Co-Authoring: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I’m a firm believer in co-authoring. I’ve done it several times and I’d encourage other authors to do it.
But like anything else that’s worthwhile, co-authoring has its challenges. It also has its dark side. Following is my brief overview of the benefits (the good), the challenges (the bad), and the frustrations (the ugly) of sharing a writing project with another mortal.
I don’t know about you, but I’m wired for networking and co-laboring. I love team-work and prefer joint projects over flying solo. So co-writing suits my personality. But even if you’re not wired like I am, here are some of the benefits I’ve discovered in co-writing:
• You get to share the workload. If the project is large or daunting, this is a relief.
• Your partner gets to enhance your writing and you get to do the same for them. The synergy in co-writing can be awesome. I love it when my co-author improves upon what I’ve written and I enjoy returning the favor. I’ve also discovered that there’s such a thing as “writing chemistry.” If you and your co-author possess it, co-writing can become electric.
• You get to cross-promote the finished product. When the writing project releases (book, article, or blog post), you and your co-author are able to introduce it to your respective audiences. This gives the project a double punch on release date.
• You get to share the rewards and the criticisms. If your project helps people, it’s a pleasure to share the joy of blessing others with someone else. If it’s criticized, you have someone else to process the value of the critiques. If it’s attacked, your co-author helps absorb the blows.
While co-authoring has its benefits, it also has its challenges. Three chief ones come to mind:
• Wrongly assuming that you have the same idea as your co-author on the writing approach.
• Waiting on your co-author to send you his or her chapters.
• Sorting out areas of disagreement in content and/or word-choice.
To help with this, it’s vital that you communicate with your co-author about four things before you put your hand to the plow:
1. Discuss the subject you’re going to write about and the specific approach you’re going to take. Don’t assume that your co-author understands this the way you do. I suggest putting it in writing so there’s a clear “meeting of the minds.”
2. Discuss any potential areas of disagreement in content and how you want to handle them when they arise. This is huge and it’s one you want set in place before you roll the ball on your project.
3. Find out who is going to be responsible for drafting which chapters. I advise writing out a tentative Table of Contents, discuss and decide who will write which chapters and put their name next to their chapters.
4. Discuss your respective writing paces. One of my coauthors has a PhD in Parkinson’s Law. He waits until the last minute to write his part. I’m the opposite. I’m a plodder. Like John Steinbeck, I prefer biting off a little chunk of writing each day until the deadline arrives. So when it comes to writing, there are bingers and chippers. Bingers wait until the last minute and go on a writing frenzy. Chippers chip away at the project over the long haul. Don’t assume that your writing pace is the same as your partner’s. Talk it over beforehand so you’re not surprised or frustrated.
The dark side of co-writing can be juiced down to miscommunication. When miscommunication occurs, enthusiasm can quickly degrade into bruised feelings. Here are a few things that can spare you the turmoil:
1. Be careful not to cross the line from co-writing to editing. Enhancing someone’s work by adding a word here or there is one thing. But striking out entire sentences and slashing and burning whole phrases can cause your partner to get so upset that they can’t see straight. Always make suggestions and never line edit your co-author’s contribution.
2. Be flexible. You may have one idea when you begin the project, but as you and your partner begin writing, the project may take a different shape. Learn to adjust.
3. Communicate as much as possible. It’s important that you keep the dialogue going while you co-write. Use both phone and email to dialogue, ask questions, and make suggestions.
I’ve done three co-authoring book projects and I look forward to more. For me, the good far outweighs the bad and the ugly can be avoided. Just remember: when it comes to co-authoring, assume nothing. Discuss all the details before you begin and keep talking through the project. If you do, I expect you’ll find it to be as worthwhile as I’ve found it to be.
Have you considered co-authoring any of your projects? If you’ve done it, what was your experience like?
FRANK VIOLA co-authored the new book, Jesus: A Theography with Leonard Sweet. He has co-authored other books with Leonard Sweet and George Barna. Frank’s blog is rated in the top 10 of all Christian blogs on the Web today: http://frankviola.org. You can connect with him on Twitter: @FrankViola.