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WRITING MULTI-AUTHOR DOCUMENTS

Most of the larger documents written today have several authors. This month we will discuss techniques for using word processors to assist in the process, beyond simply functioning as typewriters with...


July 1, 2001
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Most of the larger documents written today have several authors. This month we will discuss techniques for using word processors to assist in the process, beyond simply functioning as typewriters with super “correcto-ribbons”

Many multi-author groups have simply one lead author who drafts material then pastes in sections from others, and some still resort to marking up reports and faxing copies for transcription. There are easier and better ways, particularly when everyone has e-mail. Even for those who have good secretarial support, time is saved and errors avoided if transcription is minimized.

There are some rather sophisticated systems for multi-authoring based on the web, but I have found the following approach practical in over 50 reports co-authored with diverse people in North America and Europe over the past eight years.

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The essence of the system is that the various drafts of the report include task assignments for completion, making it easier to determine individual duties without the need for additional documents. The assignments may range from simple ones like “Neil to fill in cost of foundations when Joe Brown of Sandwell calls back” to major tasks such as “Neil to write summary when the body of report is complete.”

Some specific computer commands are given for Microsoft Word, since about 90% of readers seem to use it. (The same approach can be used with Word Perfect, and presumably with other full-featured word processors.)

OUTLINE

The starting point is, of course, an outline for the report, which will normally consist of chapter headings and subheadings, with perhaps the beginning of some of the text or suggestion on content. This has to be written by someone who has a grasp of the overall project needs.

It is best to use the built-in heading formats, table captions and figure captions defined by Word. The fonts, colours, etc. can be changed in the document’s style sheet, but generating completely new format definitions becomes time consuming down the line.

All outlines should contain a table of contents, list of figures and list of tables, even when the latter items do not yet exist. These tables are easily created by the “Insert / Index and Tables” commands. I use only levels 1 to 3 headings for tables of contents, but some authors like to go further.

It is useful to have a footer on each page with the file name as well as the date and time of printing in small text. Even if these are deleted for the final report, they are a great help when working with multiple draft versions.

THE CONTROL PAGE

In addition to the standard items mentioned, the first page(s) of the outline should have the following administrative features (these pages are not intended for the final readers):

Why and who — A couple of lines saying what the report is for and who carries prime responsibility. If the authors do not know one another well, a list of authors with e-mail and phone numbers can be helpful, too.

Task list — The most important feature is a list of tasks to be undertaken to finish the report, along with the names of those responsible. This can be generated by inserting an extra table of contents, but set to build the table of contents from style “Comment Box”. (This is a standard Word format. You can substitute any format you wish). This is done by clicking “Insert / Index and Tables / Table of Contents / Options” and entering a 1 against the “Comment box” format, and deleting the numbers against the Heading — 1, 2 3 etc.

If there is no “Comment box” text in the file, an error message will be displayed, but can be ignored.

The reason for all this work is that, as people work on the report, they will insert notes on what has to be done and these will be reproduced automatically as a list at the top of the file.

The first outline of the report will have comment boxes under each heading saying who is to write it. As these authors advance, they can insert notes in comments boxes, such as “Jim awaiting reply to e-mail of 3rd July to Ahlstrom on valve cost.”

History and file names — The control page(s) should carry a short history of the file, with the most recent entries on top. To avoid becoming lost in multiple files, I name the first draft with a 1 at the end of the name. I increment this each time the file is sent to someone, or when any milestone that requires keeping a record copy is reached.

The first entry in the history would be “File named FutureOfIndustry1.doc started by NMcC 3rd July. E-mailed 7th July to all others so they could start work.”

The next may be “renamed FutureOfIndustry2.doc by Fiona and returned with Chapter 7 drafted. ONLY chapter 7 is relevant in this copy” and so on.

Assembling the report — When people are writing simultaneously, it is necessary for some mastermind to piece the file together. If all use the same formats, and start from the outline file, then it will be simple cut-and-paste. All the new material will fit in, with the “to do” comment boxes, subheadings, etc. all popping up as they should in the tables of contents. It is often possible to avoid even this cut-and-paste if each author passes the report on to the next to update and only one works at a time.

As a report nears completion, it becomes useful for those editing it to use Word’s revision-marking capabilities, but I find this is not useful in the early stages. (Click on “Tools / Track Changes / Highlight changes”.)

STANDARDIZING FORMATS

The best way to standardize formats is for everyone to work off the same style sheet, but this can become complicated if the authors are from different companies. A practical simplification is to include blank tables and figures in the outline, and tell everyone to copy them as the basis for their own entries.

If you lay out a five-column, three-line table with table caption “insert caption here” and a footnote “insert footnote here”, it is very easy for authors to change the number and width of columns, etc. while preserving the standard appearance. Everyone must use the Word caption format for table and figure captions if they are to automatically number themselves and appear automatically in the table of contents.


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