Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Though writing is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, many authors have seen success by working with a writing partner, and doing so is a valuable experience that many writers experiment with at some point in their career.
Despite that, twice the authors can often mean twice the problems, and if you’re entering into a writing partnership, it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting into and how to make your working relationship as stress-free as possible. Well, that’s why I’m here, so let’s get started.
Agree on realistic expectations
Creating art is an expression of personal voice and beliefs, which means partnerships tend to have a short shelf life. Generally, a partnership exists as the right course for a specific project, rather than the default way of working for two authors.
Appreciating this is the first step to a productive partnership – try and define your partnership one project at a time and spell out the level of commitment you expect. Are you going to be annoyed if it turns out your partner is also spending time working on their own stuff? If you’re trying to finish a project, you might be right, but that’s something they need to know about beforehand.Working with a writing partner is usually a single-project arrangement. Click To Tweet
It’s also worth remembering that most writing partnerships don’t end up producing finished work. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – most solo writing projects are never finished either, after all. It does mean, however, that you’ll be lucky if both partners decide to quit at the same time. It’s a good idea to try and stop this sad fact hurting your friendship and your project, so it’s usually a good idea to agree to work together for a set amount of time, with the option to renew the partnership if things go well. Not only does this mean one person is never abandoning another, but it makes it much less likely that a project will be left in the lurch. How you continue if one of you wants to quit is up to you, but it does bring us onto my next suggestion.
Make (a lot of) prior agreements
Here’s a cast-iron guarantee about working with a writing partner – the unexpected will happen, and it can come from any direction. Maybe your writing partner will quit halfway through, maybe they’ll have a brainwave one day and insist on a different (awful) ending. Maybe it’ll turn out they had a completely different readership in mind, or they want to bring in another partner, or they expect you to travel to them for every editing session, or they want to add/remove a bunch of curse words. It could be anything, and it could be a game-changer.
Some of these issues you’ll have to resolve as they crop up, but when you do, it pays to be armed with prior agreements. By this, I mean that before a word is written, you and your partner should sit down and write out an agreement. This should cover everything you see coming up, as well as (vitally) the spirit of partnership you’re agreeing to.
The spirit of your partnership is important, because it’s a rubric you can apply to situations you’d never expect. For example, you might be splitting things fifty-fifty. That means you have equal say, and your decisions will be made in the spirit of compromise. If your partner wants to remove all the curse words and you don’t, apply the fifty-fifty spirit and cut down on them where they’re not necessary.You can prepare for the unexpected by agreeing on the nature of a writing partnership.Click To Tweet
Maybe things aren’t fifty-fifty – maybe one of you is the ideas person and one is the writer. Agreeing on that concept straight away might be handy later on, as there’s a clear implication for who’s in charge of what. Disagree on the ending? Ideas person probably gets the deciding vote, or at least more sway. Disagree on the dialogue? Writer’s ideas have precedence.
The great part about doing this before you start writing is that you can make potentially hard decisions in the spirit of friendship. What happens if one person is pulled away from the project? That’s a potentially fraught discussion, and one that’s way easier to have when it’s still a hypothetical.
Soon, I’ll touch on some common subjects of disagreement between writing partners, and how to handle them with ease, but this is the approach that will keep working for you – agree on whatever you can beforehand and approach the unexpected with a pre-agreed spirit. You’ll have to mean it when you agree, but if you do, you’re avoiding a ton of potential issues later on.
Write alone, edit together
When you and your writing partner get started, there’ll be a lot to discuss, and you may find you spend a lot of time together figuring things out. This is a good idea, it lays the groundwork, but it’s probably not going to be your best bet as the project continues.
I’ve mentioned before that most successful writers suggest divorcing writing from editing. Obsessing over your writing as you write it just slows you down, trapping you in revisions when you need to be creating something new, and this goes double when a writing partner is involved.
A more productive way of working is to follow a ‘write alone, edit together’ schedule, which will usually look something like this:
- Meet up,
- Share your critique of each other’s work,
- Agree on goals for next time,
- Spend a few weeks apart to meet your goals,
- Prior to your next meeting, send your writing partner your new work so they can take a look and gather their thoughts,
- Prepare a critique of their work, in kind,
This type of schedule gives you room to be creative while optimizing the time you actually spend together. It may be that you work best shuttling work back and forth online every night, and your ‘meetings’ can happen over cyber-space, but if such short intervals work for you, you’ll be in the minority.
If you think this is you then congratulations, but be careful. Constant back-and-forth feedback is exhilarating, it’s a fun way to work, but it burns out quickly and doesn’t tend to generate much useful content. Under constant review, your story can change quickly, and nightly editing sessions tend to result in a project where only the last day’s content is actually usable. Check out How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published for more on how this can become an issue.
When deciding on your schedule, you’re looking for the sweet spot: enough time to write, but frequent enough meetings that you’re not wasting too much time in the event that you stray off course. Of course, your schedule isn’t the only thing that can make your editing sessions more productive.
Use ‘I’ statements
‘I’ statements are a communication tool used to facilitate friendly communication over potentially provocative subjects. This is great for authors because, even in the world’s greatest writing partnership, two authors are still bringing their ideas, voices, and emotions to the table, and it’s incredibly easy to upset someone when engaging in otherwise vital feedback.
You may think you’re immune to this – you can take criticism – but there are three things to keep in mind:
- You’ll be sharing ideas in their most fledgling form, often even before you’ve totally explored your own feelings towards them. This can make criticism far more cutting.
- Assuming that criticism won’t affect you means you’re not actively preparing to deal with it. This can often mean that, when an area you didn’t expect to be criticized faces negative feedback, it stings even more.
- Since you’re both working on the same project, your partner’s feedback will often involve a counter-suggestion. Early criticism can hurt at the best of times, but when it’s coupled with someone else pushing their own ideas, that irritation can quickly become a sense of competition that will hurt your piece in the long run.
Because of these factors, it’s often a good idea to implement some minor conflict-avoidance behavior into your partnership, and that’s where ‘I’ statements shine.‘I’ statements can make criticism far easier to absorb.Click To Tweet
Put simply, the intent of ‘I’ statements is to present opinions as subjective points of view rather than objective criticisms. ‘I’ statements are statements which foreground this idea, generally by beginning with the word ‘I’. Adopting this structure can subtly change a sentiment, making it easier for a partnership to explore. For example:
Objective: This chapter is too long.
Subjective: I feel like this chapter is too long.
Objective: This character isn’t believable.
Subjective: I don’t believe in this character.
Objective: This section is confusing.
Subjective: I find this section confusing.
In this way, ‘I’ statements allow writing partners to broach criticism from a place of personal experience. This is important, because something like ‘too long’ is a subjective judgement presented as objective fact. Both partners could have different definitions of ‘too long’, but if they don’t acknowledge that fact, they begin a discussion where they’re holding the piece to different standards.
‘I’ statements can’t guarantee that all criticism will be taken well, but they act as a reliable prompt for reasonable discourse. They’re also more effective from day one – agreeing to use ‘I’ statements in critique is exactly the kind of prior agreement that authors can laughingly make, agreeing it’s only a formality, and then be overjoyed they thought of later on.
Define collaborative voice
One of the trickiest parts of working with a writing partner is achieving a collaborative voice. Often, instead of two authors’ voices meshing into a new voice, writing partners can find that they pare back their styles, resulting in a flatter voice with less personality.
This was one of the main criticisms of O.U. Levon’s Caverns, an experimental book written by Ken Kesey and his University of Oregon creative writing class. With such a large group of people, a cogent voice simply failed to form.
Again, the solution here is prior discussion and agreement. What do you admire about each other’s styles, and what would you hate to lose in a shared project? Make a list before you begin, and make sure to address whether you’ve kept these aspects of voice when editing.
One way to ensure a shared voice is to have one person take a pass over the edited document. The intent here isn’t to make major changes, but to sprinkle in some moments of definable voice that may have been lost in committee. You can edit again, of course, and discuss what should be kept, but this avoids the slow erosion of voice as you meet again and again. It’s labor-intensive, and something of a wild card, but it may be what works for you.
Have those important discussions
I mentioned earlier that I’d touch on some areas you should discuss with your partner prior to beginning work, so here are some important things to consider.
How will you work?
One thing you should discuss before getting started is how you’re going to work. How often you’ll meet in person, the form your editing will take, and the logistics of communication. Are you going to have one document on Google Docs, multiple files that you send back and forth, or your own ‘version’ that you physically bring to each other when you meet? Likewise, are you going to edit each other’s writing directly, prepare notes for a spoken critique, or thrash things out by sending short messages back and forth?
The answers might change as your project progresses, but they should begin in a context of shared agreement. Try to dig deep and consider what’s going to work for you. In fact, try imagining that your partner is going to be a little more unreasonable than you assume. Do you really want them altering your work? Are you going to be able to represent yourself to the best of your abilities on a message-by-message basis, or do you need time to absorb feedback and prepare a response? Be as honest as possible before you start, because that’s the easiest time to build a system that will work for you.
How will you divide resources?
If you’re writing for fun, this is less important, but if you’re really trying to finish a project, it’s something to consider. Is travel more difficult for one person than another? Are you both genuinely able to dedicate the same amount of time? Expecting the exact same thing from both partners often isn’t the most workable form of equality – sometimes it makes more sense for both people to pledge 40% of their free-time than it does to agree to an identical number of hours or words.
This is even more important if you plan to self-publish – are you going to split the editing and design costs, and to what degree? Again, defining the spirit of your partnership will help future decisions, but so will making them ahead of time.
Be sure that both partners always have access to their own past work – as a sensible way of backing up data, if nothing else.
Who owns what?
This is a sensitive area, and one that causes authors way more grief than it should. One of the big worries of authors working with a writing partner is that their partner could somehow swindle them out of all the work and go on to solo literary stardom.
First of all, this is so, so rare that it’s barely worth thinking about. Most literary projects are never finished, and writing is such a unique art that one person’s version of a story is likely to be completely different to another’s. If you and your writing partner fall out, they’re almost definitely not going to finish the project and publish it, and even if they do, they’re almost definitely not going to make it impossible for you to do the same thing.
With that understood, it’s still a good idea to agree ahead of time what you’ll do if one of you leaves the project, or if you want to separate and pursue your own versions. Just because your writing partner probably won’t publish their own version, it doesn’t mean they won’t be planning to when they leave, so deciding on a set of rules can avoid arguments.Ownership of shared work can be a big worry for authors, but the solution is simple.Click To Tweet
The first thing to do is agree that you’re embarking on a shared project and put that in writing. You automatically own what you create, so you already have a lot of protection just from this perfunctory step. The next step to take is to agree on some theoretical separation conditions and write those down, too, so you have evidence there was an agreement.
A standard agreement is that whoever leaves the project leaves behind their prior work, but if you go down this route, you’ll have to define what ‘leaving the project’ means. If things deteriorate and your writing partner wants out, they may avoid making this plain because they don’t want to lose their work. You can measure quitting by failure to attend a set number of editing meetings in a given time frame but, while this is easier to agree on as a hypothetical, it’s an inherently adversarial way of looking at things.
A friendlier way is to try, as far as possible, to let people take away the content they contributed. This is difficult for the core world building of your story, but it’s likely that you’ll end up with characters or story lines that are definitively yours. Keep a friendly, consensual record of these as you go, and you’ll have them if you ever need them.
The most reasonable course of action is often to allow each author to take away what’s definably theirs and make shared content either locked off to both or accessible to either. The latter is a better deal, both because your personal takes will be so different and because, again, the vast majority of literary projects are never finished, so if you’re definitely going to aim for publication, it makes sense to give yourself the advantage and assume your former partner won’t follow through.
A final tip is to agree to share ideas but abandon terminology. Ideas, after all, are a lot harder to define, and this may give you peace of mind in the worst potential situations.
How will you handle credit?
The ideal arrangement when working with a writing partner is that you’ll share the credit as creative partners, but this isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
One thing you might want to consider is what name you’ll write under. You could use both, and I’ll return to that option in a moment, but you may also want to consider a shared pseudonym. Wife and husband Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, authors of the Frieda Klein series, write under the nom de plume ‘Nicci French’, while the aforementioned ‘O.U. Levon’ is a play on ‘novel U.O.’, with the initials standing for ‘University of Oregon’.
Of course, if one member of your partnership has had prior success, to the point that their name might help sell the book, it makes sense to go with the ‘John Doe and Jane Doe’ model, as is the case for Jodi Picoult and her daughter, who wrote Between the Lines as ‘Jodi Picoult & Samantha Van Leer’, with a noticeable favoritism in font size towards the former.
If you’re both known to an existing audience, there might be something in offering alternate covers, as with Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s (or Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s) Good Omens. It’s a rare situation though, and if you’re in this position, it’s probably something you can run by an agent or publisher.
If none of these solutions appeal, then there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First of all, book covers can be designed to your specifications, so if it’s a major issue, you can agree to appear side-by-side. In fact, you could even opt for the ‘one top right, one bottom left’ style of presentation you may have seen on movie posters.
Sadly, despite this, you will need an ‘official’ order. It’s the order reviewers will use when discussing the book, the information that’ll be shared by online booksellers, and crucially, the order that readers will remember. This is the second thing to keep in mind – whichever order you choose, stick with it. A lot of business is done thanks to recognition, and you need readers to recognize the ‘look’ of your names on future books. Trading off from one book to the other is possible, but it also sloughs off readers who would have given your second project a second look because the authors seemed familiar.
If there doesn’t seem a fair way to decide whose name goes first, here’s a tie-breaker – who first suggested writing together? Even if it’s by a second, it gives you a reason you can both agree on. If even this doesn’t work, consider that the book is likely to be alphabetized by the name of the first author. Where do you want to appear on shelves?
Be aware, though, that the first author is likely to get a little more attention. More incompetent reviewers may only note the first name, and similar problems can arise with automated systems. If you’re given the position of first author, make it your job to correct this error when it’s made, and consider letting your writing partner take the lead in the first few interviews or pieces of social media promotion, to ensure any small imbalance in exposure is addressed.
Working with your writing partner
At the end of the day, working with a writing partner is usually a dream. Two friends who trust each other’s judgement, and respect each other’s talent, are likely to have a great time approaching a project they both want to complete.
The key to ensuring a happy relationship is to make a lot of minor decisions you don’t yet need to make. Agree on hypotheticals, set some consistent standards, and you can immediately refer to your past selves in the event of any dispute.
Have you written with a writing partner before? Let me know how it went, in the comments. Or, for more great advice on similar subjects, check out Want To Improve Your Writing? Here Are The Six People You Need To Find and Is Now The Time For An Alpha Reader?