Seven Simple Steps to Successful Collaborative Writing
As a writer, I’ve had the privilege of working with some pretty outstanding people (I’m looking at you, Diane Sherlock and Cindy Sproles). These collaborations have resulted in two pretty incredible books (Write to Be Heard with Diane, and Radio Radio with Cindy), but not everyone is so lucky.
In college, I picked up a post-modern epistolary romance novel. Not really my genre, but I’d jus finished the first draft of Radio Radio with Cindy, and wanted to see how the authors of this book, which had a similar concept, handled the process of co-writing. I made a point to contact each author, and both were kind enough to respond to my questions. What I discovered shocked me. They hated co-writing. Cindy and I (and years later, Diane and I) enjoyed the process. For the purposes of comparison, I’ll list their complaints, and the advantages I found from co-writing. I’ll also suggest some steps to take if you’re considering co-writing.
Why they hated it: Both authors called the other “stubborn.” Each wanted to take the story in their direction, but weren’t flexible enough to allow the story to take a different path. Their communication quickly turned hostile. They only finished the book because they were under contract from the publisher. However, neither was happy with the final project, and both swore to never work together again.
Why we loved it: From start to finish on a polished first draft, Cindy and I finished Radio Radio in a matter of weeks as opposed to months, as did Diane and I on Write to be Heard. Both projects moved swiftly. Also, in both cases, the culmination of our differing styles resulted in a rich, complex voice, one none of us could achieve alone. Lastly, we learned a lot in the process. Diane and Cindy are strong in areas I’m not. Specifically, Diane had a lot of great advice to offer about writing fiction that I normally don’t pay much attention to. Cindy and I worked together on a romance—something very far out of my comfort zone and realm of expertise. She kept me honest and pointed out places where I’d violated traditional romance-readers expectations.
How to co-write without killing each other: Here are a few tips for successful co-writing, specifically, how to finish the project without wishing death each upon the other.
1. Be flexible: This is not your story. It must exist somewhere in the middle. Do the dance, the give and take. If you love your ideas to the detriment of your co-writers, there’s no reason to have them along in the first place.
2. Lead where you’re strong: Ideally, you and your co-writers have different strengths, different voices. Play to that. Find ways to highlight what you do well in writing.
3. Follow where you’re weak: We all have areas where we struggle. Be aware of these, and defer to your co-writer in them. In Radio Radio, I asked Cindy for advice whenever I sent her a “romantic” scene so she could give me pointers. In moments of conflict, she’d ask me if she’d done it right.
4. Learn something: No journey is worthwhile unless you learn something through the process. Cindy’s taught me things about romance I never would have known otherwise. Diane’s taught me several things about voice and how to achieve the proper tone of a scene. I’d like to think they learned a little something from me about the importance of tight writing and well-crafted dialog.
5. Communicate: Make sure you keep in constant contact about the direction the book is going, where you want it to go, and how it’s going to get there.
6. Define rolls: If you don’t know what your partner expects, you’ll never satisfy them. Know what you do well and why you were brought in on the project. Conversely, know what you struggle with, and bring someone in who can compliment that area of weakness.
7. Have fun: If you’re not, there’s no point in collaborating.