Over the last few months, I’ve participated in a collaborative writing project with two of my writing friends.
It’s something I was initially hesitant doing. For one, the project is in a genre I don’t normally write in. For another, I wasn’t confident our writing styles would mesh. Plus, the time I spent on the project would inevitably take time away from my own work.
But I did it anyway, and as we’re polishing the initial draft, I can say it was largely a success. How did we keep it from devolving into a game of tug-of war?
Well, for starters, my emotional investment in this project was much lower to begin with. After all, I had to share this story with two other people. So my level of engagement was more in line with the collaborative writing I did in academia—I had a professional desire to get things done and do them well, but I was more than happy to put it aside at the end of the day. In other words, I viewed this as a job or an assignment, not my “art” (whatever that means).
That also meant I was accountable to the other writers I was working with. Excuses that I sometimes use to get out of working on my own projects didn’t fly in this case because I had two other people counting on me to write my portions of the story.
That level of detachment did make it harder to engage with the material initially, but as we got further along into the story, that became less of an issue. The detachment also meant I was also more open to compromise as we discussed the overall story arc and decided on character traits and plot points.
We also stuck to a schedule. We met every two weeks while drafting the story. We started with an initial brainstorming session where we roughed out the plot. Then we would assign each other scenes to write. We would exchange those scenes before the next session, review them, and make big-picture adjustments at the next meeting. Then the process would start all over again. The result was a full draft in less than four months.
It also helped that each writer was assigned a specific POV character, so we didn’t have to worry about handing off that character to someone else and the continuity issues that would stem from that.
Would I do it again? It depends. I learned a lot about my writing through this process and exposed myself to the drafting techniques of other writhers. And it's encouraging to know that such collaborations can be successful—provided there’s a good mesh of working styles. Plus it was a lot of fun too.
Doing it again would necessitate a time commitment I’m not eager to make at this stage right now. That doesn’t mean some future project won’t be worth the effort.
So if you are contemplating a collaborative writing project, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Find writers you trust.
This means you trust their creative instincts, you trust their ability to do the work, and (it has to be said) you trust they won’t dick you over in the end. It helps that I’ve known the two women I worked with for over a year through our local writing group. Not everyone starting a collaboration will have this option, but the point is to vet the other writers the best you can and go with your gut.
Treat it as a professional obligation.
This means you (and the other writers) need to be accountable to one another. Make goals, stick to a production schedule, brainstorm together—but remember to build in enough leeway so that you can help each other if the going gets tough. Respect each other’s work and each other’s time. Couch story development negotiations in terms of craft and structure, not you own selfish desires for how the story should turn out. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ and all that.
Remember that this is a learning opportunity.
Collaboration is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. It’s also a rare one, because of the difficulties inherent in any collaboration. Use this time as chance to look under the hood at someone else’s writing process—you may glean a few nuggets of wisdom for your own writing. You may also surprise yourself at what you are capable of in the right set of circumstances.
Check out On the Art of Collaboration in Writing from Magical Words and Amie Kaufman’s Three Rules You Can’t Break for more insights into collaborative writing.