I’ve been collaborating with some very smart people lately — helping them write long pieces that explain the power of their ideas. Many of them are not great writers, which is why they have asked for my help.
The best part about collaboration is the exhilaration of learning new ideas, contributing to them, building evidence for them, and writing about them. I would be happy if I could keep doing this for the rest of my life.
And when it’s time for them to review what I have created for them, I have no problem when my collaborator tells me that I got the idea wrong, that there is better evidence, that it’s not convincing enough and here’s where to find the stuff to make it more convincing.
I hate the part where my collaborator tries to improve my carefully drafted, crystalline prose with words that would make it clunky and awful. I’m vain about my prose. I feel like a paint-by-number artist has added a bit more lime green and tangerine yellow to my Matisse masterpiece. While this is a completely normal emotional reaction, it is totally unproductive.
It’s not wrong. The reaction springs from pride about what I have created, and pride in what I create drives me to do the best possible job.
What matters is what happens next.
First I scowl.
Then I figure out what the collaborator is getting at. Oh, you would prefer I don’t reveal this embarrassing detail about the subject whose story we’re narrating. You mentioned this other new idea in three places, you clearly want to get it into the document somewhere, even if it doesn’t belong where you put it. No, you cannot change a direct quote I got from an interview, but I can understand what you think the subject was trying to say, even if she didn’t actually say it.
The writer’s job in this situation is to understand the problem, then use their skill to solve it. And if you have the right relationship with your collaborator, the results will be excellent. They’ll get what they want, and you’ll get prose that’s still something to be proud of.
If your collaborator is a writer, then you have the hard job synchronizing your styles, because they do have a right to suggest wording. But if they’re not, then get things straight. Their job is to identify the flaws in how you presented their ideas. Your job is to address to those flaws. Then you can keep working together without the need for therapy.