have used for a decade or more. In light of these real-world constraints, this essay offers some simple strategies for teaching with web-based writing tools, and argues that harnessing the inherent power of communities—both inside and outside of our classrooms—can make the writing process more authentic and meaningful for liberal arts education.

Choosing the ‘Write’ Tools

When faculty colleagues ask for advice on this topic, I encourage them to focus primarily on their goals for student learning, and secondly, on the most appropriate tools for achieving those aims. Ask yourself: What do I want my students to learn through writing? Then work backwards to figure out the answer to: What are the most appropriate strategies, tools, and social interactions to achieve my goal? In my case, I began to transform historical essay assignments (when the sole audience was only the instructor) into public history written for a broader audience on a statewide website. My decisions about writing platforms were driven by learning objectives. I admired several colleagues whose students had authored essays on Wikipedia, but my assignments did not lend themselves to encyclopedia entries and I wanted students to feel a strong sense of ownership of their work through a byline. Rather than Wikis, I leaned toward a web publishing platform such as WordPress. Then I discovered that WordPress was not ideal for stages of developmental writing, where authors need feedback on early drafts from multiple readers. As a result, I paired two tools—Google Docs and WordPress—to enhance the writing process for my liberal arts students as described below. See the Tutorials section of the Trinity College edition to learn how to choose writing tools to match your learning goals.[1]

Collaborative Writing in the Cloud

Long before the web, innovative faculty began teaching collaborative writing techniques as a challenge to the tradition of solitary authoring. The transition from typewriters to word processors made this technique easier to teach, as students could independently author text and assign one team member to merge it into one document, or collaborate on writing one document by passing it back and forth. Several faculty took co-authoring one step further with wiki tools, which allow multiple users to edit the same web-based document (as shown by Michael O’Donnell and others in this volume).

But the writing tool that dropped my jaw—and reawakened the pedagogical side of my brain— was Google Documents, which enabled multiple users to edit the same web document and view collaborators as they typed changes in real time, in contrast to the delayed view of editing in wikis. Looking back to May of 2009, I originally understood that users could upload and share files on Google Docs but did not fully grasp its multi-authoring features until 2010 at my first THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), where session organizers shared links to Google Documents for multiple participants to simultaneously share notes. If you have never seen a crowd-sourced document in action, see the second and third video clips in Jim Trostle’s chapter in this volume.[2]

Five years after the public release of Google Docs, educators continue to invent new ways of incorporating this writing tool into their liberal arts classrooms, building on a shared sense of community to enhance learning. Some focus on creating one collaborative document by multiple authors, such as when two or more people co-write an essay or pool together their notes.[3] Others use Google Docs to highlight variations of the same text by different authors, such as Brandon Walsh’s “Writing Out Loud” activity. While writers usually try out alternate versions of a sentence in the privacy of our own minds or our notebooks, Walsh models how to make this editing process more visible and tangible for the entire class. “We usually turn to the exercise when a student feels a particular sentence is not working but cannot articulate why,” he explains. By pasting the original sentence into a Google Doc template and sharing editing privileges with the class, individual students can quickly suggest a range of possible rewrites, then discuss the merits of different approaches as a group. From Walsh’s perspective, this shared micro-editing process “allows you to abstract writing principles from the actual process of revision rather than the other way around.”[4]

Both pedagogical approaches share a common vision of drawing upon the wisdom of the crowd: the belief that knowledge created collectively is richer than what individuals produce in isolation. Google Docs (and other collaborative authoring tools) can help transform the writing process from a solitary exercise into a community-oriented learning experience, which fits better with the broader purpose of teaching writing in a liberal arts context. When my Trinity colleagues and I first conceptualized Web Writing in fall 2012, we experimented with a simple crowd-writing exercise to clarify what our intended audience expected from the volume. At a faculty workshop, I began by asking participants to respond individually (on a paper handout) to this prompt: As a prospective reader, what would you like to see in this book? What topics or questions should be addressed? What kind of digital resources would be valuable to you? After individuals penned their responses, they moved into small groups to share and compare their hand-written notes. Next, each group was provided with a laptop or tablet to type their selected comments into a publicly shared Google Document.[5] For many faculty in the room, this was their first experience with real-time co-writing in Google Docs. The exercise pushed them to consider new questions: Should they hold back from placing untested ideas on a public document where others can read them? Should they claim ownership of words they typed into a group document by adding their individual names? While the answers will vary depending on the objective of the writing exercise, the best way for faculty to recognize these issues is to step into the role of the student writer and experience what collaborative writing feels like, with an eye toward enhancing liberal arts learning.

Peer Editing in the Cloud

Like collaborative writing, many faculty integrated peer editing into their writing instruction years ago. Prior to digital technology, we asked students to exchange papers with one another. When shared networks became more common in the early 1990s, faculty at my campus and elsewhere created electronic folders of word-processor documents and set privileges to allow students to view and comment on each others’ drafts, to build a stronger community of writers.[6] Beginning in the late 1990s, many of us began using Learning Management Systems (at my campus, Blackboard, and then open-source Moodle) to allow the exchange of writing and commentary inside our classrooms.

But I began to rethink my peer editing process in 2012 and adopted the Google Docs platform to support simultaneous commenting with multiple readers, both inside and outside of our classroom. Clarissa Ceglio, an editor at ConnecticutHistory.org, and I collaborated on designing a public history digital essay assignment for my mid-level undergraduate seminar students to interpret past episodes of discrimination and civil rights to present-day audiences. As an experienced writing instructor, she visited our seminar to coach students on the expectations for this online publication, then generously agreed to participate long-distance in our peer editing process. This was not a collaborative writing assignment, as each student was responsible for authoring an individual essay on a selected topic. But we relied on Google Docs for multiple readers to insert comments in the margins of online drafts during our tight turn-around period, especially for Ceglio, who did not have access to our campus computer network. Furthermore, since texts are easily imported and exported out of Google Docs, students were allowed to compose their drafts in their preferred word processor. See the Tutorials section of the Trinity College edition to learn how to organize peer editing with Google Docs.[7]

When my students and I first tried peer editing with Google Docs in 2012, the mechanics worked well but I failed to provide sufficient guidance on how to thoughtfully comment on a classmate’s writing. Students did not fully understand the difference between broad and narrow comments, nor the ideal placement of each type on the page, and several writers reported feeling overwhelmed when trying to sort through the feedback. To address this concern the following year, I provided evaluation criteria and instructed each student to paste it at the top of their Google Doc draft. I hoped that placing the criteria at the top would encourage readers to write general comments at the top of the page, and narrower, line-specific items below. Laying out the evaluation guidelines before the assignment, with a visible reminder for students to refer to during the peer editing process, provides a common vocabulary for judging what makes “good writing” for each assignment.[8] In the current version of this public history writing assignment, there are four criteria:

1) Does the essay open with a compelling argument or story that explains the significance of the topic to Connecticut history? Does it inspire readers to think in new ways?
2) Are the claims supported with appropriate evidence and reasoning? Is the historical research accurate and balanced, with full source citations?
3) Does the writing style engage broad audiences, and provide sufficient background for those unfamiliar with the topic? Is the text well organized and grammatically correct?
4) [For draft 2 only:] Are digital elements (such as links, images, and videos) thoughtfully integrated into the web essay, and properly credited?

While not all student reviewers followed my advice on posting broader comments at the top (some found this to be cognitively challenging), the placement of the evaluation criteria at the top of the page helped me and my collaborator to communicate more clearly, and we agreed that the comments posted in the second year were more focused than those posted in the first year.[9]

Overall, the Google Docs peer editing platform works far better than alternatives I have used in the past, particularly emailing Word documents back-and-forth (aka “attachment hell”). Like any collaborative assignment, the organization requires an initial time investment by the instructor, but those costs are far outweighed by the added benefits of commenting to develop each other’s writing and building a stronger community of authors and readers, both inside and outside the classroom.

Publishing in the Cloud

After the hard work of drafting, peer editing, developmental editing, and revising, it is a relatively simple step to teach my students to publish their work to the public web as a means to connect with broader communities of readers. For the public history assignment above, all students were required to post their drafts on our seminar’s website (based on guidelines in my Public Writing and Student Privacy chapter in this volume), and those who revised even further were invited to publish on the ConnecticutHistory.org site. My college supports a self-hosted multi-site installation of the open-source WordPress.org tool, which I essentially use as a public Learning Management System to share my syllabus and student posts, while private items such as student grades and contact information remain separate and individually password-protected. Faculty at other campuses have impressed me by setting up their own course sites that operate on other free blogging platforms. With any of these tools, most students quickly learn the basics of how to post their first essay to the public web. During my third year of teaching a writing intensive course with WordPress, my first-year seminar of seventeen students learned how to publish in seven minutes. I also created a four-minute video screencast as a supplemental resource for students to view at their own pace. See Tutorials in the Trinity College edition to learn how to publish on a course site with WordPress.[10]

Without question, I have invested additional time as an instructor to select and learn more about the most appropriate writing tools for my liberal arts classes, but the payoffs have become clearer over time. When I used a conventional Learning Management System (such as BlackBoard or Moodle), all of the intellectual energy I spent on my teaching—designing syllabi, crafting learning resources, commenting on student drafts—was locked inside a password-protected box, making it very difficult to share with others (or even my students after they had finished the course). Now, on an open-access WordPress platform, all of this work is publicly accessible, attached to my name, and linked to my reputation. Based on anecdotal comments from professional colleagues and my personal web statistics, thousands of people have discovered and apparently found value in my open-access teaching resources, probably more than have read my scholarship. Sharing my teaching on the web reaches far outside my classroom, connecting my students and me with communities of readers who we may never meet face-to-face.

Listening to students reflect on their experiences of publishing on the web reminds me of the reasons why we devote so much time to writing in the liberal arts. In a short video with students who participated in the ConnecticutHistory.org public history assignment, “I struggle with writing” was one of the most common themes, even among those who persisted and appeared in the final publication. Academic writing can intensify this feeling because it is typically done in isolation. Even though my students wrote individual essays, they identified this process as collaborative work because they supported each other through its stages with publicly visible peer editing. Furthermore, they wrote essays for an audience larger than one professor. “I really felt more like a contributor, like a colleague, rather than just a student handing in an assignment,” explained Amanda Gurren. “We felt like we were working with people, rather than for them.” Seeing each others’ work appear on the ConnecticutHistory.org website, and hearing how a student in another class cited it, proved that they had contributed to the education of someone other than themselves. While many of us have taught long enough to remember hearing students express similar emotions on pre-Internet assignments, it is also clear that web writing—with a broader purpose—has a rich potential to connect us and engage us with broader communities.[11]

About the author: Jack Dougherty is an associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who tweets about web writing at @DoughertyJack.

How to cite:

Jack Dougherty, “Co-Writing, Peer Editing, and Publishing in the Cloud,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/dougherty-cowriting.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[12]


  1. The Tutorials section is freely available online at http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/part/tutorials/.
  2. Jim Trostle, Jim Trostle, three Anthropology 201 Spring 2013 video clips for "Cooperative In-Class Writing with Google Docs" essay, uploaded to Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/87185460, https://vimeo.com/87186785, and https://vimeo.com/87185461.
  3. George Williams, “GoogleDocs and Collaboration in the Classroom,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, ProfHacker, June 14, 2011, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/googledocs-and-collaboration-in-the-classroom/34075; Jesse Stommel, “Theorizing Google Docs: 10 Tips for Navigating Online Collaboration,” Hybrid Pedagogy, May 14, 2012, http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/10_Tips_for_Google_Docs.html. For shared note-taking with other tools, see Jason B. Jones, “Class Notes Assignment,” Professor Jones’s Wiki, 2009, http://jbj.pbworks.com/w/page/13150225/Class-Notes-Assignment; Kris Shaffer, “Collaborative Note-taking in Class,” September 16, 2013, http://kris.shaffermusic.com/2013/09/collaborative-note-taking-in-class/.
  4. Brandon Walsh, “Writing Out Loud: Google Docs for Live Writing, Revision, and Discussion,” September 25, 2013, http://bmw9t.github.io/blog/2013/09/25/writing-out-loud/.
  5. Jack Dougherty, "Web Writing: A Guide for Teaching and Learning," Trinity Center for Teaching and Learning faculty workshop, September 2012, http://bit.ly/WebWritingIdeas.
  6. At Trinity College, my Writing Program colleagues began experimenting with shared network folders for portfolios and peer editing in 1991, as described by Beverly C. Wall and Robert F. Peltier, “‘Going Public’ with Electronic Portfolios: Audience, Community, and the Terms of Student Ownership,” Computers and Composition 13, no. 2 (1996): 207–217, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S8755-4615(96)90010-9. At the same time, my high school faculty colleagues and I also created shared network folders for peer editing in our tenth grade curriculum: Keith Corpus, Jack Dougherty, and Jeff Reardon, “Newark Studies: Relevancy is Key to Interdisciplinary Curriculum for Improving Writing Skills,” THE Journal: Technological Horizons in Education 19, no. 4 (October 1991): 44–47, http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=121244.121259.
  7. Jack Dougherty and Clarissa Ceglio, "Assignment: Compose Web Essay for ConnecticutHistory.org," Cities, Suburbs, and Schools seminar, Trinity College, Fall 2013, http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/seminar/assignments/connecticut-history-entry/; CTHumanities, ConnecticutHistory.org, http://connecticuthistory.org. The online Tutorials section of Web Writing is freely available at http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/part/tutorials/.
  8. See also Heidi A. McKee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, eds., Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation (Logan, UT: Computer and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2013), http://ccdigitalpress.org/dwae/.
  9. Screenshot of typical fall 2013 Google Doc comments, uploaded to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=924, from Emily Meehan, draft of "How Racist Actions of Housing Committees Shaped the Demographic of Hartford Today," Fall 2013, https://docs.google.com/document/d/15IxYNRGDSe4UMGlvbrhzPocRRljaDsQ-C9TZy7lNo_A/edit; screenshot of typical fall 2013 Google Doc comments, uploaded to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=923, from Amanda Gurren, draft of "Project Concern: City-Suburb Integration Program," Fall 2012, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1-sd_2t5JPCLOD9kkWaVo8x30A_Ah9hg7IHPY03HqBtc/edit, both from my Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar, Trinity College.
  10. Jack Dougherty, “How to Post on Trinity Commons WordPress v3.5,” YouTube video 2013, http://youtu.be/fzfPG9k__hs. See online Tutorials at http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/part/tutorials/.
  11. CTHprograms, Make Life Collaborative, YouTube video 2013, http://youtu.be/NuWg9Jrkrpw. See published student essays at “Trinity College Students Call Attention to Histories of Inequality,” ConnecticutHistory.org, http://connecticuthistory.org/trinity-college-students-call-attention-to-histories-of-inequality/.
  12. Dougherty, "Collaborative Writing, Peer Review, and Publishing in the Cloud," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/communities/dougherty-collaborative-2013/.

1 Response to Co-Writing, Peer Editing, and Publishing in the Cloud

  1. Pingback: Digital Writing Month, Week One: Collaborative Writing and Editing with Google Docs - Digital Pedagogy@Austin College

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