• M. Christine Benner Dixon

Co-Authoring: How to Write with a Partner

A close-up of fingers on a keyboard

Since January of 2021, my dear friend Sharon Fagan McDermott and I have been writing a book together. It’s a collection of essays, each on a different element of writing. Now, when we started this project, there was no guarantee that collaborative writing would work. Writers are a notoriously bull-headed and touchy breed, and we can be very picky about things going our way. But it did work. And I thought I’d let you in on a few of our secrets.

Choose your partner carefully.

I wouldn’t have agreed to do this project with just anyone. Sure, Sharon and I were already friends before we started writing together, but the mere fact of our friendship was not enough to ensure a strong co-writing relationship. However, Sharon and I had worked together in the past, putting together presentations and shaping curriculum, and so we we went into our collaboration knowing that we were compatible as colleagues.

That said, our friendship was essential to our success. Perhaps if we were both purely pragmatic people, it wouldn’t have mattered if we liked each other or not, but since we are both emotional and sensitive creatures, we benefited from having a strong working relationship and genuine friendship as our foundation.

Establish a clear vision.

Before we wrote a single word, Sharon and I spent a fair amount of time talking about what the project would be, who it would be for, what topics we wanted to cover, and other matters of vision. It wouldn’t be a writing handbook, we decided, but we would keep the writing classroom in mind. The essays would be personal; we would write about the ways that the practice of writing moves beyond mechanics and theory and into our lives. We would reach far and wide in the essays, not limiting ourselves to a certain kind of approach to craft writing. We would write short essays so that they could be used in the classroom. All of this planning helped keep the entire writing process moving in the right direction.

An open compass on a roadmap

Respect boundaries.

Writing is personal. It can be hard to receive critique when it edges too close to criticism. Knowing that our friendship was key to maintaining our working relationship, Sharon and I decided not to cast each other into the role of editor. We gave one another room to say her piece without nitpicking or heavy-handed “suggestions.”

The nature of our project meant that, for the most part, we could do the writing of our essays independently. Every Saturday morning for months on end, we met on Zoom and read our essays to each other, asked questions of one another, reflected on where the energy was dropping or how different parts were holding together. But then we backed off and let the other person work. Mostly, we delighted in each other’s words and exclaimed over the ways that our essays spoke to each other, despite having been written separately.

It’s important to note that we did have other people to provide feedback in this process. We convened a group of readers to test out a few chapters of the book. We have had feedback from editors. I brought one of my essays to one of my writer’s groups. And we both have individuals in our lives who can offer additional critique for us. But that didn’t have to be one another, and it was better for us that it wasn't.

Share the work.

Because we wrote our essays independently, we avoided some of the pitfalls of competing ego and style that can crop up in other co-authoring arrangements. Only the introduction has a single co-authorial voice, and this short piece of blended writing might have proven more difficult if we hadn’t shared control over the piece. We started by talking through what we wanted to say about our book: writing is joyful, we invite our readers to contribute to the discussion of craft, here’s some important information about how the book is laid out, and so on. We both took notes—I by typing, Sharon by hand—and compared our key points after we had talked through the introduction, making a kind of outline for ourselves. We then went through the outline, adding specific language around the ideas and transcribing these lines into the notes. It was a messy semi-draft, not something fit for public consumption but truly a joint creation, reflective of both of our ideas.

Next, I (because Sharon was heading into the beginning of the new school year) drafted the introduction based on our conversation, adding a few new touches here and there as it felt appropriate. The next time we met, we read the introduction aloud, and we talked through it again, identifying places that felt good and those that felt redundant or unnecessary and debating the best solution. Afterward, I sent the file to Sharon for her additions, comments, reflections. We went back and forth like this until we were satisfied. Sometimes we agreed on what changes were needed; sometimes we didn’t. But we tweaked and clarified and adjusted until we could both stand by what was being said.

A spring-mounted balance with one ball on one side and three on the other, perfectly balanced.

Trust one another.

As writers and teachers, Sharon and I understand that there is not just a single way to write well. We write differently, but we like that difference. We trust one another’s instincts. So when the other person makes a choice that is different from ours, we know it comes from a skilled writer and is worthy of consideration. That attitude made it a lot easier to entertain the other’s suggestions to, say, rearrange the essays within the chapter or cut potentially problematic language. We knew the project was safe with the other person—no need to get defensive. Our mutual trust was rewarded. We were able to be honest, both in our own writing and in our discussion of the writing, and the book is better for it.

Leave room for joy.

Not every writing project needs to be joyful to be successful, but this one sure was. We had a blast working together. If you are launching into a collaborative project, leave room for the possibility that it's going to be fun. Creativity feeds on creativity, and the result can be downright electric.

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