How to collaborate on writing without killing each other

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Photo: rocksee via Flickr

I have coauthored three books, so I know: writing together is the intellectual equivalent of marrying someone — it is that intimate, getting it right is just as rewarding, and getting it wrong is just as painful. Here’s how to collaborate on a shared writing project.

Decide on your shared objectives

It’s hard to share the work if you think you’re going in different directions. Right at the start, do a ROAM analysis together.

  • Agree on your Readers. Are you targeting marketers or product managers? Are you helping executives, strategists, or rank-and-file workers? Talk about some real people who fit your criteria.
  • Define an Objective. Are you trying to make people more profitable, happier, or more effective?
  • Agree on the Action they will take. After reading your book or paper, will your audience change the products they build? Will they reallocate their budgets? Will they quit their jobs and go independent?
  • What iMpression will you leave? Do you want them to hire you for speeches, send 100 copies to their friends, subscribe to your blog, or make you their favorite consultant? What will they think of you after they read the book?

You should be able to agree on a statement like this:

After reading our book, [group of people] will realize that [change in thinking], so they will [action they will take].

Choose a title and write the marketing copy

Unless you decide on a title together, you’ll end up fighting over it. Brainstorm the title first. You’ll learn a lot.

Work on the subtitle, too, but recognize that will probably change.

Then write the flap copy — you know, the text you use to market the book. While I don’t normally recommend writing prose by committee, in this case, working together on the marketing text will surface your differences and reinforce your common goals for the project. And yes, you should write the selling copy before you write the book.

Write the table of contents and divide up the tasks

These two elements of planning go together.

Agree on the table of contents so you know the pieces you’ll be writing.

Then divide up the tasks in the project — writing, research, data analysis, whatever. For example: you’ll write chapters 1-7 and I’ll edit, and I’ll write chapters 8-11 and you’ll edit. OR: you’ll do all the research, and I’ll do all the writing.

If everybody does everything in duplicate, you’ll drown in a lack of productivity. It’s not necessary that one person be in charge, but it is necessary that each task have a leader (lead researcher, lead visionary, lead data analyst, person in charge of words, person who negotiates with publishers, etc.)

Agree on a schedule and deadline. Agree on financial sharing terms. Figure out who’s name goes first (typically either the more well-known author or the one who originated the idea).

One of you is a better writer. That person should set the voice for the writing and do most of the wordcrafting. The other author should match them. (If you have the same voice then you must be only one person with a schizoid complex.)

Finally, determine a process for completing, reviewing, and finalizing chapters, including who does what in what order and when each chapter or stage is completed.

Write a proposal and pitch it together

Write a proposal together and get an agent (unless you’re self-publishing). Two authors have complementary skills and networks, which is a good selling point. (If you can’t write a proposal together, well, you learned something.)

Later, when it’s time to launch the book, you’ll also be able to divide up the promotional tasks.

Get your collaboration tech in order

You don’t need fancy collaboration tools. But you do need to think about this a bit. Here’s what I’ve found essential:

  • Shared folders in the cloud. A shared Google Drive or Dropbox folder with subfolders works great. While you can collaborate by writing text simultaneously in Google Docs, that sort of chaos doesn’t generate coherent chapters. I use a Microsoft Word file for each draft of each chapter, making sure there is a clear understanding of who’s working on which chapter at any given time. This works far better than emailing files back and forth, because you’ll always be able to find the latest version of a file in the folder.
  • Google Sheets to track stuff. Track your chapters in a Google Sheet with a list of chapter titles, who’s working on them, contents, deadlines, and the like. Another sheet can hold the information about who you’re contacting and interviewing. Unlike the chapter text files, you want a spreadsheet you can work on at the same time.
  • A shared place for notes. You can share an Evernote notebook or just keep your notes files in a subfolder of your shared work folder.
  • Naming conventions. I’m a stickler for this, and it has saved my butt multiple times. My files have names like WWB 0050 Passive v1.doc. Translation: Writing Without Bullshit, chapter 5, Passive Voice, first draft. The numbering allows you to sort the filenames easily and see what’s there, what’s updated, and what’s missing — and to slot in a “Chapter 5.5” if you need to sneak one in there and renumber things later.
  • Video calling. At Forrester we used the company’s videoconferencing system, but you can just as easily use Skype. Seeing your coauthor’s honest reaction when you propose an idea is really helpful. You both need to be in front of a PC, so you can work on a shared Google doc for brainstorming ideas or reviewing comments on a draft together. And no, you can’t do this effectively if one of you is in the back of a taxi.

A few last pieces of advice

Do not have more than two authors. Three authors is death. I could show you the scars.

Remember that your book is your baby, but your coauthor is your friend. Sometimes the relationship requires you to give up on a passionately held idea to keep the project on track. And sometimes, it turns out, you’re wrong and your coauthor is right. You picked each other for a reason.

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