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
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,
, 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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