Writing@CSU Guide

Working in Groups

Working in a group can be enjoyable or frustrating--sometimes both. The best way to ensure a good working experience in groups is to think hard about whether a project is best done in a group, and, if so, to have a clear set of expectations about group work.

Why Work in Groups?

You might choose to work or write a paper in a group rather than individually for many reasons. Some of the reasons include practical experience while others highlight why group work might provide a better learning experience:

  • In group work, you can draw on each group member's knowledge and perspectives, frequently giving you a more well thought out paper at the end or a better understanding of the class material for exams, labs, etc.
  • You can also draw on people's different strengths. For example, you might be a great proofreader while someone else is much better at organizing papers.
  • Groups are great for motivation: they force you to be responsible to others and frequently, then, do more and better work on a project than you might when only responsible to yourself.
  • Group work helps keep you on task. It's harder to procrastinate when working with others.
  • Working in groups, especially writing texts together, mirrors working styles common outside school. In business, industry, and research organizations, collaborative work is the norm rather than the exception.

Writing Tasks Suited to Group Work

Although any piece of writing can be group-authored, some types of writing simply "make more sense" to be written in groups or are ideal for cutting down on certain aspects of the work load.

Whether you've chosen to do a group project or have been assigned to work together, any group works better if all members know the reason why more than one person is involved in writing the paper. Understanding what a group adds to the project helps alleviate some of the problems associated with group work, such as thinking you need to do it all yourself. While not exhaustive, the following are some of the types of papers that are typically better written when worked on in groups. To read more, choose any of the items below:

Papers Requiring "Original" Research

Whenever you have a paper that requires you to observe things, interview other experts, conduct surveys, or do any other kind of "field" research, having more than one person to divide these tasks among allows you to write a more thoroughly researched paper. Also, because these kinds of sources are frequently hard to "make sense" of, having more than one perspective on what you find is a great help in deciding how to use the information in a paper. For example, having more than one person observe the same thing frequently gives you two different perspectives on what happened.

Papers Requiring Library Research

Although most of us might be satisfied with two or three sources in a research paper using written sources, instructors usually expect more. Working with multiple people allows you to break up library tasks more easily and do a more thorough search for relevant material. For example, one person can check Internet sources, another might have to check a certain database in the library (like SAGE) while another works on a different database more specific to your topic (e.g. ERIC for education, MLA for literature, etc.). Also, the diversity of perspectives in a group helps you decide which sources are most relevant for your argument and audience.

Any Type of Argument

Arguments, by their very nature, involve having a good sense of audience, including audiences that may not agree with you. Imagining all the possible reactions to your audience is a difficult task with these types of papers. The diversity of perspectives and experiences of multiple people are a great advantage here. This is particularly true of "public" issues which affect many people because it is easy to assume your perspective on what the public thinks is "right" as opposed to being subject to your own, limited experience. This is equally true of more "academic" arguments because each member of a group might have a different sense, depending on their past course work and field experience, of what a disciplinary audience is expecting and what has already been said about a topic.


A paper that requires some type of interpretation--of literature, a design structure, a piece of art, etc.--always includes various perspectives, whether it be the historical perspective of the piece, the context of the city in which a landscape is designed, or the perspective of the interpreter. Given how important perspective is to this type of writing and thinking, reviewing or interpreting work from a variety of perspectives helps strengthen these papers. Such variety is a normal part of group work but much harder to get at individually.

Cultural Analyses

Any analysis of something cultural, whether it be from an anthropological perspective, a political science view of a public issue, or an analysis of a popular film, involves a "reading" or interpretation of the culture's context as well. However, context is never simply one thing and can be "read", much like a poem, in many ways. Having a variety of "eyes" to analyze a cultural scene, then, gives your group an advantage over single-authored papers that may be more limited.

Lab/Field Reports

Any type of experiment or field research involving observation and/or interpretation of data can benefit from multiple participants. More observers help lessen the work load and provide more data from a single observation which can lead to better, or even more objective, interpretations. For these reasons, much work in science is collaborative.

Any Type of Evaluation

An evaluation paper, such as reviews, critiques, or case reports, implies the ability to make and defend a judgment. judgments, as we all know, can be very idiosyncratic when only one person interprets the data or object at hand. As a result, performing an evaluation in a group allows you to gain multiple perspectives, challenge each other's ideas and assumptions, and thus defend a judgment that may not be as subject to bias.

Fact and Fiction: Common Fears about Group Work

Group work can be a frightening prospect for many people, especially in a school setting when so much of what we do is only "counted" (i.e. graded) if it's been completed individually. Some of these fears are fictions, but others are well founded and can be addressed by being careful about how group work is set up.

My individual ideas will be lost

Fact or Fiction? Both

In any group, no one's ideas count more than another's; as a result, you will not always get a given idea into a paper exactly as you originally thought it. However, getting your ideas challenged and changed is the very reason to do a group project. The key is to avoid losing your ideas entirely (i.e. being silenced in a group) without trying to control the group and silencing others.

Encourage Disagreement

It's okay to argue. Only through arguing with other members can you test the strength of not only others' ideas but also your own. Just be careful to keep the disagreement on the issue, not on personalities.

Encourage a Collaborative Attitude

No paper, even if you write it alone, is solely a reflection of your own ideas; the paper includes ideas you've gotten from class, from reading, from research. Think of your group members, and encourage them to think of you, as yet another source of knowledge.

Be Ready to Compromise

Look for ways in which differing ideas might be used to come up with a "new" idea that includes parts of both. It's okay to "stick to your guns," but remember everyone gives up a little in a group interaction. You must determine when you're willing to bend and when you're not.

Consider Including the Disagreement in the Paper

Depending on the type of paper you're writing, it's frequently okay to include more than one "right" answer by showing both are supportable with available evidence. In fact, papers which present disagreement without resolutions can sometimes be better than those that argue for only one solution or point of view.

I could write it better myself

Fact or Fiction? Usually both

Even if you are an excellent writer, collaboratively written papers are usually better than a single-authored one if for no other reason than the content is better: it is better researched, more well thought out, includes more perspectives, etc. The only time this is not true is if you've chosen to group-author a paper that does not need collaboration. However, writing a good final draft of a collaboratively written paper does take work that all group members should be prepared to do. To read more about collaborating successfully, choose any of the items below:

Divide the Writing Tasks

While everyone is not necessarily a great writer in all aspects, they usually know what they do well. Someone may be great at organizing but not be a good proofreader. Someone else might be great using vivid language, but lose their writing focus. Have group members write what they're best at and/or ask them to read the first draft for specific things they know well.

Leave Enough Time for Revising

First drafts of collaborative papers are frequently much worse than first drafts of individual papers because many disagreements are still being worked out when writing. Leave yourselves, then, a lot of time to critique the first draft and rewrite it.

Divide the Paper into Sections

People in your group may know a lot more about certain topics in the paper because they did the research for that section or may have more experience writing, say, a methods section than others. To get a good first draft going, divide tasks up according to what people feel the most comfortable with. Be sure, however, to do a lot of peer review as well.

Be Critical

One of the advantages of group work is you learn to read your own and others' writing more critically. Since this is your work too, don't be afraid to suggest and make changes on parts of the paper, even if you didn't write them in the drafting process. Every section, including yours, belongs to everyone in the group.

My grade will depend on what others do

Fact or Fiction? Fact

Although some instructors make provisions for individual grades even on a collaborative project, the fact remains that at least a part, if not the whole grade will depend on what others do. Although this may be frightening, the positive side to this is that it increases people's motivation and investment in the project. Of course, not everyone will care about grades as much as others. In this case, the group needs to make decisions early on for the "slacker" contingency. To read more about how to deal with unequal investments in the task, choose any of the items below:

Make Rules and Stick to Them

Before you even start work on a project, make rules about what will happen to those members not doing their part and outline the consequences. Here are some possible "consequences" other groups have used:

  • If someone misses a meeting, or doesn't do a certain task, he/she has to type the final paper, buy pizza for the next meeting, etc.
  • If more than one meeting is missed or a member consistently fails to do what she/he is supposed to, the group can decide not to include that name on the project. (Check this one with your instructor)
  • In the same scenario, the group can decide to write a written evaluation of the member's work and pass it in to the instructor with the paper.

Speak Up

No one, usually, wants to anger their peers. When someone isn't doing his/her work, other group members need to tell that member. Many times people who end up doing more than their share do so because they don't complain.

Deal with It

This may sound harsh, but the reality of life outside of school is that some people do more work than others but are not necessarily penalized for it. You need to learn how to deal with these issues given that in the working world, you are frequently dependent on others you work with. Learning how to handle such situations now is a good learning experience in itself.

Group work will take more time than if I did it myself

Fact or Fiction? Fact

There is no way around this, so be prepared. Even if you divide up many of the early tasks (research, etc.) which lessens the time you might put in individually, writing a collaborative paper takes a lot of time. It's time well spent as the final project is usually better than what any one individual could do, but don't fool yourself into thinking choosing a group option will mean less work. It hardly ever does.

My group members aren't as smart as I am

Fact or Fiction? Fiction

This is a dangerous attitude to bring into a group situation. If you honestly believe it's true, you should probably not choose group work if it's optional. If you don't have a choice, then consider the fact that other people might be thinking the same of you. To read about how your group can avoid this, choose any of the items below:

Discuss Member's Strengths and Weaknesses

At the first meeting, have each group member do a personal inventory covering a wide range of issues relevant to the work you'll do together. Remember that while one person may be good at ideas/course content, someone else may have strengths as a critical reader, researcher, or writer. Some questions might include: what do you know about our topic already? What experiences do you have that might be relevant? What have you done the best on in other parts of the course? What have you been complimented on about your writing in the past from teachers or peers? What kind of reader of other people's papers are you?

Practice Listening

It's too easy to judge someone based on personal assumptions. Assign someone each meeting to take careful notes on everything said, not just what that person thinks is relevant. Many good ideas are lost because we judge the person rather than what he/she says.

Encourage a Collaborative Attitude

Think of your group members, and encourage them to think of you, as yet another source of knowledge just as you might a teacher, a book, or any other source you consult for a paper. Sometimes you can learn the most from someone you think is "wrong" because they can provide a perspective you've ignored.

We won't be able to agree

Fact or Fiction? Both

Group work is messy; you will disagree often. The best groups don't silence disagreement because it's usually in arguing that you can challenge each other to think more about the topic. However, groups that only disagree are no more functional than those that agree to everything. The key is balancing the two. To read more about how to handle disagreements, choose any of the items below:

Assign a Monitor/Mediator

For every meeting, ask someone to keep careful track of the differing opinions and reasons for them. At a certain point in the meeting (or for the next meeting), the mediator's job is to present all the views and try to reach a consensus which includes parts of them. To do this, the mediator must stay out of the arguments for that meeting only.

Decide Whether You Have to Agree

This won't work in every instance, but sometimes you might decide to include the disagreement in the paper itself. Presenting why two different sides of an issue are equally supportable can sometime strengthen the paper, rather than weaken it, depending on the purpose of the paper.

Make Discussion Rules

While arguing about ideas is good, personal attacks are not. Early on, decide as a group what is acceptable behavior toward each other and follow the rule: call someone on it when they go too far.

I don't have time to meet out of class

Fact or Fiction? Sometimes a Fact

Most of us, even if we're very busy, can find two hours to meet with a group. The key is having those two hours in common with other people, which is why, when forming a group, time in common is the first thing to consider. If you are assigned a group, however, this may not be possible. In this case, consider alternative ways of meeting: telephone, e-mail, meetings with some group members, etc. To read more about different alternatives, choose any of the items below:


Everyone on campus can get an e-mail account. You can work on much of the logistical (who needs to do what when) work of a group through e-mail communication. This is also a good way to exchange drafts of the paper, with each person making revisions when the draft gets to them. Or, it can serve as a way to send your "section" before you have a complete draft and/or to exchange research notes. It's not as useful for hashing out ideas or coming up with your thesis for the paper, however.

Chat Rooms

Talk to your instructor about setting up a chat room through the WWW. Although sometimes frustrating because you will be writing instead of talking, you can use a chat room to do much of the idea generation that e-mail isn't as useful for because of the time lag.

Partial Meetings

Meet in two different groups, with one person in common. Take good notes so that one person can communicate what you decided/talked about to the next group. This can work until the "final" decision stage of what the focus of the paper will be and the final changes to the draft. For these, you'll need probably to meet at least once (for the decision making) or pass the draft around continuously until everyone is ready to sign off on it.

Weekend Meetings

No one loves this option, but if you have no other free time together, you might be able to find a Sunday morning or Friday night when everyone can meet for the one or two meetings that seem as if they must be face-to-face.

I would learn more doing it on my own

Fact or Fiction? Fiction

While this may seem true because you'd have to do all the work, group work usually allows you to include more research than you could alone, exposes you to perspectives you wouldn't hear otherwise, and teaches you about your own writing strengths and weaknesses in ways writing alone and just getting a response never can. Thus, in group work, you learn more about writing itself, and, if done right, the topic as well.

I'll end up doing all the work

Fact or Fiction? Fiction

Unless you are unwilling to give up control or speak up for yourself, this shouldn't happen. Although the reality is that some people will try to get away with doing less, the chances of having a completely uncommitted group are rare. As a result, you simply have to watch for the tendency to think you "know better" than others and thus must do it all yourself and/or the attitude that your grade will suffer because everything isn't done the way you want it. To read about how not to do all the work, choose any of the items below:

Make Rules and Stick to Them

Before you even start work on a project, make rules about what will happen to those members not doing their part and outline the consequences. Here are some possible "consequences" other groups have used:

  • If you miss a meeting, or don't do a certain task, you have to type the final paper, buy pizza for the next meeting, etc.
  • If more than one meeting is missed or a member consistently fails to do what she/he is supposed to, the group can decide not to include their name on the project. (Check this one with your instructor)
  • In the same scenario, the group can decide to write a written evaluation of the member's work and pass it in to the instructor with the paper.

Speak Up

No one, usually, wants to anger his/her peers. When someone isn't doing their work, other group members need to tell them. Many times people who end up doing more than their share do so because they don't complain.

Divide the Writing Tasks

While everyone is not necessarily a great writer in all aspects, they usually know what they do well. Someone may be great at organizing but not be a good proofreader. Someone else might be great a vivid language, but lose their focus. Have group members write what they're best at and/or ask them to read the first draft for specific things they know well. Even if you're good at all aspects, this doesn't mean you can't draw on the others' strengths.

Be Critical

One of the advantages of group work is you learn to read your own and others' writing more critically. Since this is your work too, don't be afraid to suggest and make changes on parts of the paper, even if you didn't write them in the drafting process. Every section, including yours, belongs to everyone in the group. Thus, one way to get a better product without doing all the work yourself is to be a good reader.

What to Expect in Group Work

Several factors we may not always think about when working in a group are vital to a successful group project. You should always establish how your group will handle each of these. To learn more about these factors, choose any of the items below:


Although we might assume productive groups will always be in complete agreement and focused on task, the reality of groups, as we have probably all experienced, is much messier than this. "Ideal" productive groups do not exist. In fact, some of the most productive groups will disagree, spend a lot of time goofing around, and even follow many blind alleys before achieving consensus. It's important to be aware of the rather messy nature of group work.


Student groups will fight--in fact, they should fight, but only in particular ways. Research shows that "substantive" conflict, conflict directed toward the work at hand and issues pertaining to it, is highly productive and should be encouraged. "Personal" conflict, conflict directed toward group members' egos, however, is damaging and unproductive. The lesson is that students need to respect each other. Some groups decide to negotiate respect by making rules against inappropriate comments or personal attacks. When a damaging instance arises in a certain situation, any group member can immediately censor back the comment by saying "inappropriate comment."


Of course, groups will not continually argue nor will they continually stay on task. Socializing, joking around, or telling stories are a natural part of group interaction and should be encouraged. It is primarily through "goofing off&qout; that group members learn about each other's personalities, communication styles, and senses of humor. Such knowledge builds trust and community among the members. Although groups should be counseled not to spend inappropriately long amounts of time simply gossiping or telling stories, they should also realize the importance and influence such interactions can have on achieving a group identity that all members come to share.

Wrong Decisions

Group members should be aware of and comfortable with the frequently frustrating reality of making the wrong decisions. Making mistakes, trying out options that don't work, and so on are not "a waste of time." In any creative situation, particularly in writing, trying out unsuccessful options is frequently the only way to discover what needs to be done. Although such frustrations take place even in individual contexts, they are particularly hard to negotiate in a group context because our immediate instinct is to blame another group member for a faulty suggestion. Students should be aware that all time spent on a task is productive even if it does not lead to any tangible product.

Unequal Commitments

In a perfect world, everyone would have as much time and desire in a group as others to create the best paper possible, but the reality is some people are procrastinators or care more about their grades in certain classes. Expect this and make contingencies for it by deciding early on what the "penalty" will be for those who miss meetings or fail to pull their weight.

Choosing Group Members

Sometimes in class assignments, you won't be able to choose your group, but if you have this option or are forming a group for your own purposes (e.g. study groups for exams), be careful of how you choose members. To read more about how to construct a group, choose any of the items below:

Time in Common to Meet

You'll want to have at least a two-hour chunk of time that everyone in the group can meet each week. While you'll probably not meet every week, everyone should be willing to keep this time free during the group project. If you plan to gather to write the text together, you'll need much larger chunks of time toward the end of the project.

Individual Strengths and Weaknesses

Any collaboratively written paper will include research, idea-generating, and writing abilities. For other groups, such as study groups, only idea-generating or understanding of class material may be relevant. As you ask people to join your group, have a specific reason why they would "add" to the group mix in terms of abilities. Choosing your friends is not always the best way to get a "balanced" group. For example, your friends might all be good at research but all lack writing skills.


If you're doing a group paper or studying together, including a diversity of people might be a real asset. For example, gender diversity may or may not be relevant depending on the topic. Past course work or job experience may or may not be relevant. Prepare a list of the types of diversity that may help strengthen your paper because of the different perspectives or types of expertise people can bring to the group.


Next to enough time to meet, this criterion is most important. Try to choose group members who have an equal investment in the project or study group as you do. It's unfair to invite someone because you think they'll do most of the work; it's equally unfair to you to invite someone you like but who will probably miss meetings or procrastinate.

Guidelines for Group Work

The members of student groups may benefit from keeping some common-sense rules and aphorisms in mind as they come to collaborate.

Rule One

Collaboration teaches us what we know how to do, not just what we know. Collaboration teaches method. The activities of collaboration are as important as the material results.

Rule Two

Collaboration works best when it is apparent--when you know that you are collaborating. A certain amount of formality (e.g., established meeting times, a recorder to take minutes perhaps, a group monitor) is called for.

Rule Three

Collaboration succeeds when everybody succeeds--individual members as well as the group as a whole.

Rule Four

Collaboration is a key responsibility in the class experience--it means being involved in the teaching of the course.

Rule Five

No one ever knows how a collaborative activity will turn out.

Initial Decision-Making

This section provides suggestions about the types of decisions any group should make before getting into the work on a paper itself in order to prevent future problems.

Where many groups go wrong is not being clear about expectations from the onset. Problems are much easier to deal with when you discuses their possibility in the abstract rather than when they involve individual people and feelings. As such, making the following decisions early on can help deflect feelings of personal attack later and also help organize the group.

Agree on a Meeting Format

While many groups will (and should) spend time socializing, talking about class, etc., it's helpful to set up expectations for how much of this type of talk should/can occur during a meeting. Also, because of how much typically gets said during meetings, you need a way to keep track of what occurred and plan for the next meeting. For instance, you should:

  • Appoint a secretary for each meeting
  • Plan for the next meeting (set an agenda) at the end of each meeting
  • Plan a short amount of time at the beginning of each meeting for chatting and appoint someone to get the group "started" after that time has passed

Construct Rules for Discussion

Although it usually seems unlikely in the beginning, a healthy disagreement can easily turn nasty when people are invested in a topic. Decide early on what will be considered inappropriate comments and make sure someone monitors these in later meetings. Here are some rules to consider:

  • No personal attacks on a person's intelligence, background, way of speaking, etc.
  • No yelling; all disagreements should be kept in a rational tone
  • No name calling
  • If a person objects to a comment directed at them, the conversation stops there, no matter anyone's opinion of the objection
  • Out of Line Comments: "That's a dumb idea;" "You don't know what you're talking about;" "It figures a man/woman would say that"

Construct a Timeline

It's very easy to get lost in people's individual schedules week to week and put off certain tasks "just this time." Also, it's easy for a group project to seem "huge" until the tasks are broken down. For these reasons, it's useful to decide what tasks need to be done and when they need to be finished in order for the group to meet its final deadline.

Make a schedule and keep to it. This will also help group members monitor each other so that someone isn't stuck with all the work at the end. Consider the following:

  • When will a final decision on the topic/focus be made?
  • What kinds of research do we need to do? Who will do what? By when?
  • When will people report back on research? What notes should they write up for others? By when?
  • When must a final decision on the major point (thesis) of the paper be made?
  • When will the paper be drafted initially?
  • When will the comments/suggestions for revision be completed?
  • When will the revisions be done by?
  • When will the final proofreading occur?

Agree on Penalties for Missing Meetings or Deadlines

Although it would be great if this weren't true, the reality is some people are going to miss meetings and deadlines; some might even try to get others to do their work by not completing tasks. Groups need to be prepared for these contingencies by constructing rules and their consequences that can be applied later if individuals "drop the ball." Consider the following:

  • If someone misses a meeting, or doesn't do a certain task, he/she has to type the final paper, buy pizza for the next meeting, etc.
  • If more than one meeting is missed or a member consistently fails to do what she/he is supposed to, the group can decide not to include their name on the project. (Check this one with your instructor)
  • In the same scenario, the group can decide to write a written evaluation of the member's work and pass it in to the instructor with the paper.

Discuss What Each Member Brings to the Group

While you might know your other group members as friends, you probably don't know as much about them as students as you might think. A very productive topic for the first meeting, after all the logistics have been worked out, is to discuss what individual members' strengths and weaknesses are. In short, have everyone conduct a "personal inventory" and share it with the other members on their experiences relevant to the collaborative assignment. Doing this also helps alleviate the feeling that some group members are "smarter" or "know more" than others. Everyone has strengths they bring to the group; we're simply not always aware of them. Consider the following:

  • What's your previous experience with the topic?
  • What do you understand best from class? What are you struggling with?
  • Do you have any outside experience (job, internships, previous classes) relevant to the topic and/or class?
  • What's your experience with the kind of research we're doing (field, library, etc.)
  • What kinds of papers do you write best? What have teachers and others complimented you on?
  • What problems do you have in writing?

Idea-Generating and Research Tasks

This section deals with the types of tasks that can and should occur before the group begins drafting the paper and provides suggestions on how to best distribute the work.

Although when we work on our own, all of us frequently deter from the model of "gather all your information, decide on a thesis, write and outline, and draft" typically recommended in writing text books. However, this is a useful order to try and follow in group work. Many times a group might work through this order recursively, researching, finding a topic, and then having to do more research, however breaking up these tasks initially helps lighten the workload later and helps you meet the final deadline.

Library Research

While it's a good idea to have everyone work on research, you don't want to end up finding the same sources. Consider breaking down the library research according to data bases. One person searches SAGE, another the New York Times, etc. Also construct a plan for how people will "report" back on research. Should they write a summary for everyone? Bring photocopies?

Field Research

Depending on the type of field research, you may break down what needs to be done individually or choose to send people out in pairs or groups. Pairs and groups, for example, work particularly well for observational projects where each person may observe something different. Also, construct a plan for how people will "report" back on research. Should they make a more extended copy of their notes? Should the group decide what's important to focus on and then ask each person to share that portion of their work? No matter what the decision, make sure each group member has the entire body of information to work from. Observations and interviews can't be used by everyone like a library source can unless the person doing them has a detailed, written record.

Evaluating Sources

The most difficult part of doing research individually or in pairs is deciding what's relevant or not to the group's project. It's useful, then, to either construct criteria for what makes a "good" source before the research begins, or to have people report back on everything they found, and decide a focus from there that can help you look more specifically for other sources. Developing a focus early on is especially important to field research as any surveys, observations, or interviews you do will only need to be redone if they don't elicit the information you later discover you need.

Deciding on a Focus

Depending on your topic, this may occur in different places in the process. For a library project, it's useful to have some idea of a focus before starting the research, then refining it according to what you find out. For observational research, it's useful to do a few observations without a sense of focus, and use what you see to determine what's most interesting to the group. In any type of research, however, a focus should be determined before the researching ends; otherwise, you may not end up with information you can use.

Coming to Consensus on the Main Point and Organization

Once you've gotten a focus and collected most of your data or sources, the group needs to conduct the most difficult task: decide upon the point of the paper. While in individual papers, many of us frequently "write to find a point," this is very difficult to do in a group. Before the writing starts, you want everyone to have the same conclusion or point in mind so that what they write will not lack coherence with other parts of the paper. For similar reasons, deciding on the organization of the paper beforehand, in some type of outline or list of sections, will make the writing much easier.

Writing the Paper Together

Depending on the purpose of the assignment, you can choose from a number of models for working in collaborative groups.

Determine what Final Paper Should 'Sound' Like

Before actually beginning to write, your group will need to make some decisions about the final draft, some of which may need to be checked with your instructor first. Consider the following:

  • Is it okay to include disagreements? Should the paper argue for one point/interpretation/conclusion or present other possibilities that emerged in your discussions?
  • Should the paper sound as if one person wrote it? Are different styles acceptable or will you have to revise for a similar style throughout?
  • How will you refer to the author, as "we", as a group name, by last names? What's standard format for collaborative work in your discipline?

Divide the Writing Tasks

When you divide the writing tasks, each member does research and writes a portion of the document. The group then reconvenes to suggest revisions, smooth over transitions, and even edit style inconsistencies. This model is the most efficient and quickest for most groups that have not worked together in the past. Consider the following:

  • This only works if you spend a lot of time discussing organization before writing; otherwise, sections tend to digress and/or repeat each others.
  • Plan to write the introduction, conclusion, and transitions between sections together to help the text "flow."
  • Edit/revise the draft for coherence; is it obvious how each section supports/leads to your main point? Skipping this stage could lead to an incomprehensible paper. People's ideas about the main point, no matter how much discussion, aren't always going to be the same.

Gather to Write Together

Writing together is efficient in that groups can sometimes make better decisions than individuals. Consequently, fewer drafts might be required. However, this kind of true collaborative writing, especially in larger groups, can be very difficult and time consuming. You may need to spend more time working together. Consider the following:

  • How well this works depends a great deal on how comfortable you are with each other and if you're willing to correct and suggest in the middle of someone writing.
  • Don't get caught up in arguments about sentence structure, word choice, etc. This is only a first draft and trying to be too "perfect" during the writing will increase the writing time exponentially.
  • Plan more than one meeting for the drafting; writing like this cannot be done in one sitting.
  • Leave time to critique the draft and make revisions. Writing together is not a substitute for revision.

Delegate Various Responsibilities

Members who might have excellent research skills might do most of the research; those who are excellent at writing correctly might do most of the editing and proofreading. This model requires a high degree of group coordination. For some groups--but definitely not all--this model is most efficient. For others, (in which no even split of skill levels exists) it will be the least efficient. Consider the following:

  • Be sure everyone, not just the final editor, has approved what will be passed in. Everyone needs to read and critique each draft.
  • Be sure tasks are broken down equally. Proofing the final copy is not equivalent to writing the first draft.
  • For this method to work, those doing the research must keep detailed, accurate notes that others who might not have seen the original source can understand and use.
  • "Planning" meetings are essential; the people drafting must have a clear idea of the point, organization, and what sources are relevant to what parts of the paper or else much time can be wasted.

Using Group Time Profitably

After making initial decisions about choice of topic and members' duties, a group will work best together if each member comes to meetings with at least some of his or her individual work and thinking already accomplished. Groups can then move directly to the more advanced writing process stages of organizing and negotiating between ideas or even of piecing together drafts. Various strategies help make group time as productive as possible:

Be Prepared

Come to the meeting with at least some of your individual work and thinking already accomplished. If you were assigned to write a portion of the draft, for example, have it done for the meeting and bring copies. If this is a planning meeting, think about the topic before hand and jot down some notes about what you think should be done.

Set an Agenda

Set aside time at the beginning of each meeting to run through (or create) the agenda and state aloud the goals for this meeting (i.e. what you want to accomplish). Save time at the end of each meeting to recap the events of the session, discuss plans for individual work, and set the agenda for the next meeting.

Appoint a Secretary

Group meetings can move very quickly with so many people talking. For each meeting appoint a scribe (a different one each time) to take down notes on the discussion and keep track of plans and decisions made. The scribe should provide each member with a copy of a particular meeting so everyone has the same sense of what happened and what was decided.


All committees need time for unfocused discussions that attempt to move the group toward consensus. More than a few group meetings may need to be devoted to what seems like unfocused talk. Allowing this to happen will make later sessions more productive since you've already explored many ideas about the topic; as a result, getting down to work will be easier.


Feel free to disagree. The best ideas come about when someone has the guts to question an idea or plan that seems to make sense to everyone else. Critiquing each other's work or ideas is essential to working together to create the best product. Don't hold to your individual ideas so strongly, however, that the group doesn't make any progress. Know when to compromise and when not to.

Be Strict about Deadlines

You expect all your other group members to complete the work they've committed themselves to; apply the same standard to yourself. Remember that you have a commitment to these people and failure to meet it will affect not only your grade but theirs as well.

Dealing With Problems in a Group

Group work is rarely flawless. Two methods for dealing with problems are monitoring the group and discussing the problems. If you agree ahead of time about how to resolve problems, you can avoid involving your instructor in the situation; however, if you can't resolve the problem it may be a good idea to ask for assistance.

Clarify Your Expectations Early

One way to avoid problems later is to make decisions about deadlines, meeting etiquette, and penalties for missed work before any of these occur. This way you can refer back to decisions already made and avoid the possibility that one member may feel like they're "being picked on" or meetings become so out of hand they can't be controlled.

Monitor the Group

One way to help alleviate some of the problems that may result from group interactions is to encourage the group to somehow monitor itself. To facilitate this monitoring, each group member can keep a journal in which she or he comments on each group meeting. The journal can become the place to express frustration, to analyze the nature of communication taking place in the group, and so on. Or the group may choose to divide up monitoring tasks. One group member might be put in charge of keeping track of turn-taking (i.e., who speaks and when; do all members have an equal opportunity to speak; are some members always silent?). Another member might watch for nonverbal cues about how members are reacting to what is being said, or to an individual speaker.

Discuss Problems

In any of these monitoring scenarios, group members should be encouraged to discuss with the entire group any problems they see arising so that the group might discuss certain aspects of the group's dynamic before they become problems. Sometimes, however, the group will not be able to solve their interaction problems on their own. When this occurs, they should be aware that they can discuss this--as a group preferably-- with the instructor.

Overall, groups should be left to negotiate their own agendas among themselves, but discussing possible problem areas may provide the ounce of prevention that prevents the need for a more painful cure.

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.

LeCourt, Donna, & Dawn Kowalski. (1997). Working in Groups. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guides.cfm?guideid=42