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23 Jul 2019

Book sprint success: A team writing exercise for the win.

Following in the footsteps of the Open Science Training Handbook, we share our book sprint success story and some ideas to help with your collaborative writing.

On 10th July our multidisciplinary team of dedicated volunteers checked-in at a hotel in the Hague, Netherlands, to participate in a three-day book sprint. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a ‘book sprint’ is an exercise of writing a book collaboratively in a short period of time, usually less than a week. Yet, together we learned that a book sprint is much more than a mere writing exercise; for us it was a truly rewarding and memorable experience that we can all reflect back on with pride. Here, we share our book sprint success story and reasons for why we advocate collaborative writing.

Book sprint motivation

Our motivation to write the open book, ‘Engaging researchers with research data: The Cookbook’, came about to inform and inspire members of the wider research community who are interested in good research data management (RDM) practice. As an RDA project, under the umbrella of the Libraries for Research Interest Group, the book presents a variety of case studies that demonstrate innovative approaches taken by international institutions to effectively engage researchers with RDM. As the title implies, the book is analogous to a cookbook in the sense that each case study is presented in a similar format to that of a recipe; each comprises a list of ‘key ingredients’, i.e. the essential constituents required to successfully implement the initiative. We wanted to create a resource that can be used by institutions to select suitable initiatives that promise to drive cultural change towards better RDM.

Planning, preparation and positivity

Undoubtedly, drafting a book in three days is an ambitious task that requires thorough planning and preparation. Our book sprint preparation began in January 2019 when the survey ‘Research Engagement with Data Management – What works?’ was circulated among 60 funding organisations, 80 scientific institutions and 28 mailing lists to invite case study contributors to share their stories. From 90 complete survey responses, the most interesting case studies were shortlisted and following successive rounds of selection, 24 case studies were finally chosen for publication based on the novelty and innovation criteria agreed by the book sprint team.

The selected case studies were divided between six authors from different European institutions; Connie Clare (TU Delft), Elli Papadopoulou (Athena Research Center), Marta Teperek (TU Delft), Yan Wang (TU Delft), Iza Witkowska (Utrecht University) and Joanne Yeomans (Leiden University). In advance of the book sprint, authors conducted hour-long interviews with their respective contributors to collect all of the content required to write each case study. After collating interview transcripts, photographs, quotes and various other supplementary material, we each arrived at the book sprint equipped with all of the essentials to co-write the book, including a positive mindset!

On your marks, get set, go!

The book sprint began with a warm welcome from facilitators, Marta Teperek (author) and Maria Cruz (editor), to introduce the aims, objectives and overarching vision for the event. Marta explains that “it’s important that everyone involved in the book sprint understands the intentions and expectations of the exercise in order to work efficiently towards the common goal.” Maria shared some handy writing ‘tips and tricks’ with us to stimulate ideas and boost our creative thinking as we embarked on our first book sprint together. The room filled with anticipation as we grew eager to start writing. 

Sticking to schedule 

In order to assemble the wealth of information and write a book under strict time constraints, it’s important to maximise content creation from the very beginning of the book sprint. Adhering to a daily itinerary helped authors to plan their writing goals, gather momentum and focus on writing for prolonged time periods. With time allocated for writing blocks, group discussion and scheduled breaks, each day was varied to retain interest and enthusiasm amongst the team.

Freeing your creative mind

Whilst the itinerary offered structure, our facilitators ensured that it was flexible, permitting team members to take breaks whenever they needed to recharge. “It’s important that individuals look after themselves during the book sprint,” says Maria. “If anyone needs a change of scenery or to go for a walk in the fresh air they should have the freedom to do so.”

In this regard, the hotel provided the perfect setting to free our creative minds. Most of the time, authors could be found working together in the cosy, shared conference room with an unlimited supply of coffee, chocolates and pastries. Occasionally, it was nice to wander the spacious grounds in search of a quiet location to write alone, or to retire to the comfort of your relaxing hotel room to eliminate distractions.

 

The book sprint team hard at work in the conference room.
Note: The green and red post-it notes!
A red post-it note on your laptop means ‘Engaged – Don’t bother me!’
A green post-it note on your laptop means ‘Vacant – Open for conversation!’

The entire team would convene in the conference room before lunch and at the end of each day to assess progress. This offered an opportunity to collectively reflect on the day’s achievements and adjust goals accordingly in preparation for the following day. During the evening, our remote editor, James Savage (University of Cambridge), logged in to the book sprint from the UK to edit case study drafts. This perpetuated a state of creative flow as authors felt encouraged to complete their drafts before the end of each day so that James could edit them overnight. Case studies could then be further improved the next day in response to his editorial comments and suggestions.

Team writing for the win 

Our collaborative efforts were facilitated by Google Docs which worked for us as the online authoring tool. With options to highlight, edit and leave comments within the text, all team members were able to work and communicate simultaneously within the same document. Being able to work transparently built confidence among team members; it was inspiring to read other authors’ case studies whilst writing your own. What’s more, since each author brought their own unique style of writing to the book sprint and so we could all learn valuable lessons from one another.  

Interactive activities also helped us to write as a team. One tactic, ‘Pitch it to your partner’, employed the traditional method of writing our names on slips of paper and drawing them from a hat to be randomly partnered with a fellow author. We then ‘pitched’ our case study to our partner and discussed how we planned to approach writing it up as a story. This was an ideal chance to provide guidance and support for one another. 

Team Spirit 

Our book sprint success clearly demonstrates the power of teamwork. “Writing a book on my own would have taken forever,” admits Marta. “In only three days we’ve produced a solid draft of a book! I’m so proud of the team and will now always advocate collaborative writing. Thanks to all team members for your hard work, feedback and encouragement.”

Yan shares similar sentiments, “I had a joyous few days working on the book! I could never have imagined myself working so efficiently. We inspired each other, worked hard and laughed together.”

It’s true to say that the team established a rapport instantly and we had so much fun. If you don’t believe that three days of writing a book can be fun we have photo evidence to prove it!

Excitement takes hold on Day 2 of the book sprint as the team explore the hotel grounds.

The next steps: Crossing the book sprint finish line 

In the final hour of the book sprint, roles and responsibilities were assigned to team members so that the draft can be finalised and made publicly open for comments as soon as possible. 

Final versions of case studies have now been sent to contributors for their approval and the appropriate revisions are underway. Team members are mutually reviewing chapters of the book, and regular communication via Slack is keeping the team up-to-date with progress as the book takes shape.

We hope that our book sprint success story inspires you to consider collaborative writing as a new way of academic thinking. We look forward to taking the next steps to publishing our book and ‘crossing the finish line’ as part of a team!

We need you! Our open book is a work in progress as the team wanted to make it available for your comments as soon as possible. We welcome you to provide feedback on the document in order to help us improve the first draft. Thank you!

We would also like to express our thanks to TU Delft Library, and Alastair Dunning in particular, for sponsoring the book sprint.

 

Written and illustrated by Connie Clare

 

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