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What Makes a Collaborative Writing Project Successful?

Penguin’s collaborative writing experiment A
Million Penguins
was launched
in February 2007 and completed
in March 2007. This month saw its final scholarly assessment published in a
research
report
out of De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.

The results? Terrible, according to Gawker, echoing a consensus that the project failed as literature. As a study of online behavior, though, it’s quite fascinating, and the research paper describes examples of all types of user contributions, from the grandiose and self-serving to the quietly constructive.

But if “every book needs its author,” game-like fiction has been shown to be more amenable to collaboration. Each of Penguin’s We Tell Stories pieces was co-written by interactive developers and a novelist. This month, the Guardian has launched a participatory
interactive fiction project
.

Although technically a type of computer game, interactive fiction has a long association with print authors, starting with the commercially successful adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
(1984). In 2003 Adam Cadre (Ready,
Okay!
, HarperCollins, 2000) wrote the game Narcolepsy incorporating 12 dream sequences written by different authors (of which I was one). In a more experimental vein, the recent UpRightDown
project released its first story, which generated submissions in multiple media, including some interactive works.

One lesson from these experiments is that while a work of fiction may not need a single author, it does need a single editor or authority to weave together disparate contributions and reject the
obvious vandals. A unified final work has the potential to be a
marketable product rather than a research project. (On the other hand,
if the printed German Wikipedia sells, all bets are off.) Scale is important as well: two or even three dozen
contributors are probably manageable; A Million Penguins had 1,700.

The Guardian’s interactive fiction project is being managed using wiki
software at textadventure.org.uk.
The organizers are soliciting both programmers and non-technical
writers. It is scheduled to run through at least the end of May.

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  • http://fictionthis.com alex

    Great post.
    But yet the desire to prove that this study is wrong really tickles my fancy. Not that the study was not conducted properly. I think it justed needed another angle. For all great things are simple. So if one builder is good, two builders are better. So if one writer is good could two writers be better? Maybe. So if one editor is good can two editors be better? Well i am heading a project now that just with enough luck may prove that.
    Maybe the collaborative sites require not only enough of collaborative writers but also the same amount of collaborative editors. I know it may sound like communism. But the idealism is not a crime.
    So if you’d like to see a life example visit http://fictionthis.com and as usual any feedback is welcome.

  • Maggie

    You can also check out http://www.storyjoin.com it allows you to collaborate with other members and write stories together.