Collaborative writing: Advice for when a writing partner makes sense

I can hardly believe that it’s been eight years since I first wrote about my adventures in writing with a partner. As I said at the time, “I don’t play well with others.” And that has not changed. That being said, I have, indeed, collaborated on four books in my distant past, and I’m doing it once more. Recently someone asked us (my writing partner and me) how our system works. So, how does writing with a partner work? I don’t know how it is for others, but here’s what I know about it from my own experience.

First a bit of backstory.

I have always considered writing to be a solitary activity. In fact, that’s the way I like it. Perhaps it’s even clearer to say that it’s one of the things that I like most about writing. Through all of those years when I was a university professor, I observed with growing horror, the number of academics, whose very livelihood depended on their ability to publish (or perish – it’s true), who were singularly unable to pen anything on their own. In fact, it occurred to me on more than one occasion when I sat on peer review committees, reviewing others’ work, that we had already promoted someone else based on the exact same publications since both names appeared on all of them. And sometimes there was a lengthy list of authors. What this really means is that many of them wrote not a single word. They may have contributed something to the data collection, but there was certainly no writing involved. Remember publish or perish? There is nothing there that says “write or perish.” There’s a difference. Then I came along.

At this point in my writing life – post-academic career – I am proud to say that every single article and book that formed part of my upward academic ladder has only one author – me. That is, except for those four books I mentioned (which my peers at the university probably largely ignored anyway) that I wrote with one other author. That author happens to be my husband. Which is probably why that person asked us about our writing process. In fact, I believe he might have added, somewhat incredulously, “And you’re still married?” Well, yes, and very happily, I might add.

Back in 2011 when I first wrote about our collaborations, I said this: “…There are good reasons to collaborate and publish a co-authored book – such as when the knowledge and skills of more than just you are needed…” And this reason still holds true. But now I have another reason.

I’m currently collaborating on a book with my same co-writer (my husband) because there was a book he wanted to write, and he spent 45 years working as a physician while I wrote to my heart’s content. This means that his expertise in medicine coupled with my “expertise” as a writer would be the combination needed for him to write the book he has always wanted to do. Am I ghosting it for him? Not really, but I have decided that there is no need for my name to be on this cover. It’s his book.

Because it’s his book and not our book, I have had to take a slightly different approach to the process. I have been his mentor and editor, but I have to try to ensure that the ideas that are finally on the page are his, not mine. That might be easy for some people who have not written in this area before, but once upon a time, I earned some of my income as a medical writer (I have a graduate degree in a medical-communication-related discipline). So, we had come up with a process.

Like puzzle pieces, each co-author’s contribution has to fit the other co-author’s contribution to the process and content.

We began with a very detailed book proposal. I’ve been selling non-fiction based solely on proposal ever since I’ve been writing (my fiction is another story all together). This means that before we even started, we had worked through what would be in the book, how it would be organized, what approach we would take and what he wanted the style and voice to sound like. This was my blueprint.

Then, as we moved into the writing process, I fleshed out the chapters, he reviewed each one as we went along, then I took that review back and reworked each chapter. We moved through the whole book this way, with me conducting mini-interviews with him along the way to capture his experiences in specific areas, and so that it would have his voice. Once this first draft was completed, we started the whole process again. After the third iteration, we were ready for external copy-edit. And that’s where the book is now.

What would my advice be for collaborative writing? Here it is.

  1. Choose your writing partner carefully. It needs to be someone you respect and are compatible with.
  2. Ensure that you are prepared to take criticism as you move through the process.
  3. Don’t be afraid of giving constructive criticism.
  4. Be prepared to disagree.
  5. Be prepared to compromise.
  6. Be prepared to commit to clearing up each disagreement as you work. Don’t let those disagreements pile up.
  7. Write from a collaborative outline.
  8. Find a rhythm of writing/reviewing/editing that you can both agree on up front.
  9. Use this process to learn something about your own writing habits.
  10. Have a drink together on a regular basis to chew over aspects of the book that you can’t always figure out while sitting in an office in front of a computer.

I am currently being accused by my co-writer of pushing hard at this stage as we approach the end of the process so that I can return to my novel. I can’t argue with that!

The book is being copy-edited as we speak and has a September pub date.  We’ll be having a glass of our favourite champagne on that day!

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