Collaborative writing: Is it for you?

There’s little doubt that writing is, in general, a solitary business. That’s why keeping your momentum, as we discussed last week, is so important. No boss is demanding that you complete the work or risk your job. It’s just you. However, there might be times when you ought to consider a collaboration. There may be strength in numbers in some realms, but writing is not always one, although it can be. The idea raises questions though.

  • Under what circumstances does writing with a collaborator make sense?
  • How do you find a compatible collaborator with the right background and expertise?
  • Since it’s clear you can’t use the same writing process you use when working alone, how do you develop a successful collaborative writing process?

We often tend to think that collaborative writing is suited only to nonfiction. Whereas nonfiction does indeed have its fair share of collaborative writing (have you ever seen the list of authors on many academic papers? It makes you wonder how that could have worked!), there have also been successful fiction-writing teams.

Husband and wife Judith Barnard and Michael Fain famously write under the nom-de-plume “Judith Michael.” Then there’s bestselling writer Jodi Piccoult who collaborated to write a young adult book. Another configuration finds two heavy-hitting bestselling writers Stephen King and Peter Straub writing two novels together – Black House and The Talisman.

There are probably many permutations and combinations of writing teams but the following are the three most common types. Within each there are many arrangements.

  • Two writers on equal footing combine talents to work on one project. In this situation, as a writer, you might have a friend, colleague or even someone who is barely an acquaintance with whom you decide to pool talents and create a single project.
  • One main writer writes a book “with” someone else. This often happens when celebrities are writing their memoirs. It can even happen when a professional, such as a scientist or a physician, finds a partner who has more writing expertise. Each brings different talents and skills to the table. The arrangement of how the authors are billed on the cover and how the royalties are shared varies from one collaboration to another.
  • Someone who is decidedly not a writer but wants “to have written” a book hires a ghostwriter. The ghostwriter brings his or her writing skills to the table and stays anonymous. Generally, in these situations, the fact that a ghostwriter was hired at all is kept strictly confidential.

These are the circumstances under which you might work with a collaborator. So, how do you find one? This is a bit like seeking an agent or a publisher. I suspect that when two writers on equal footing decide to write together, it’s the kind of organic decision that comes after much discussion – perhaps even over a drink. Perhaps one writer seeks out the other to comment on a book and musings begin.

A celebrity or professional seeking someone with whom to write a book might look at writers whose work they appreciate. They might seek out co-writers via professional writers’ associations. They might even do what many authors do when seeking an agent – simply look at other books who have been written “with” someone and go from there. (If you’re a real writer, you always look at acknowledgement pages in books you read to see who represents and/or edits this person.)

Finding a ghostwriter can be a bit tricky since keeping a low profile goes with the territory. There’s a good Reedsy piece titled “How to Hire a Ghostwriter You Actually Trust in 9 Simple Steps you might find interesting if this is a direction you might like to go.

The final piece in the puzzle of whether or not a collaborator might be a good move for you is to consider how the actual process of planning, writing and editing the book might flow. Here are some steps to consider:

  • Delineate the most evident strengths and skills of each individual. Strengths and skills to consider:
    • Idea generation
    • Outlining
    • Researching
    • Writing narrative material
    • Writing prescriptive material
    • Substantive editing
    • Copyediting
    • Ability to take criticism
    • Willingness to give up things to a partner
  • Compare that list and make two additional lists: one list for each of the two of strengths and skills not duplicated by the other person.
  • Discuss how the process of putting the words down on paper (or in a computer file) will work. Will one of you do all the actual writing? Will you alternate? Who will ensure that the voice and style are consistent? Are both of you willing to put the same amount of work into it?

This is just a place to start. The process will develop over time and the more you work together, the more streamlined will be your working process.

In the end, only you can know if finding a collaborator is for you. There are many people, after all, who don’t play well with others!