Behind the book: Collaborative Writing

The first things people ask us when we tell them we co-authored a book are: how does that work? How do you split up the writing? How do you remain friends?

We figured out the right balance and process through trial and error. A lot of what we tried didn’t work! But after a few chapters, we found a good rhythm. Here are six tips we recommend to other co-authors.

1. Switch off who writes the first draft

This helps the workload feel equitable. As another co-author shared with us, “When you have two authors, each does 90% of the work.” Because you are extremely aware of much time you’re spending not only writing but thinking and editing, it’s easy to assume you’re working more than the other person. The first draft requires a lot of heavy lifting, so it’s a great opportunity to create a feeling of fairness by alternating who takes the first crack at teach chapter. One of us (“Partner A”) starts by doing a chapter outline. The other person (“Partner B”) reviews the outline and adds in any topics that are missing. Next, Partner A writes the first draft over the course of about two weeks. Partner B then gives feedback on the first draft, and then Partner A incorporates these edits into the draft. Which brings us to tip number two….

2. When you get stuck, hand it off

After getting edits from Partner B, Partner A works for as long as she can on the draft, but usually after a week or two, she’ll hit a breaking point. This is the moment when you’re staring at your screen, re-typing one sentence over and over. You know that something isn’t working, but you can’t figure out how to fix it. You’re sick of looking at the words you’ve written, and you’re tempted to scrap it all and start over. This is when it is so helpful to have a co-author! At this point, we’ll hop on a quick call and Partner A will share with Partner B where she’s at with the draft, and what she thinks still needs improving. Then Partner B makes edits in track changes mode. Usually Partner B comes up with a way of solving the problem that Partner A hadn’t thought about. We continue switching off several times until we are satisfied with the chapter.

3. Name and discuss any differences

Mollie is verbose. She loves a blank page, and getting to write without worrying about editing. Liz is concise. It takes her a lot longer than Mollie to hit a wordcount; Liz also loves tightening ideas, molding a chapter around a central thesis, and cutting excess. If left to their own devices, Mollie would churn out 50 so-so articles a year, and Liz would finish a few incredible articles. In our collaboration, Mollie can whip out an article draft in a few hours, but the same task would take Liz a few days. Once we figured out these differences, we simply named them, and then tried to use them to our advantage. So we rely on Mollie for word count and getting ideas out quickly. But Mollie hates spending extra time editing-- she’d rather leave it as “good enough” than to take the extra few days to make a piece punchy and polished. That’s where Liz comes in. But, we also don’t rely solely on Liz to make all edits, or on Mollie to do all drafts-- which brings us to our next point...

4. Don’t put each other in boxes

While it’s important to figure out what parts of the process each person is good at and each person enjoys, it’s important not to then permanently assign a person to a task. It’s like when parents label one of their children as the reserved one, and one as the social one. If you’re put in a box, you’re less likely to develop the skills outside of the box. Over the course of a year, Mollie slowly learned how to edit, even if it’s not her favorite part of the process. Liz got a lot better at not second guessing herself as she wrote a first draft.

5. Default to phone

It’s hard to perfectly read the tone of an email, especially when it comes to feedback. We made sure to always discuss important questions or feedback on the phone. It’s much easier on the phone to say, “I don’t think this section is working because it has too many research studies and not enough narrative connections,” than it is to say that via email.

6. View each other’s quirks as charming

This piece of advice is often given to couples: instead of trying to change your partner’s quirks, you can choose to accept them and grow to love them. We’ve tried to the same.

Mollie is very particular about certain things: she likes to use google docs to keep track of everything, and needs to know that all our google docs are in the right folder. She also doesn’t like it when in an email thread, you switch the subject so that you’re talking about a new topic that match the subject line. When Mollie brought these requests up to Liz, Liz could have reacted by thinking “Mollie is OCD and crazy about this.” But instead, she chalked it up to Mollie’s charming organizational skills.

Liz is great at figuring out where an illustration or anecdote would help the narrative come to life, but she usually denotes this by adding a brief phrase like “FUNNY RAP GENIUS STORY SAMURAI” or “ILLUSTRATION WITH SIGNS.” This would be fine if she were working alone, but she’s had to learn to spell things out more clearly so Mollie isn’t left completely confused. When Mollie stumbles upon the occasional capslocked phrase (“LIZ CONSULTING COFFEE STORY??”), she knows Liz will come back with more context and laughs at the odd word jumbles.

We hope this helps other collaborative or co-author pairs out there!