I usually write alone. By this, I mean that I am used to being the sole author of academic papers, blog posts, book chapters etc. I like writing alone. It means I have total control over what is said and how it is said. I take ownership of the argument and I get to make whatever case I feel I can convincingly make. I use the tone, the language and the structure that feels right for me. It’s my work and only mine. I might have to convince a publisher that it’s good enough to publish but I don’t have to convince another author. It stands or falls on its own merit. It’s my work, my words. If it’s written well, then it’s my way of being seen, of making a case, of having an impact.
So, why bother co-authoring anything? Why write with someone else?
I’ve looked back at my list of academic publications and am surprised to see that a dozen of them have been written with other people, some with as many as six people at a time. I remember back to how these were done, and there was no formula. Each one was different, depending on the people I was writing with, the motivation for writing, the case we were trying to make, and sometimes, the practicalities of having to meet a looming publication deadline.
Some of this co-writing was inspiring and motivating.
Most of it was not.
I’ve had experiences of writing first drafts of papers and sending them to co-authors who deleted huge sections and replaced them with, well, something incomprehensive, jargonistic and unclear. I’ve seen my writing watered down and washed out. I’ve seen my words being changed to make an entirely different argument. Worst of all, I’ve seen quotations from children and young people – which, for me, were the most powerful part – being cut because they didn’t count as ‘evidence.’ I’ve worked with co-authors who found it impossible to stick to a deadline and others who never produced anything at all. I’ve written alongside people whose writing needed so much editing that it took more work than if I had written it myself.
It has been exhausting and demoralising, and at times, incredibly frustrating.
But when it’s good, it can be great.
The most interesting co-writing process that I have been involved with is a recent one. I have been writing with Sophie Christophy, using a form of letter or email exchanges. We agree on a general topic area and some possible overarching questions, but we do not make a plan about what either of us will say or what the outcome of the dialogue will be. One of us writes a section and ends on a question. It then passes to the other person. Neither of us change a single word of what the other has written. Sophie’s writing style is different from mine, but this doesn’t seem to matter as the whole purpose of the writing is to be authentic and clear in our own voices. There is no editing. It ends when it ends.
There is no exact science to this way of writing, but this is what I think helps the process:
- Choose a topic or question which has several equally valid positions so as to create a genuine dialogue
- Support your writing partner by letting them know if the points they are making are not clear so that they can explain something in a different way
- Ask the other person a real question which opens up discussion and gives them a chance to explore something from a different angle
- Write from the heart
- Be prepared to surprise yourself with what you might write
- Keep each letter/email relatively short so that it helps with the dynamism of the final piece
- Try to write your reply fairly quickly so as to prevent over-thinking and to maintain momentum
- Be open to the multiple directions that the piece might take and do not try to predetermine the outcome in advance
- Use this as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with your writing partner
- Publish the dialogue if you both feel comfortable to do so
I am curious about how many people could engage in this type of co-writing whilst maintaining a strong sense of flow and coherence. Could it be four, six, ten, sixteen, more? How easy would it be to write something which was interesting to the reader whilst staying true to the voices of each author?
In March, I am running a writing retreat with Sophie and we have set ourselves the challenge of co-writing something as a group and having it ready for publication by the time we finish. What will emerge from this process? What will we learn? What will we write?
I can’t wait to find out!