9 Secrets to a Successful Collaboration

Co-authoring can be a wonderful experience. It can also be a nightmare. By working with another writer who complements your abilities, you can save time and energy—as long as you set some ground rules upfront.

While working on the book Aftershock: Help, Hope and Healing in the Wake of Suicide, my co-author, David Cox, and I agreed on certain principles—he would contribute his personal story, plus insights from his years of counseling, and I would do the bulk of the writing. This setup worked well for us, and it’s key that you find one suitable for you.

Without laying down rules on specific issues like division of labor, how to settle conflicts that arise during production and how to split the profits, you’re liable to have constant problems (and a giant headache). Consider these nine important issues to ensure a successful co-authoring relationship.

1. DETERMINE IF OVERALL GOALS ARE SIMILAR.

While you don’t have to have exactly the same goal, it helps to be on the same page of expectations. If your goal is to address the wrongs of social injustice, and your co-author is looking only to make a fast buck, you may be headed for problems. My co-author and I knew that big money wasn’t our main goal. In fact, we were willing to settle for a small advance because the ultimate goal for both of us was to print information that would help those struggling to recover from the suicide death of a loved one. Having a primary goal kept us on track during the course of the project.

2. DECIDE IF YOUR PERSONALITIES ARE COMPATIBLE.

If you’re a person who starts working the moment you receive an assignment, you may not want to partner up with a procrastinator. It’s very important to find someone who fits your personality—or at least someone who’s professional and can work around any differences.

Holly G. Miller, Saturday Evening Post travel editor, co-authored seven books with Dennis Hensley, director of the professional writing major at the Fort Wayne, Ind., campus of Taylor University. Miller and Hensley have traveled around the country co-teaching writing workshops for more than 20 years.

Miller says, “Dennis and I are as different as two people can be. I’m an East Coast liberal. He’s a conservative Midwesterner.” Hensley says, “Holly and I have a lot of differences, ranging from politics to movie choices. However, we’re both always professional about our working relationship. We keep a sense of humor. In short, I can count on her, and she can count on me.”

One way to determine if a collaboration will work is to co-author an article first. If you can’t get one article written together in a reasonable amount of time, a book will be a real challenge.

3. BENEFIT FROM YOUR STRENGTHS.

Each person brings strengths to the project. One writer could be an expert on the topic. The other could have the writing voice essential to pull it off. In writing Aftershock, my co-author and I benefited from his experiences as a counselor. While he provided insights into various aspects of grieving and practical ways to recover from a suicide loss, I had the drive and discipline to actually take the information we wanted to convey and organize it into a logical, readable form. I also brought to the table publishing credits and connections to book editors and publishers through a number of professional organizations and writing conferences. Using both of your strengths can help make the process run smoothly and increase your chances of publishing success.

4. KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES.

Weaknesses can cause setbacks, especially if they’re not recognized early in the process. Maybe you’re great at editing, but terrible at research—Google isn’t in your vocabulary. If you discuss your weaknesses with your co-author ahead of time, you can save time by finding ways around them.

My co-author knew that left on his own to write Aftershock, it would never happen. He simply lacked the motivation to follow through. My weaknesses involved various levels of perfectionism that slowed us down at times. I tended to avoid writing hard parts of the book by jumping onto smaller article projects that I could crank out quickly and feel a sense of instant gratification over their completion. Realizing and admitting these weaknesses helped us encourage each other to move forward and kept our eyes on the over-arching goal of completing the manuscript.

5. AGREE ON A DIVISION OF LABOR.

It’s important to know your expectations of each other before beginning the project. If you intend to split the actual writing 50/50, but your co-author thinks he’s contributing ideas while you write, there’s trouble brewing. Having a clear definition of jobs in the beginning makes the process smoother.

In our case, I did most of the interviews, but David provided contact information or helped set them up. We agreed to split all royalties and expenses 50/50.

There are other notable issues to discuss before coming to an agreement. If either of you set up speaking engagements and offer the book for sale, decide if you’re also splitting speaking and associated book sales revenue. Talk about who will do any additional work once the manuscript is turned in to the publisher. If you create a promotional Web site, who’ll write the site’s copy? Will you split other marketing ventures equally? Answer these questions upfront so you and your co-author know exactly what to expect.

6. SIGN A CO-AUTHORING CONTRACT.

While this isn’t a must, having a written agreement in the beginning helps. This contract is separate from a book publishing contract. Use it to legally define the division of labor between you and your co-author. Be specific. If the jobs will be done equally, state that. Also include deadlines (prior to the publisher’s deadlines) when each party will complete the work. It’s good to go ahead and put into writing what you’re agreeing to as far as splitting fees and royalties. You’re going to have some upfront costs, and it’s better to share those than have one person bear the load. Tad Crawford’s Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers (Allworth Press) comes with a CD that includes all forms. You won’t have to strain to come up with a contract, and you can strike any clauses that don’t apply. Holly Miller recalls, “I once had a contract with a celebrity who proved to be impossible to work with. I was able to get out of the deal with my advance intact.”

7. EXPECT SOME LEVEL OF CONFLICT.

Even if you’re co-authoring with a friend or colleague, there are times when tempers flare or some form of disagreement arises. If two creative types are working together, that can cause problems. Likewise, a dreamer and a “just the facts” author may be in for some major bumps in the road. The impasse may be as simple as a disagreement about chapter or outline arrangement. Or it may be as complicated as one author insisting that large portions of text that the other wrote be deleted entirely from the manuscript. Whatever the conflict, it can halt forward progress and perhaps threaten the entire project. Often, it’s easy to slip into artiste mode and allow egos to control. Instead, resolve to handle conflict with maturity and professionalism.

8. HAVE A MEANS OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION.

Deciding ahead of time how to settle disagreements is key to any co-authoring relationship. Miller and Hensley use a great system for conflict resolution. “We decided to establish one of us as ‘lead’ author for each project we do,” Hensley says. “If we’re at an impasse on something, the person in charge makes the final call, and the other one can’t be angry or sore about it. For us, it works.”Maybe you’d prefer to settle issues by having an independent party decide. Or perhaps you’d rather settle your differences over a game of Yatzee. However you handle it, be sure it’s clearly established before you dive into the work.

9. REAP THE REWARDS OF TWO HEADS.

When David and I met for the first time to discuss writing Aftershock, we immediately began to bounce ideas off each other. Everything from the book title to a chapter outline took shape as we batted ideas back and forth. As we progressed with the project, we each came up with aspects that the other had never considered. When one of us got stuck with a particular section, the other came through with a creative solution. Writing alone, either of us may have bogged down and never recaptured the ultimate vision for the book enough to complete the work. We were dealing with a very heavy topic, and we often needed each other for encouragement and support.

“The benefits of having a writing partner is that your copy is usually very clean because you have two sets of eyes reviewing every page and catching every error,” Miller says. “Also, your differences become your strengths.” Hensley adds, “Find someone who’s your equal yet has skills in areas different from you.”

By considering these nine steps prior to entering a collaborative agreement, you can safeguard yourself from unwanted headaches. The more rules you and your co-author agree to at the beginning of the project, the more quickly and effectively you’ll both work.

Also, read about two well-known authors in their own rights, became partners in writing a children’s book.

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