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By Timothy W. Curby, George Mason University & Katherine M. Zinsser, University of Illinois at Chicago

Having collaborated for years, we were a bit nervous about our ability to collaborate when we were no longer at the same institution. But this change lead us to work out a new (and fun!) collaborative writing method. So, what is the best way to write with someone who is not at your institution? We’d like to tell you a little about the method we have been using and why we have been collaborating this way.

dropbox-logo1There’s the seemingly age old method of emailing a document back and forth. Most people have tried this method and therefore I don’t need to spend much time explaining its limitations. Emailing only allows for asynchronous working and there’s the problem of making sure you are using the correct version. A slight improvement on this method is to share the file via Dropbox ( What`s not to love about Dropbox? Files are stored on the cloud so they can be accessed from any computer and they are stored locally, so they are easily accessible. However, you still have problems with conflicted copies being created if you work on a document simultaneously. Collaborative writing needs something more. This is the method we’ve been using as coauthors on grant proposals and articles. It can be broken down into the use of three online (free) tools: Box, Skype, and Drive.

  • box_logoBox ( is a tool that works in essentially all the same ways as Dropbox. It is cloud storage with the capacity to store the files locally, all with seamless syncing. Box has a few advantages over Dropbox. Box gives you 10 gigabytes for free (and sometimes even 50 if you sign up at the right time) compared to Dropbox’s 2Gb. Box is HIPAA compliant, so it is generally perceived as being more secure. Lastly, and most important for this post, it has built in integration with Google Drive. Specifically, a Word document in Box can be exported to Google Drive only to be resaved automatically back to Box when you’re done working on it in Google Drive.
  • UnknownGoogle Drive ( is an online provider of documents and spreadsheets. All it takes is a google account to access. What makes Drive so useful for collaborating is that multiple users can be working on the same document simultaneously. This can take two forms, both helpful depending on the type of writing that you’re doing. Sometimes you both can be working on different portions of the document, but at the same time. This allows each of you to play to your strengths. Sometimes it is helpful to both be working on the same paragraph at the same time. I’ve found this to be the case in working on grants when we were trying to figure out the aims and procedures.   When working on those portions, it is often necessary to talk things out with another person. Yes, it can be done with comments asynchronously, but isn’t it so much better to talk it out with another person? This brings the last piece. You need a way to talk while you write.
  • 05523479-photo-logo-skypeIf you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve used Skype ( However, having the kids talk to grandma is great, but Skype is a powerful business tool too. What you need is a reliable, easy way to connect with someone while you write. Skype, Google Hangout, and the Phone are all ways to talk while you write. We use Skype. There’s nothing wrong with the phone, but you have to be on speakerphone and most computers have better speakerphones than phones. There’s also something to be said for seeing the other person. It really makes me feel like I’m collaborating with someone when I can see them. (An added bonus is the ability to share unrelated YouTube clips and emoticons throughout the writing process). Put these three pieces together and you have a powerful method. Create a document in Box. Share it through Drive. Talk through Skype while you write.

og_logoAll the details that go into a writing project can get pretty overwhelming. If you need something to help manage all those details, we have had a lot of success using Asana ( Asana was basically designed as project management software and can have different lists for different people that can all assign different tasks and subtasks to one another. If it sounds confusing it is because it is so flexible (Get started video).

We’re sure these aren’t the only ways to collaborate and we’re curious about what technology and methods you all use. If you’d like, leave a comment and let us know.