Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary wrestling match with your inner demons. Collaborative writing opens the door to a community that helps get your story out there.
Earlier this week, I came across a post about the writing process on Medium. The author, Shaunta Grimes, wrote this:
“I’ve been thinking today about the anxiety involved in writing. During the process, there’s just you and your story. You have to write it. You have to edit it. You have to work and work, and you have to work alone.” (Emphasis mine.)
While I fully got the anxiety thing, the part about having to work alone struck me as odd. Alone? Writers have to do it all on their own? This was news to me.
If that’s the case, I should probably let my circle of writing friends know that I no longer needed their feedback and tell my favorite co-editor that our relationship was kaput.
Writing can often feel like a long, solitary wrestling match with your own personal demons. But any seasoned writer will tell you that there’s absolutely no one who takes their ideas from their head to the bookstore shelves without help.
Stephen King works with multiple editors to get his projects ready for print. Mercedes Lackey works with a coauthor (more from her on that down below). And we all know that James Patterson is famous for collaborating with others. Heck, it’s usually whole teams of people who run popular social media accounts. (There’s no way that the Steak-umm account is just one person’s genius.)
While some writers might like to do it all on their own, almost no one does. And there are plenty of good reasons why.
Why Collaborative Writing?
Still not convinced? As a young writer, I wasn’t convinced either. Despite having lots of feedback from my fellow writers in workshops, I didn’t understand the true power of collaborative writing until I worked in the University Writing Center as a young graduate student.
I met Sasha during an appointment in early October. She was a bright and vivacious student with dyed-red hair that practically glowed under the fluorescent lights. She spoke confidently about her life plan: Sasha would pursue a Master’s Degree in counseling. Today, she just needed a little help with her Personal Statement.
As she read the rough draft of her statement aloud (which was how we started each tutoring session) her inner light dimmed. There were nuggets of gold in there, but their shine wasn’t quite coming through.
I flipped the printed-out personal statement over and asked her, “Why do you want to become a mental health counselor?” She smiled, no — she beamed.
She told me how, as a kid, she was told to ignore and “just get over” negative emotions, like sadness and anger. That meant she had to learn how to process those feelings on her own as an adult, which was not easy! (Imagine her hands waving animatedly here). She wanted to become a counselor so she could help other kids learn emotional processing skills, even if their parents can’t teach them.
As she wrote, I scribbled down notes and asked her follow-up questions: What in her classes stood out to her? What was her favorite part of studying mental health? What was she the most curious about?
By the end of our session, we had put together an entirely new outline for her personal statement — one that centered her story and shared her vibrant voice. She asked if she could stay in the Writing Center and finish her new Personal Statement then and there. And she did. And it rocked.
Sasha got into her preferred grad program. And I began using this talking-and-note-taking strategy in more of my tutoring sessions, especially when students had to tell their story in a piece of writing.
The Benefits of Collaborative Writing
This strategy – of talking to people about their ideas and asking them questions – works for writers at every level. We all wrestle with the blank page and the blinking cursor staring balefully back at us. Even those of us who have been writing for years can get stuck in our own heads when tackling something new. This is why workshops and peer review have been a mainstay of writing classes for decades.
Having another perspective – a collaborator – opens up new lines of inquiry. It brings nuance and context. It gets you out of your own head. I don’t know about you, but I tend to find myself in the weeds sometimes when I’m working on a project for a long time by myself. And the worst part is that I don’t even notice the weeds until my co-writer starts hacking away at them. (lol)
But, that’s the value of a co-author: someone is there to bring focus to your ideas, point out possible blind spots, and help you get out of your own way.
In a post on Quora, the New York Times bestselling author Mercedes Lackey explains why she loves working with another writer on her projects:
Reviewing and responding to someone else’s writing can even make your own writing better. And that’s what happens when writers work together – they build an ecosystem of improvement, a natural feedback loop of better and better writing.
Author Beth Nguyen, who directs the MFA program at the University of San Francisco, argues that the collaborative energy of the creative writing workshop could be made even stronger if writers were allowed to be both seen and heard while their work was being discussed. (Typically, the writer whose piece is up for workshop doesn’t get to speak or give any context during the discussion).
She found that “In talking out loud about their work, writers often find their own answers.”
And that’s a lot of what makes collaborative writing work (and why I love it).
Tips for a Healthy Collaborative Writing Ecosystem
You may be wondering what exactly qualifies as collaborative writing.
In my view, it’s just about anything written by two or more people. And I do mean anything: LinkedIn Posts, SOPs, memoirs, novels, articles, blog posts, videos, the treasure hunt on the back of a cereal box — you name it.
Every collaborative writing relationship is different, but they all involve a lot of moving parts. Finding the right balance between the elements of your writing team takes practice, but you’ll know that groove when you find it.
Here are some strategies I keep in mind when beginning any new collaborative writing project:
Establish Your Vision
Make sure everyone’s on the same page (heh) when it comes to your vision for the final product. Writing styles and tastes are incredibly personal. But, having clear guideposts, such as the text’s target audience and purpose, can help the whole team align.
Keep Lines of Communication Open
When Mercedes Lackey and her co-author Larry Dixon work together, they use Google Docs. Some people love email. Some people just want you to shoot them a text. Some people will only talk in person, while sitting in a comfy chair, with a warm cup of coffee in their hand (a perfectly legitimate preference).
Figure out the best way for you and the other writer(s) to stay in touch. Check in early and often. Make conversations about completing the work the norm.
Set Up Your Process
I’m a process-oriented kind of gal. I love spreadsheets and wikis. But that’s not for everyone. Some people really just want to open one Google Doc and hammer away at it until it’s got 50+ pages of “extra-but-I’m-saving-it-just-in-case-I-need-it” bonus content (okay yes I am talking about myself with the Google Doc thing, too).
The most important thing here is that you and your co-writers have developed a process that works for you. One that facilitates conversation, meeting common goals, and maybe even . . . friendship.
Trust Each Other
There’s no way two writers can give each other honest, helpful feedback without trust between them. After all, our egos are soft, though our pens may be mighty.
Take some time to establish psychological safety in your writing relationships to get the most out of writing something together.
Leave them Alone (in a Good Way!)
Micromanaging kills collaborative writing relationships. If you can’t leave your fellow writer alone to do the work, to, perhaps, take a walk and think about your book’s next chapter under a brooding November sky, your collaborative project will struggle to get off the ground.
In 2016, Writers Digest published a piece called “How to Avoid Lonely Writer Syndrome,” which makes me deeply sad. Because, even though writing can be a solitary profession, it doesn’t have to be. And, most of us writers benefit from community and collaboration.
Besides, who else is going to buy our books?