Co-Authoring: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

frank violaGuest Blogger: Frank Viola  (@FrankViola)

I’m a firm believer in co-authoring. I’ve done it several times and I’d encourage other authors to do it.

But like anything else that’s worthwhile, co-authoring has its challenges. It also has its dark side. Following is my brief overview of the benefits (the good), the challenges (the bad), and the frustrations (the ugly) of sharing a writing project with another mortal.

The Good

I don’t know about you, but I’m wired for networking and co-laboring. I love team-work and prefer joint projects over flying solo. So co-writing suits my personality. But even if you’re not wired like I am, here are some of the benefits I’ve discovered in co-writing:

• You get to share the workload. If the project is large or daunting, this is a relief.

• Your partner gets to enhance your writing and you get to do the same for them. The synergy in co-writing can be awesome. I love it when my co-author improves upon what I’ve written and I enjoy returning the favor. I’ve also discovered that there’s such a thing as “writing chemistry.” If you and your co-author possess it, co-writing can become electric.

• You get to cross-promote the finished product. When the writing project releases (book, article, or blog post), you and your co-author are able to introduce it to your respective audiences. This gives the project a double punch on release date.

• You get to share the rewards and the criticisms. If your project helps people, it’s a pleasure to share the joy of blessing others with someone else. If it’s criticized, you have someone else to process the value of the critiques. If it’s attacked, your co-author helps absorb the blows.

The Bad

While co-authoring has its benefits, it also has its challenges. Three chief ones come to mind:

• Wrongly assuming that you have the same idea as your co-author on the writing approach.

• Waiting on your co-author to send you his or her chapters.

• Sorting out areas of disagreement in content and/or word-choice.

To help with this, it’s vital that you communicate with your co-author about four things before you put your hand to the plow:

1. Discuss the subject you’re going to write about and the specific approach you’re going to take. Don’t assume that your co-author understands this the way you do. I suggest putting it in writing so there’s a clear “meeting of the minds.”

2. Discuss any potential areas of disagreement in content and how you want to handle them when they arise. This is huge and it’s one you want set in place before you roll the ball on your project.

3. Find out who is going to be responsible for drafting which chapters. I advise writing out a tentative Table of Contents, discuss and decide who will write which chapters and put their name next to their chapters.

4. Discuss your respective writing paces. One of my coauthors has a PhD in Parkinson’s Law. He waits until the last minute to write his part. I’m the opposite. I’m a plodder. Like John Steinbeck, I prefer biting off a little chunk of writing each day until the deadline arrives. So when it comes to writing, there are bingers and chippers. Bingers wait until the last minute and go on a writing frenzy. Chippers chip away at the project over the long haul. Don’t assume that your writing pace is the same as your partner’s. Talk it over beforehand so you’re not surprised or frustrated.

The Ugly

The dark side of co-writing can be juiced down to miscommunication. When miscommunication occurs, enthusiasm can quickly degrade into bruised feelings. Here are a few things that can spare you the turmoil:

1. Be careful not to cross the line from co-writing to editing. Enhancing someone’s work by adding a word here or there is one thing. But striking out entire sentences and slashing and burning whole phrases can cause your partner to get so upset that they can’t see straight. Always make suggestions and never line edit your co-author’s contribution.

2. Be flexible. You may have one idea when you begin the project, but as you and your partner begin writing, the project may take a different shape. Learn to adjust.

3. Communicate as much as possible. It’s important that you keep the dialogue going while you co-write. Use both phone and email to dialogue, ask questions, and make suggestions.

I’ve done three co-authoring book projects and I look forward to more. For me, the good far outweighs the bad and the ugly can be avoided. Just remember: when it comes to co-authoring, assume nothing. Discuss all the details before you begin and keep talking through the project. If you do, I expect you’ll find it to be as worthwhile as I’ve found it to be.

Have you considered co-authoring any of your projects? If you’ve done it, what was your experience like?

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Jesus A TheographyFRANK VIOLA co-authored the new book, Jesus: A Theography with Leonard Sweet. He has co-authored other books with Leonard Sweet and George Barna. Frank’s blog is rated in the top 10 of all Christian blogs on the Web today: http://frankviola.org.  You can connect with him on Twitter: @FrankViola.

  1. I have shared this post to my son. And he likes it to draw his own imagination and I really support him for that. Thank you for this post.

  2. FILMY 2012 says:

    Many thanks for creating the effort to talk about this, I feel strongly about this and like learning a great deal more on this topic. If feasible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your weblog with a great deal more details? It’s extremely useful for me.

  3. (Sorry for the late reply; weekends belong to the kids.)

    I co-authored a book of short ghost stories with a friend. Though I wrote the lion’s share (perhaps 80 – 20), I didn’t mind. Because of your “the good” #2…the synergy. It was great bouncing ideas off him, and just telling him about my latest story.

    The bottom line is, we got it done. At the book signing, he thanked me for pushing him to complete it. And I thanked him for coming up with the idea in the first place.

  4. I like how you point out having someone to help share the joy and downs of having your work out there. It’s nice to feel someone else is as invested in your work as you are.

  5. Lisa Fender says:

    Hi Frank, I am writing with my sister and I love it! We work really well together and have the same visions for the fantasy series we are writing. I actually wrote the story and asked her to help me with edits. She fell in love with the story and I asked her to co-author. She and I get together 2-3 times a week and it has been awesome so far. I enjoy it!

  6. Josh L says:

    Good article, Frank. Because I’m familiar with your writing style I can usually tell (at least I think I can tell) what is coming from you and what is coming from your co-author. You are a good writer to begin with but I can certainly see your point in that co-authoring helps to enhance the contribution of each author. I’m three chapters into “Jesus: A Theography” and I have no doubt that the collaboration between yourself and Len Sweet has made this project far richer than it would have been had either of you done it alone. So kudos, brother. Keep up the good work.

  7. Frank —

    Thank you for a practical analysis of what is looking to be a very timely topic for me!

    Ugly #2 was hard for me early on, as my co-author discarded one after another of my “great” ideas. But she has far more experience in the world of publishing, and I have a tendency to over-complicate whe she is great at keeping the main thing the main thing!

    I am learning to let go of my “darlings” much more quickly. I keep reminding myself that all “discards” are mine to enjoy using in my own blog posts.

    I want to focus on being a good apprentice; I am beyond blessed to have a mentor showing me the ropes!

  8. I’ve thought several times about co-authoring. I know exactly who’d be perfect to work with, too. But time constraints and life are firmly in the way right now. But perhaps in the future.

  9. I like your practical approach to the topic. Thank you for sharing your insights. This made me want to co-author one of these days. I’m also looking forward to reading your new book. Blessings to you, Frank!

  10. Thanks for the post, Frank. I appreciate hearing from someone who’s done it.
    I considered co-authoring, but it fell apart twice before it got started. It’s all good, though, because they’d be waiting on me for a bit these days. 🙂

  11. Tim Klock says:

    Great idea, Frank! I’ve thought about this idera a little bit from time to time but never seriously considered it. Now I AM seriously considering it. As you said, it sounds like a lot of work, but could well be worth the effort. Thank you for some great things to consider and pray about! I want to look for your book, Jesus: A Theography. It looks really interesting.

    • Frank Viola says:

      Thanks Tim. Like “Jesus Manifesto,” nothing is said to indicate who is writing what. So it will be interesting to see if readers can detect that. We wanted to write it as if one person were crafting it, but I’m not sure if we succeeded. As I explained in my recent podcast episode which unveils the unusual back-story of the book, we wrote 90% of it in 6 weeks. This sometimes happens when a plodder and a binger try to complete a book together! 🙂

  12. Glenda Mills says:

    A friend and I are currently working on a co-blogger six bible study. I found it to be very motivating and encouraging and a chance to toot another person’s horn, and not focus on just my writing. I’ve always wanted to co-author a book, but have yet to find someone ready to share that with me. Thanks for your suggestions above. Should I ever take the plunge, I will know where to come to help set guidelnes.
    Thanks for posting!

  13. I’ve coauthored book-length research reports, and while I much prefer to work alone, it wasn’t a bad experience. I simply needed to adapt to the requirements of the situation.

    The key was taking my ego out of the picture, and essentially letting my co-author do what he or she needed to do, to feel good. My life and my self-image aren’t wrapped up in my work, and if someone else needs an ego boost from a work of shared authorship, it’s best to stand aside and let them have it.

    That said, I’d love to work with someone on a “dual POV” novel, produced rather like a tennis game – within an agreed-upon plot framework, the authors ‘hit’ chapters back and forth at one another. No alterations of the other’s work is allowed, and the story is allowed to develop organically (along as it stays within the necessarily broad outline).

    Might be fun.

  14. Jenny says:

    Thanks, Frank. This is really useful – I did have a question on one point though re: the “ugly” question of editing your partner’s work/them editing yours.

    I read in a Writers Digest article with Douglas Preston and Lee Child that they co-write and change whatever – because they never indicate which person wrote what in the master draft. The philosophy is that if they add/subtract something and the other writer doesn’t notice, then it’s fair game. What do you think about that approach? Also, how can writers approach their co-writers if something just isn’t up to par?

    • Frank Viola says:

      That’s an interesting approach. In my co-writing experience, we would sometimes suggest a change rather than make one.

      I’ve found that authors have different sensitivity levels when it comes to changes on their drafts.

      For instance, some authors like using big words and don’t mind if people are sent scurrying to their dictionaries to find out what those words mean.

      Other authors are more Hemingwayish and want to write as simply as possible so their work is as accessible as possible (I’d fit into the latter).

      Thus suggesting a word change depends on what kind of author you’re working with. If it’s the former type, they may blow steam out of both ears with such suggestions. The other type will appreciate the suggestion.

      So a lot of this comes down to getting to know each other and that’s why communication at the beginning and during is vital.

  15. CG Blake says:

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I have never worked with a co-author but it seems to me there would have to be a writerly compatabity for it to work. I know many fine writers, but some are markedly different in terms of writing style and genre. I would like to collaborate on a writing project someday.

  16. Excellent post, Frank. I think being selective about your writing partner helps too. I contributed to one project with a co-author, but it didn’t work out. Her schedule made it impossible to contribute the necessary time. While we made it through the first draft, it’s never gone any further. I’m disappointed because I did the majority of the writing, but maybe there is a future for it one day.

  17. Jeanne says:

    What a practical post, Frank. I haven’t co-authored anything, yet. I think it’s something I’d be open to, at some point in the future. It sounds like good communication is the key to a successful co-authoring relationship. Have you found differing expectations an issue to be worked through?

    • Frank Viola says:

      Indeed. It’s natural to begin a project with certain expectations. Hence why talking through the goals and putting them in writing is advisable, so I’ve found anyway.

  18. ed cyzewski says:

    Great advice Frank! I’ve just published a co-authored book, and am working another one with a different co-author. Ironically, they’re both bingers, but they don’t put it off. Their pace is incredibly fast! I’m more of a nibbler. Your advice there is really valuable, as it strikes on the biggest challenge I’ve faced in trying to match my pace to another writer.

    One practice I’ve done to try to keep my own books on target and that I’ve used in working with co-authors is to review the original book proposal throughout the writing process. It keeps us both on the same page and it keeps me far more focused with my writing.

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