technical notes for co-authoring

I am writing up a set of instructions for my student co-authors on how to work together on a shared Word document. My own graduate education had abundant training in the word processing arts (owing to a 2nd job I had to take to make ends meet), but I find that not every graduate student has a deep knowledge of WordPerfect 5.1 MS Word. So far, I have these tips:

  • Turn on the Track Changes feature: “highlight changes while editing.”
  • Save the version you edit with a new name, such as “Our Paper v1.1.”
  • Never put two spaces after a period. This is a relic of typewriters and is not used with word processors.
  • Rather than tinker with formatting and font, use the Styles I have set up to format paragraphs (Heading 1, 2 and 3; Body; Quote)
  • Rather than type up a Works Cited list, send a Zotero file with your citations and I will add them.
  • Use only regular quotation marks; turn off the AutoCorrect SmartQuotes feature.

If there are other pet peeves instructive tips I can include, please let me know.

20 thoughts on “technical notes for co-authoring”

  1. “WordPerfect 5.1”

    And they’re MUCH the poorer for it.

    The first and second are backwards. The FIRST thing you want a collaborator to do is start a DIFFERENT file, so that worst-case you rollback.

    Two spaces after a period isn’t a problem; it will be highlighted in That MSFT Program as needing correction. (Make certain that spelling/grammar checking is turned ON for all editing.)

    Instead of telling the collaborator to use the styles you have prepared, present them with a list of those styles and their appropriate uses.

    You didn’t mention Bookmarking an area so that it is referenced appropriately and dynamically by That MSFT Program.

    Table of Contents should be autocalculated as well based on your Headings–if there will be one. No manual intervention.

    SECTION–not just page–breaks (Alt-I, B, N) if you need to switch layout from portrait to landscape and vice versa.

    NO “different first page header/footer.” (This is a pet peeve, but also a good idea, especially since “do not show page number on first page” is available separately with That MSFT Program.)

    All tables should (1) have the Header Row set to repeat across pages, (2) NOT allow cells to break across pages, and (3) have all of their Cells Aligned to the Top. (Centering for some columns seems an obvious need, but can be negotiated. Top Alignment cannot, and that That MSFT Program defaults to Bottom is ludicrous.)

    Assuming graphics/tables are included, they should be formatted TO FIT ON THE PAGE. That doesn’t mean “well, it would fit if there were no margins on either side.” If it’s not clear on 8.5×11, Section it to 11×8.5 (see above).

    If you need A3 paper, reconsider your data/graphic display. You’re not writing for _Interview_.

    Similarly, if your, er, more mature colleagues squint when looking at your printed draft (or reach for their OED to get the magnifying glass), remember that most others will not be reading on your 21-24″ flat-screen monitor.

    Colors for graphics should be decided by the collaborator who is LEAST color-blind. (If passers-by reach for their sunglasses when they see your screen, it’s an indicator.)


  2. I would change the version from 1.1 to using a date, with the year first, e.g. “20100817”. I think that it drives my coauthors nuts, but doing this means that you can sort alphabetically and have the most recent file at the bottom (or at the top if you reverse-sort). You might not think that you need the year, but that is *very* optimistic (I was overly optimistic about how quickly things would be out in the past).

    Also, I would recommend not having spaces in file names — it makes it difficult if you ever need to call it by name (e.g. in FTP or something).


  3. Very, very helpful, both of you.

    I also like the idea of having a quite long checklist, as it conveys the message that This is an important job and you should be taking the details of it very seriously.


  4. Tina,

    I once got red marks from a professor in graduate school for *not* having two spaces between periods. I was shocked! Keep pushing the no-two-spaces agenda, I’m with you!


  5. more on file-naming: I also use the dating system @mike3550 recommends, but I also append my initials, so that it looks like this:


    If for some reason, my co-author edits it on the same day, they would just rename it:


    I’d also say that all images and tables should be at the end of the paper, in order of reference in the text. Word is terrible at making things fit on a page and will drive you crazy if you don’t just give everything its own page in the back (i.e. page break in between each figure and table). << Why I prefer LaTeX.


  6. tina,
    i just want to endorse the initial idea of using “styles.” using styles instead of manually changing each paragraph to “left justified with a half inch indent in Times Roman 10 point” makes MS Word behave much more like LaTeX in all the beneficial ways but without the downside of requiring you to have a five inch think reference manual for your word processor. using styles is especially important when it comes to things like double-spacing, which i always seem to be constantly turning on and off.
    i also have a very similar set of naming conventions to mike and dadakm


  7. Manual naming conventions are a complete pain. Real version control is much better, but not practical if you’re working with Word or a co-author you cannot issue direct orders to. (As Tina says, the “Track Changes” feature within files is very, very useful, though.) As a compromise, rather than emailing the stupid thing back and forth to one another with increasingly complex names, host your document in Dropbox. That way it appears as an ordinary file on your computer, but you also have it immediately shared with your coauthors and every time you save it’s automatically backed-up and version-stamped for you.


  8. I once got red marks from a professor in graduate school for *not* having two spaces between periods.

    You should probably introduce the person involved to the concepts of proportionally spaced fonts, modern text-editing, and indeed the world generally since the first Reagan administration.


  9. I just finished a future Ph.Do column on something related so I’ve been thinking about some of these issues (not to mention all my ongoing co-authorships!).

    While I appreciate Kieran’s suggestion, I don’t find it realistic to ask others to install various pieces of software for collaboration so I still send files back and forth. I use date at the end of the file plus initials. It’s rare that the same person has revisions the same day, but if that happens then I add a “b” to the end, i.e., ArticleName082010EHb.

    I definitely use Styles and Formatting. My experience is that co-authors don’t know this feature of Word so I set it up and then just let them know about it.

    I also use Track Changes and Comments as well (more on the logistics of that in my column).

    I use EndNote and it works with most co-authors although not all. It has serious problems with Track Changes so that’s posed hurdles in the past. We tend to have one person responsible for all citations and then it’s a little less crazy.

    Finally, something I started recently after reading about it at ProfHacker (Chronicle) is an additional versioning document (this in Google Docs, but it could also be the first page of the file). This outlines progress made in the last round and next steps for the co-author to tackle (or me at a later stage). I’m still new at this, but so far I’m finding it very helpful.


  10. Oh, one more point. I change the name of files even if they are sole-authored as I like to have copies of previous versions. While it’s been rare that I’ve gone back to an earlier draft, I have the space and so might as well keep the various versions around. One of my students, probably sick of all the versions piling up, recently created an OldVersions folder in the project’s directory on our network drive to reduce the clutter. That was fine with me.


  11. While I appreciate Kieran’s suggestion, I don’t find it realistic to ask others to install various pieces of software for collaboration

    Funnily enough, my collaborators have never thought it unrealistic to demand that I install Microsoft Word.


  12. I love the Dropbox idea, but frankly Kieran, I am disappointed that you have not issued the Time Machine Smackdown on all the versioning concerns. Your Apple-hawking stipend may be a little light this month.


  13. frankly Kieran, I am disappointed that you have not issued the Time Machine Smackdown on all the versioning concerns.

    Time Machine is pretty good, and I use it, but am sufficiently a nerd to use git for all my versioning. If you use Word that’s not going to work sensibly, however.

    Dropbox is a really terrific service and has all kinds of unexpectedly helpful uses.


  14. Wait, I thought coauthoring meant I write everything, my coauthors tell me what I did wrong, and then I make all the changes. Are you telling me there is a less one-sided version of coauthoring out there?!!


  15. For the record, I started using Dropbox earlier this summer and have found it to be super helpful. I highly recommend it!

    I should also note that for some of the collaborative work in my lab we use something very similar: a shared network drive, which functions similarly to Dropbox, but is local and requires NU credentials for login. We tend to use that more for raw data files and coding documents though.


  16. I read this thread earlier, when I was helping my son move. But now I am ONCE AGAIN cursing at MS Word, which I hate with a passion but have to use anyway due to its compatibility with coauthors and EndNote. WordPerfect does also messes up formatting, but when it does you can turn on reveal codes and see what it did and fix the problem. Word just messes up random fashion and there is nothing you can do about it except manually change the formatting and hope it doesn’t get screwed up again by some other insertion or quirk. I just had a case where a copy/paste of double spaced text into double spaced text turned the paragraph single-spaced, and then single-spaces the text from the next paragraph when I delete the paragraph break. And don’t get me started on what it did to a document that it managed to import as a series of text boxes. Hrrmph. Anyway, since Eszter and Gabriel (and perhaps others) implied some knowledge of MSW styles, I’ll ask. Can anybody point me to a help file on how to import or set up a MSW 2007 style set that will make an academic article look the way it is supposed to? I already read the built-in help from Word: it just gushes about how I can change the fonts and colors and stuff. Nothing about how to make the program behave properly.

    BTW I had 2-spaces after a period beaten into me when I was young. Beaten. I’m working to break the habit, but it is not easy.


    1. I can’t help you with Word, because there is no help for it. But on the two-spaces thing: Go ahead. What’s the harm? When you’re done, just find and replace all double spaces with a single space (or have your junior co-author do it). On second thought, you could just create a custom auto-replace that would do the change as you type.


  17. OW: I share your total hatred of Word. I wish there were another program that was practical (in terms of coauthors and journals) to use. Why most Soc journals insist upon manuscripts in Word (and not LaTex, for example) is beyond me.


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