How to write with a co-writer or two

Many of us – in any number of job roles – are well used to working within a team, which might suggest that writers can work in a team in a similar way. Uh, uh: not necessarily. Why? Read on. If you need to collaborate with another worker – whether for business or other activity, for a blog, article, report, white paper, brochure, etc…here are some tips you might find helpful.

Writing with more than one author

A camel is a horse designed (and written about) by a committee.

Probably the most difficult part of working within a team as one or two of the “writers,” is the way that these roles can become politically sensitive.

Why does being “the writer” in a team suggest authority?

It shouldn’t, I suppose. However someone appointed as the note-taker, information gatherer or whatever term is used may be excused from feeling that their interpretation of what everyone else has been contributing is not likely to be the most accurate and valid … and that theirs is.

They, after all, are in the unique position of receiving the best of input from the team, and  because they are well-versed in the subject matter are best placed to crunch all the input into a document that answers the brief – better than anyone else can. In other words they assume a team leader’s role which they shouldn’t, necessarily.

Nothing bruises egos faster than criticism over writing skills

My good friend and hugely successful author, Ann Handley, called her (organically) bestselling book, “Everybody Writes” – that’s because everybody does. And because writing is akin to sexual performance, golf handicaps, multiple reps in the gym, etc. in terms of social up-you-manship, anyone who dares criticise poor quality of another’s writing is bound to feel the fire and venom of their opponent’s insecurity and incompetence.

A way around this is to select your team on the basis of each member’s individual skills, with only one member who is known to be good at writing. This person then becomes the “scribe” for the others. As long as equal status is ensured throughout the project there shouldn’t be too many ruffled feathers.

A camel is a horse designed by a committee

Judging by the results of some writing-by-committee I’ve seen – the formal version of the team described above – I’d say that camel looks more like an overweight octopus. Human nature being what it is, often committee members’ interests in a project aren’t so much about the common goal as they are about making their own mark on it, and as large a mark as possible. Hence the eight legs and morbid obesity of the octo-camel.

Much as businesses and other organisations like to be democratic when a committee is tasked with producing a report or proposal, if they want a reasonbly readable result democracy has to be flushed down the toilet. That means, as it does above, that one “scribe” needs not only to gather information and string it into the document; it also means they have the right to edit others’ contributions so the octo-camel at least ends up with four legs and a weightloss programme.

A more tactful way of handling this one is to avoid the “W” word and ensure the person concerned is only referred to as the Editor.

How about co-authors writing a book?

I have the experience of working with a co-author on two of my books. In both cases we split the proceeds 50-50, and I believe that’s customary when both co-authors contribute equal amounts to the project. This issue can be a tricky one if you don’t know what to watch out for, especially as people are likely to have differing views on what constitutes 50% of the effort.

One expert and one (topic-literate) writer

In the first case, on The Jewellery Book, I worked with a jeweller/gemmologist. That turned out well because our skills and input were complementary. He provided all the technical content and I provided the pastoral content, plus I did all the writing, which was a reasonable 50-50 split. We worked to a very detailed chapter structure, and would sit down with a voice recorder once a week or so. During each session I would “interview” my co-author in accordance with the structure and so obtain the technical material needed. After he had gone home I would then write up the chapter concerned, which he and I would then edit as needed. No problems.

Two experts (both professional writers)

The second co-authored book (my fourth) was Writing Words That Sell. Although it was my concept and structure, the content was written jointly with a US colleague who at the time worked in almost exactly the same fields as I did. On reflection this was not a good idea, as we were equally qualified to write most chapters – perhaps a case of “too many cooks spoil the broth” and certainly, too much crossover. We carved the chapters up more or less 50-50 and shared them out, but of course with two professional writers producing material inevitably there were differences in style and approach.

In the end I took over editorship of the co-author’s work and re-aligned his material so that it more closely matched the tone of the book, although I didn’t change his style. He didn’t mind my doing this but it was a lot of extra work for me.

In my experience, then, co-authorship works well when there is a rapport between the authors but each one supplies a different/complementary skill set. When both authors do similar things and can virtually replace each other, however, it doesn’t work out so well.

If you are considering writing a book with someone else, it’s worth working into your planning process exactly who does what, and on what criteria you both will agree on structure, content, editing and so-on. It may not seem important to set the guidelines early but trust me, it’s worth doing right up front. This way you avoid disputes and misunderstandings.

What experience do you have of co-writing with others?

Please share in the comments!