Ask the Agent: Writing by Committee

I’ve seen lots of published novels that read like they were written by committee. This doesn’t surprise me, because those immature in the craft (or just with less gift/ability, whatever you want to call it), DO write their novels by committee. Over a very long period of time, they take so many good suggestions that they cobble together something that meets the pattern. Then they network like crazy until it sells. My question is: how many published authors out there do you think are writing by committee, and how many are truly writers of their own work? I don’t mean to imply that anyone can do it without a good editor, or a critique group. The distinction I’m making is between natural ability to produce a good first draft vs. endless revising to compensate for lack of that ability.

(Fair warning… this post could qualify as a rant.)

As a person who reads a LOT of books, I’ve come across plenty I didn’t enjoy or even that I thought were really bad. But my overriding assumption is always that somebody must have liked it. And I try to honor the writer’s process, whether or not I think they’re loaded with talent. So this question rubs me the wrong way for a number of reasons.

First, it doesn’t fully acknowledge the reality that book publishing is truly a collaborative process, and rightly so. Sometimes it takes a good editor to see the brilliant diamond inside what looks, at first, like a plain old rock.

Second, the term “writing by committee” has such a negative connotation. I don’t think the term is meaningful or helpful, and I don’t think it describes a writer’s process.

Third, the question reminds me of a kind of passive-aggressive criticism I hear too often: The writer making sweeping statements about other writers’ lack of talent and complaining about all the “bad books” that get published.

Fourth, I don’t think it matters how many drafts it takes for a writer to get to a publishable book. Some people are good “raw,” others take more time and revision to get there. Individual writers take different paths.

Fifth, I don’t believe writers can “network like crazy” to sell an unsaleable book. If it sells, it’s because an editor liked it and believed people would buy it and enjoy it.

Sixth, to ask “how many are truly writers of their own work?” seems disrespectful to the thousands of people who sacrifice sleep, recreation, time with family and many other things to sit in front of the computer and squeeze the words out. Writing is primarily a solitary pursuit, and I believe most writers are attempting to truly write their own work.

Last, this is a blog that tries to advise and encourage writers, even though I rant here and there. A generalized statement like “those immature in the craft DO write their novels by committee” doesn’t belong here. It’s insulting, and I don’t believe it’s true.

I try to answer all the questions people leave on the blog. Maybe I should have ignored this one, but honestly, I didn’t want anyone to think I endorse the implications in it. I hope that by giving all the reasons I don’t want to answer this particular question, I’ve answered it.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. 00011012GSP on April 6, 2012 at 1:16 AM is selling electronic parts such as 0000028711000, 00000400MF25VDC, 00000500MFD, 00000750MFD, 00001000MF25VDC, 000011030, 0000180000OH2W5, 00002200MF25VDC, 0000257895, 000030130, 00003402, 000040000OH1, 00004396, 000047MFD5, 00005088, 00005294, 00005942, 000068MFD5, 00007285, 00007773, 00008256900, 00009002, 0000925699, 0000926070, 0000940876, 0000979276, 0000BSS, 0000D3L, 0000FUSENA, 0000KFS, 0000LX1, 0000MPF, 0000PDA, 0000S2V, 0000TIL, 00011003, 00012509, 00011, 0001006204, 000103PF40, and other hard to find electronic components.

  2. Andrew Pelt on March 25, 2012 at 4:45 PM

    I just want to mention I am very new to blogging and actually loved this web site. Very likely I’m want to bookmark your site . You amazingly come with fabulous well written articles. Cheers for sharing your webpage.

  3. Kim Kasch on June 25, 2008 at 9:24 PM

    >Just like in basketball, soccer and hockey, practice makes perfect and even the best of players need coaches to guide, direct and help pull out the best that’s hiding deep inside every competitor.

    Writing is a competitive “sport” and, like a good wine, wanna-be writers can only get better with time.

  4. Timothy Fish on June 25, 2008 at 6:55 PM

    >Committees get a bad rap, but a committee that works well together can produce better work than any one person working alone. Maybe the question we should be asking is why more books aren’t being written by committee. Movies and television episodes are written by committee and many of them seem to turn out ok.

  5. Pam Halter on June 25, 2008 at 6:19 PM

    >Nicole said, “This question uses interesting terminology and makes me think they have someone specific in mind.”

    I think you’re right, Nicole. It also sounds like a frustrated writer. I feel sorry for all frustrated writers, me being one at times. But I’ve learned to focus on improving my craft, hone my voice, eat lots of chocolate and network like crazy while I wait.

    Contracts come to he who waits … if he writes like crazy while he waits!

  6. Ralene on June 25, 2008 at 3:37 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle! I think that did need to be addressed… Sometimes, as we seek to be published, it’s easy to point the finger at reasons why other writers are published and we aren’t. The people who make the effort to learn, grow, edit, revise…will eventually get published…and it won’t be because their novel is written by committee (is that even a techinical term?).

  7. Joseph L. Selby on June 25, 2008 at 12:56 PM

    >Preach on, Sister Rachelle

  8. Camille Cannon (Eide) on June 25, 2008 at 10:49 AM

    >I love to learn about the craft, and when my crit buds point out something I need to change, I don’t just blindly change it, I learn to fish for life (to bungle the metaphor). I try to understand the principle behind the suggestion to improve my skills and hope I will have the ability to recognize the issue on my own from then on.

    It takes a village to raise a writer (not a novel), sometimes.

  9. Gwen Stewart on June 25, 2008 at 10:40 AM

    >Art is always a work in progress, and often with the input of fellow artists. This is true until the symphony is performed, until the clay is set, until the book is laid in your hands and the words cannot be changed.

    But guess what? Even complete, art is open to interpretation. The conductor works with the notes on the staff paper to mold, to put his or her own spin on the music. The art lover sees the sculpture as a whole or in parts and partakes of it accordingly. The reader is touched by few or many aspects of the completed novel: the craft, the story, the characters.

    I don’t call that “by committee”. I call that the artistic process. Thank God for art.

  10. Anonymous on June 25, 2008 at 8:59 AM

    >”I think this question could only be posed by someone who has never worked intensely with an editor and agent to improve their book. From a writer’s point of view, suggestions are merely suggestions … it’s up to the writer to decide if they resonate, then how exactly to implement them, then to provide the actual words.”

    I agree, LM. The author is the one who does the re-writing, no matter if the suggestion comes from an editor, crit group, or any other ‘committee’. Good or bad, it’s the author’s name on the cover.


  11. Jessica on June 25, 2008 at 8:49 AM

    >I’m glad you put it up because this question seriously annoyed me. It just sounds mean and arrogant. Writing by committee? What a rude term! Boy, I could go on a rant but I think you said everything that could be said.

  12. JC on June 25, 2008 at 8:46 AM

    >I read in one How-to book that most people need to shelve thier entire first novel. That is its only practice, put it in a drawer, and now write one that will sell.

    I’ve read in several places that most beginning writers whip out a novel in a year and then it never goes anywhere from there becuase they are unwilling to edit, revise, edit, revise, edit, revise….you get the point. Basically, it implied that if you have spent more than a year and have undergone revisions, you are already steps ahead of the others.

    (This ofcourse exludes King, Grishom, etc. who are very expereinced in the craft and can whip out a new novel in six months.)

  13. Nicole on June 25, 2008 at 8:24 AM

    >Your reply was succinct and credible. We’ve all read books we didn’t like, but someone did, enough to spend the big bucks to publish the thing. We’ve all read books we’ve thought were formulaic, easy to figure out from the first chapter and not particularly interesting or enticing as a result, but “formulaic” often has a large audience. Again, someone thought it would sell.

    This question uses interesting terminology and makes me think they have someone specific in mind.

  14. Anonymous on June 25, 2008 at 8:13 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. I reacted very poorly to this comment when it was first posted, for all the same reasons you eloquently listed. I think this question could only be posed by someone who has never worked intensely with an editor and agent to improve their book. From a writer’s point of view, suggestions are merely suggestions … it’s up to the writer to decide if they resonate, then how exactly to implement them, then to provide the actual words.

    I believe the “books by committee” meme is a mean-spirited fantasy of the unpublished …


  15. Rachelle on June 25, 2008 at 8:00 AM

    >Anon 6:38 —
    I’ve never seen or experienced anything like that. Of course, a non-fiction picture book is quite different from the kinds of books I deal with. I can’t imagine an excellent novel or memoir being a result of the process you describe.

    As an editor and now as an agent, I’ve spent my whole career looking for WRITERS. Not books. I’d like to think that if a “committee-written” book came my way and I was interested enough to consider representing it, my discussions with the author and my initial requests for edits might reveal that the author really didn’t know what they were doing. Maybe not, but I can’t see that person being able to create a viable second book, so it seems the career of the “committee” writer would be short lived.

    BTW Karen, ghostwriting is a different topic from this. I’ll address your rant another day.

  16. Kat Harris on June 25, 2008 at 7:51 AM

    >The distinction I’m making is between natural ability to produce a good first draft vs. endless revising to compensate for lack of that ability.

    Natural ability to produce a good first draft? Is there such a thing as a good first draft?

    Mary DeMuth recently had a very interesting blog post on Harper Lee’s struggle with To Kill A Mockingbird. It talked about Lee’s struggle to squish a novel out of a collection of anecdotes. That classic book was revised over and over, and had it not been for the support team around her, it might not have been published at all.

    If any writer thinks he/she has spun gold with the first draft, that writer needs a different crit group.

  17. Anonymous on June 25, 2008 at 7:38 AM

    >I can see merit in this question. I belong to a long-time (12+ years) critique group in which one member STILL really doesn’t have a clue. She is the published author of one nonfiction picture book. Yes, we wrote her book, from the idea on up, by committee, because of the amount of critiquing she needed. Another member totally held her hand for the photos (did everything, and I mean everything, but actually click the shutter), and then told her about a publisher who was looking for a book like hers (she’s allergic to marketing, too) and they actually bought it. It turned into a fine book, but it’s frankly beyond what she could do herself. And she doesn’t have the chops to repeat the success unless “we” do it all again. So — to what degree did this author actually write this book? It’s a fair question.

  18. Anne L.B. on June 25, 2008 at 7:31 AM

    >Amen, Inspire.

    Which of us is not the sum total of all the people (good and bad) who have influenced us?

  19. Catherine West on June 25, 2008 at 7:28 AM

    >I wasn’t sure at first what the question meant. Since I haven’t yet worked with an editor, I don’t know the extent of changes that can and probably are made to a manuscript before it goes to print. But, and this is just my opinion, I don’t think any editor or publishing house is going to cause a writer to lose their voice.
    I’ve not yet read a book where I couldn’t ‘hear’ the story in my head. I’m probably not saying this well, but do you know what I mean? I’d like an example of the type of thing the writer of the question is talking about, because I’ve not experienced this.
    There are of course books out there that are simply not good, but I haven’t found any lately.

  20. Inspire on June 25, 2008 at 7:23 AM

    >Anything that is worthwhile comes from hard work, sometimes blood, sweat, and tears. I also like the way Karen handled this.

    The comments presented to Karen made me think of my gymnastic years. During one of the Olympics in the 70s everyone was stunned by Olga Korbet’s back flip on the uneven bars. I recall a local gymnast who was in a private team achieved the same ‘trick’. She became the biggest snob in a leotard you ever want to meet.

    One night at an open gym at our high school, she showed up…and she showed off. She snubbed the other gymnasts. A coach went over to her and said she needed to remember that she had started at the bottom…as a beginner just like everyone else. That there was a time when she couldn’t even do a front roll. She then told her to take her pride outside the gym.

    Pride comes before a fall. But the Lord exalts the humble.

  21. christa on June 25, 2008 at 7:21 AM

    >The implication in the question is that only “those immature in the craft” write by committee. How would one begin to know that the final product assumed to be a result of “natural ability” wasn’t also written by committee?

    Maybe there are committees with natural ability.

    Does it truly matter how many published authors are writing by committee? The key word in the question is PUBLISHED. Obviously, like you said-somebody must have liked it and/or thought it filled a gap in the market.

    If, like Richard suggested, the issue is that the piece undergoes such extensive surgery that Kate Moss ends up looking like Pamela Anderson, well…the surgeon at least had a skeleton to work with.

    Just for kicks, if the question had validity and the answer was 5% of published books were written by committee, so what and now what?

  22. Karen on June 25, 2008 at 7:02 AM

    >May I rant? Getting the help you need to write a book through critique groups, writing partners, etc. is fine but what really broils my turkey are the celebrity “authors” who claim they wrote their book and never put a word on paper or give their ghost writer a second thought or the courtesy of mention. Somehow that seems dishonest to me.

  23. Richard Mabry on June 25, 2008 at 7:02 AM

    >Wow, I’ve worked with lots of committees in the past but none of them could come close to writing a best-seller. Seriously, I’m wondering if the question was poorly put–I certainly don’t agree with some of the premises put forth–and the underlying thought was whether authors have so much input from critique groups and outside editors that the final work isn’t really solely their own.

    But even then, I have to say that books, even the ones I don’t like, are the final responsibility of the authors and are published because someone thought they’d sell. If a surgery was a success, most folks credit the surgeon, even though he/she had a team helping. I don’t hear many people complaining because the surgeon had someone else passing instruments, cutting sutures, and monitoring anesthetic. In medicine, the presidency, and writing: the buck stops here.

  24. ever-changing on June 25, 2008 at 6:11 AM

    >Another great post! I like the way you handled this, you are a natural. Thanks. For some reason it made me laugh. Have you thought about comedy too or do I have a warped sense of humor. 🙂