Writing from a Distance: Researching in the 21st Century

Barbara Fast and I have just finished editing the final galley proofs of our book iPractice: Technology in the 21st Century Music Practice Room. The book is due for release in November, 2018 – pre-order from Amazon.

Not only is this book about using 21st century technology in the music practice room – it could only have been written with 21st century technology. The entire book – from conception to this final proof was written at a distance.

Barbara and I were on faculty together at the the University of Northern Iowa way back in our past, but we normally reside in Oklahoma and Illinois, respectively. With our teaching and travel schedules, there was little time to physically get together to write. This didn’t even come into our thinking when we were presented a contract with Oxford University Press to write this book. Of course we would write the book – and without even discussing it we started!

Barbara and I had already been doing research at a distance. A large portion of the our research article “Practising in the New World: A Case Study of Practising Strategies Related to the Premiere of Contemporary Music” published in the journal Music Performance Research was written at a distance.

One model we could have chosen – but didn’t – was to divide the topics in the book and individually write these sections, bringing together the sections to share and edit at a later date. Instead, we wrote together in real time.

In this post, I’ll describe our writing process and encourage other co-authors to use available technology as a central part of the collaborative process.

Virtual Meetings

Central to our approach to writing at a distance was the virtual meeting.  Though I tend to be a solo researcher, this book was very much a collaborative writing project. In fact, 99.9% of the book was written collaboratively with both Barbara and I writing simultaneously – in real time.

We primarily used Skype to host our virtual meetings. We’d set a meeting time and turn on our respective computers. Usually we met early in the morning before the day, and all the busywork of our jobs, got on top of us. In essence, we woke and had coffee and breakfast together while we wrote. Early in the writing process, we’d meet once or twice a week, but as our deadline approached this virtual breakfast meeting became almost a daily occurrence. 

Our meetings generally lasted between 1 and 3 hours and generally started with some general chit-chat before we jumped into serious writing. This brought a social element to the writing process which made the writing that much more enjoyable.

Anyone who uses Skype or Facetime a lot knows that after a while, it seems as if the other person is in the room with you. We’d let the Skype run even if we were interrupted by life or professional obligations. I’d step out to talk to the lawn service or Barbara would take a quick phone call. Exactly what would happen if an in-person meeting was interrupted.

Virtual meetings were both motivational and also enhanced our productivity. We prioritized our virtual meetings, booking them into our calendars in advance. The meeting time gave the writing a higher priority in our lives than it might have had if we were writing individually.

We were in essence, brainstorming the entire time we were writing the book. Practice strategies like Musical Selfies, Burst Mode, and Practice Stories only exist because we were virtually sitting around a table brainstorming effective practice techniques. Any idea we had was instantly vetted by the other person and a number of ideas didn’t make the cut. The book is stronger for the real-time interaction, testing each idea before it went onto the page. We finally had to stop brainstorming new practice techniques when our deadline arrived!

We were also after a conversational style to the book and what better way to achieve this tone than by actually having a conversation!

Writing Together

As I mentioned earlier, we wrote the book together. Each sentence was written collaboratively. We didn’t choose to write individually and then try to later fit the prose together. When writing individually, there’s always the chance that tone and style will vary and need to be adjusted in the editing process. Barbara and I very much had a unique collaborative tone – I’m not sure that either of us, individually, would have achieved the light, conversational tone we were after in the book.

We used Google Docs to write our book. Google Docs, for those who haven’t used this program collaboratively, allows multiple authors to interact with the written document in real time. If Barbara wrote a sentence, I could immediately see what she wrote and I could even start editing while she was still writing. We could have various versions of a sentence in front of us and each of us could equally move or edit the writing.

We were conversing on Skype at the same time we were writing. Sometimes talking out our ideas before they went on the page, other times writing first and talking about how the sentence flowed.

We would chat a bit about what we wanted to write and then one or the other of us would start writing. Sometimes one of us was scripting what the other said to see how the idea flowed on the page. When Barbara was writing, the words appeared magically on the page!

Even if Barbara and I were meeting in person, we wouldn’t have the type of instant writing feedback that Google Docs provided. We could immediately interact with each other’s writing as it was happening.

Skype plus Google Docs was the perfect combination.

Final Thoughts

I’m a big believer in social learning theory – we can often achieve more when working together than apart. I believe our book iPractice is better for Barbara and I working together to create the ideas.

I think the book is better for our virtual collaboration, it was definitely an enjoyable writing process. I would encourage authors and researchers who collaborate to continue their collaboration into the writing process.

Technology sometimes is criticized for separating people, but it also has the ability to bring people, separated by geography, together.

Head over to iPractice: Music Technology in Action for all the latest in integrating music technology into your studio or classroom.

#distanceeducation #collaboration #researchcollaboration #virtualmeeting #skype #googledocs #socialmedia #ipracticemusic

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