A couple of years ago, Google Docs commemorated National Novel Writing Month by inviting authors Edan Lepucki, Tope Folarin, and Mike Curato to participate in a short story challenge. The three writers were tasked with writing a short story…on the same Doc…in three different locations…in real time.
The beauty of Google Docs of course is that the same Doc can be shared with multiple people, and with 3 different permissions, depending on the type of activity desired: View, Commenting, and Edit. In this scenario the 3 authors all had Edit rights, and because it is a live document, they could collaborate to write a story together in real time. As their story unfolds, the audience is able to see the developments every step of the way.
The authors were later asked about the process they went through, and all three commented on how they had never before written a story with others in real time. One author mentioned feeling an “incredible rush”, and another stated that they were all “feeding off one another”, and that it was more fun writing in a group than by yourself.
I wanted to recreate this activity, and my vision was to invite my sister Amy Lee Lavoie to collaborate with one of our Timmins, ON area high school students (Max) who loves to write, and has written plays for the schools she has attended on her own time. These plays were performed by students in grades 7 and 8. She is in grade 11. My sister is a playwright based in Vancouver, BC, and I thought it would be an important and memorable exercise for a young writer to engage in a real-time collaboration with an established and incredibly talented (I may be biased but it’s the truth!) playwright. These two would never have had the opportunity to collaborate had it not been for the power of Google Hangouts and Docs (and my hand in the introductions I suppose).
As is sometimes the case, I did run into some technical difficulties. For one, our administrator did not have Google Hangouts on Air (GHOA) enabled. I assumed that because our regular Google Hangouts (GHO) were enabled (we use this platform all the time in our board), that GHOA would be as well. This is not the case! Your Google Admin must enable GHOA through Google +, as we learned here.
Second, even though we were able to enable GHOA in time for the event, it was not working for our student. So, we resorted to a regular GHO and it was still amazing. The only thing is, in regular GHO there is no automatic recording feature. I tried to enlist the help of third-party screencasting software, but it wasn’t meant to be that day!
So, I resorted to the faux-pas of taking pictures and video with my iPhone in an attempt to capture some of the spirit of the activity (I know, I know). Definitely nowhere near the production value of the commercial above, but I WILL try again!
Amy wrote the beginning of the play as a starting point for the activity:
The shared Doc was up, the GHO began, and a frenzy of collaborative writing ensued!
Although there may have been some nervousness in the beginning, our student Max quickly got into the flow of writing and soon the two writers were creating a hilarious dialogue together. The two characters in the play, Eric and Thea, were growing sassier with every keystroke. There were no real pauses between writer switches, lots of laughter, and intense concentration throughout the process.
At the end of the call, the two writers weighed in with their thoughts on the collaborative process – Amy in Vancouver, and Max in Timmins.
Amy: I often think of playwriting, or the act of writing, as a solitary thing, but theatre is really a community-based art form. It requires an incredible amount of energy and diverse bodies to bring it into the three-dimensional realm. This exercise brought me back to that feeling of collaboration. And that, to me, is about risk taking, curiosity and imagination. It was so much fun!
Max: It was fun, it was a little stressful at first trying to find my groove and get into it, but it went well though!
The real-time, collaborative process itself was particularly rewarding in that it forced the playwrights to go against their usual instincts in order to follow their co-writer’s lead and move the story along. There was a real sense of connectedness, and it’s a beautiful thing when the writers are 3,782 kilometers away from each other.
It is my hope that I will be able to facilitate more of these collaborative writing opportunities for students through the digital Human Library‘s extensive community of experts, and even via some local writers, to further cultivate a love of writing. I can only imagine the valuable input a teacher could gather from watching collaborative writing unfold – the student’s individual writing process would be apparent, as would the type of writer they typically are (whether they prefer to get their words and ideas onto the Doc and not worry about spelling errors, or if they are the type to fix their errors as they go).
And, it’s fun. 🙂
A huge thank you to Amy and Max for participating in this little experiment with me…let’s do this again soon.
Here are the beginnings of the collaborative play in Google Docs. It’s not finished, as we only had approximately 30 minutes of writing time, but it’s a cliffhanger!