Side by Side: Writing as a Team

By: Mary Anna Rodabaugh in Book Writing
on February 18th, 2019

I’m sitting at a round table with five other people. We’re about four hours into onboarding orientation—a long training for our new jobs at a health system. My tablemates hail from different departments. One lady is from environmental services. To my left sits a girl younger than me, perhaps in her late teens. She told me this is her first real job and she’s saving up for college. She’ll be working in the dining services department for one of the system’s retirement facilities. I muse at that revelation, for I got my first professional working start as a dining service waitress at a nursing home many years ago.

My remaining tablemates are a tad reserved. One gentleman is a newly minted maintenance worker. Another lady is an RN who will be joining the ICU staff, and the remaining comrade is a home health aide. I have just been hired full time as a youth social worker for homeless children after spending a year volunteering in the role. Despite my familiarity with the health system, I still have to experience employee orientation.

My tablemates and I are meeting for the very first time, bonded together by our seating preferences. Our presenter asks us to choose a leader from our table. The leader will help facilitate a table-wide discussion, document the highlights, and report back to the group at large.

Three people look at me right away. No one reaches for the pen. The maintenance guy and RN quickly glance at everyone before stopping at my face. I’ve been chosen. Silently. I’m slightly apathetic but would be remiss if I didn’t say I felt a tiny bit proud. Just a tiny bit. I sit tall in my chair and take a deep breath. The table waits to see my reaction. I pick up the pen and paper, and immediately everyone’s shoulders release two minutes’ worth of tension. I see their shoulders drop. “Let’s begin,” I say, and we do.

Within five minutes, I learn that my tablemates’ relief doesn’t stem from leadership avoidance; it stems from activity avoidance. My team doesn’t want to participate. They misjudged my extroverted nature and confidence for independent gusto.

“So, what are some ways we can apply the mission statement to our everyday work?” I asked cheerfully.

I’m met with blank stares and absent-minded doodling. They don’t want to be here. They want to be at work, doing what they were hired to do.

“Anybody?” I prod.

“Whatever you think, Mary Anna. I’m sure we could all apply it in some way,” the RN offers.

With time running out and limited information to present back, I get to work. I try to imagine the types of roles these people play in the workforce, and link back to the mission: Care, Comfort, Heal. I make one attempt to engage the youngest member of the table, but even she is at a loss for answers. Finally, I manage to jot down five points to share with the room. Assignment completed.

I honestly thought this type of behavior would end once I reached adulthood. I remember team projects in high school where I’d carry a large portion of the weight. It was a rare opportunity to be placed with highly active team members. I longed for the projects when we could pick our partners or teammates. I had my go-to A-team, and we got stuff done.

Since I spent most of my formative years in leadership roles (class president three years in a row, president of the Future Business Leaders Association, vice present of the Parent Teacher Student Association, etc.), I pretty much learned to expect designated group leadership roles. Which is why, on orientation day, I wasn’t surprised the table picked me to steer our ship to shore.

Over time, I’ve found it easier to volunteer to carry the weight instead of waiting to be assigned. “I’ll do it myself,” I typically say. By shouldering the majority of the workload, I feel I have more control over the final product. I don’t have to worry about variables such as the engagement level of the other parties. I try, at all costs, to ask for feedback and instill a sense of democracy, but sometimes it is just easier to work alone.

Then I joined Round Table Companies where writers and editors “sit” at a virtual table and work collaboratively on projects. We brainstorm as a team. We edit as a team. We even write as a team. (Well, our big team is broken into smaller teams for projects, but you know what I mean.)

While I would never label myself “collaboration-averse,” I was hesitant when assigned to my first writing/editing team of three. I would be responsible for writing the text. Another member would edit my text, and we’d go back and forth until we felt ready for executive editing by our third team member. All three of us would work directly with our client to capture the story. I was excited to get started but also a bit nervous. How would three very different people come together to produce magic, all in the voice of our client? We were different ages, with different writing backgrounds, and we had different approaches to editing and composition. I wasn’t sure how this this would work, but I was determined to trust the process.

At first, my primary editor created the world’s most thorough outline for our client. It was the kind of undertaking I was accustomed to, doing it all by myself in my high school projects. This outline was the blueprint to rival all blueprints. Above all, it was refreshing. The outline was the gateway for me to do something I realized I had a hard time doing in the past: trusting my teammates and relinquishing complete control.

With the blueprint in hand and trust in my heart, I was ready to start writing. It only took me two chapters to realize some of the hidden treasures that come with writing as a team. My first editor served as a safety net, educating me when my transitions fell flat or the storytelling scenes felt off. My executive editor brought attention to pace and sentence length. Together, we homed in on the client’s voice and morphed into a writing and editing machine. Instead of worrying about conflicting ideas, I felt safe as a writer, knowing my creative endeavors would pass through two filters, if you will, before going to our client. It was efficient. It was collaborative. It helped me grow.

Maybe, growing up, my “dead weight” teammates were not the problem. Maybe I was getting in my own way. Perhaps I spent years clinging to control when I could have tried harder to trust my team and foster participation. Whatever the case may be, I can honestly say I fully embrace writing as a team. Those different ages, writing styles, and experiences come together to create a multidimensional creative process. Together, we not only achieve more, but we also achieve greater things.