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Writing Apart, Writing Together October 19, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
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Recently, we wrote about the relationship between our collaborative writing projects (writing together) and our individual writing projects (writing apart) as well as what happens when we have written together while being physically apart. You can read “Writing Together, Writing Apart” HERE.

Lofty at the Launch Pad

We’re learning some lessons as we make our way into our second year of blogging, lessons that apply to the other big projects we write together and especially separately. One thing we’ve come to recognize is the importance of daily writing, or at least putting a hand on the project every day. On the busiest days, that may mean merely sharing a link to Lofty Ambitions on Facebook, grasping for the least little connection to a daily practice.

Part of what explains why we’ve been able to write this blog is that we committed to a regular weekly schedule that established habits to support that schedule. At first, that meant a collaborative post every Wednesday. Then, we started doing occasional additional posts, usually when the news or an event anniversary triggered an idea. Later, we added guest bogs and, more recently, video interviews. The regularity and the schedule’s predictability keep our minds on the project. We discuss the blog when we take an evening walk, we pitch and outline new topics over beers at a local watering hole, and we dissect previous posts, especially our series posts, looking for something important we might have missed or something worth expanding. Our blog writing is on our minds every day, and we’re planning, drafting, or revising more days than not.

This summer posed particular problems for our regular pace and the way we like to collaborate. Anna was away at Sewanee Writers’ Conference for two weeks, then Doug traveled to the Space Coast for almost a week to see the GRAIL launch. No evening walks, no brainstorming together over beers. Particularly disconcerting was the time change, so that when we talked on the phone, we each were in a different part of the day. When Anna called home before bed from Sewanee, Doug was heading out for a run. When Doug called home from Titusville after drafting a post, Anna was eating dinner. Not only did writing apart mean we were physically separated, but also that our mindsets were not synced up in the day’s arc.

Lofty at Bandelier National Monument

All our previous trips to the Space Coast had been together. This time, Doug had been chosen for the official GRAIL Tweetup, and Anna couldn’t miss the second week of the semester. This Florida trip was different than merely writing while apart, as we’d done when Anna was at Sewanee. At the Space Coast, we’d already established routines together. We had shared memories there. We’d used our four trips to Florida to learn how to be better collaborators, to be in sync and productive. But this time, we had to write together on a specific, unfolding topic far from each other: the GRAIL launch.

Before Doug left, we had outlined a plan for our series, “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” but that outline changed daily as news developed and we thought of additional content. The outline made us feel better and served as a necessary safety net, but the end result doesn’t match the initial plan for the series.

Doug had to gather the bulk of the content by himself for several posts. Anna had to trust that a post would show up for her to revise and that she wouldn’t have questions about what something meant. Doug had to trust that whatever he sent would be revised and posted while he slept. We gritted our teeth and believed that it would all make sense in the end, and we’re pretty sure it did.

Lofty at THATCamp Vancouver

While Doug was attending the GRAIL launch by himself, it wasn’t as if he was working alone. Doug relied on range of social media tools (after all, he was attending a Tweetup) in a greater capacity than ever before, so he drew from a virtual community. For our previous trips to the Space Coast, we attended the shuttle launches as members of the media, and we relied heavily on face-to-face interactions with our colleagues in the News Center and Annex. Although many members of the press are also social media mavens, some are still catching up or even ignoring social media technologies (in one memorable exchange, Doug tutored a press corps member on the relationship between Twitter, Tweetups, and NASA’s social media strategy). Given the nature of a NASA Tweetup, with its 150 actual attendees and hundreds of other interested observers tweeting about the GRAIL launch and related activities, Doug was able to stay current with Space Coast information and events. And we were able to keep up with each other day to day, each of us leaving virtual crumbs for the other to follow.

Doug’s GRAIL work also was heavily influenced by our new iPad. Our previous divide-and-conquer methodology gave us the flexibility to send one of us out to an event or to sniff out news tidbits while the other stayed with the laptops and continued working. We finally took the plunge on iPad for this go-it-alone trip, and it worked well. Now we find ourselves using the iPad for research and writing every day. The iPad isn’t a substitute for our paper notebooks or our Mac laptops, but it makes it easier to keep our hands on our writing projects every day. A daily writing practice is difficult to maintain, so if a device makes it feel a bit easier or a bit closer to one’s fingertips, that’s good.

Lofty after Atlantis's Last Launch

Mostly importantly, though, Doug’s work habits were shaped by years of being a researcher and a student: show up, pay attention, and take damned good notes. That’s really what a daily writing practice means: show up, stay focused, and get some words on the page.

Since Doug’s return from the Space Coast, we’ve returned to our more usual patterns for writing the blog. We’ve learned, though, that one of us can sometimes take the lead and run with an idea without brainstorming together first. This method offers a certain kind of collaboration and conversation, but we don’t want to take turns post by post. We don’t want to take a break or lose momentum. We don’t write any blog posts completely separately, in part because we have our own individual projects outside of the blog for writing separately (we’ll write more soon about working on our individual projects). But it’s good to know we could take turns in a pinch.

Our blogger habits—talking things through with each other, sharing outlines and drafts, writing very much together through the process—keep the blog on our minds day to day and make this large, ongoing project easier. That’s a lesson for our individual projects as well. Habits of daily attention make large projects easier.

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