All professional writing outside of blogs needs to be collaborative. Writers fantasize serving as their own editor and publisher, thinking they could do whatever they please.

But you can’t see your own writing with an objective eye. You won’t notice things that are missing in your text, because they’re in your head even if they’re not on the screen. You know the recipes in your cookbook work because you wrote them, but you still need someone else to test them. You need a good editor, particularly if you write risky and complex pieces. You can’t serve as your readers’ representative; your editor/collaborator plays that role.

Writing collaboratively with other people can be a dream or a horror depending on how you set it up and go about it. Generally speaking, the secret of collaboration is equality and communication. I know of joint ventures where one writer outranks the other, but they tend to turn into power struggles and messy misunderstandings.

Alicia Ross and Beverly Mills Gyllenhaal have collaborated for 15 years on a syndicated newspaper column, three cookbooks, and a cooking/lifestyle website. They succeed by “setting aside ego and/or adopting a sort of Wiki mentality,” including their own special lingo that ensures coordinated action.

Equality works best if the partners do what they’re best at. For instance, some collaborations involve a doer and a writer. Typically the doer makes things, and the writer describes what the doer did. Cookbooks by chefs often work this way. Or one partner reminisces, and the writer turns the memories into story form.

In some cases, one partner thinks, and the other clarifies. Sometimes newspapers will team an ace investigator with an organized writer for difficult projects. One writing pair I know wrote an A-to-Z book by each taking unsequenced parts of the alphabet. A friend of mine writes philosophical novels in French, and his wife turns them into action stories as she translates them into English.

Roy Clark and I have collaborated for 25 years by dividing tasks according to our strengths. Roy’s terrific with ideas, but I never have any. So we would eat lunch at Taco Bell, where Roy would toss off two ideas a minute, and I would write down maybe half of them. Then we’d look at the list and decide what to write about. I’m the organized one, so I would compose the first draft. Roy’s funny, and I’m not, so he would lighten up my stunningly clear but heavy draft with comic grace. Then we would trade the text back and forth, revising and revising, until we both liked the way it read.

Some collaborators divvy up the parts of the project, and revise separately or together. And some collaborations really aren’t so much collaborative as collections of separate works, such as alternating chapters in a book.

Finally, collaborators should agree ahead of time on credit. Many teams fall apart because of misunderstandings at the end of the process over who gets a byline, in what order, etc. Again, equality usually works best. Roy Clark and I use alphabetical credits, perhaps because Roy never caught on that readers remember best what they read last.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 6:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for including us in your blog, Don. Alicia and I would love to have other cooking authors’ suggestions/comments on our latest collaboration at our new Kitchen Scoop blogsite! (Or anyone else’s ideas, for that matter….) We’re so new at the online “thang” and we’re trying very hard to figure it all out!

  2. Welcome to the club of beginners. I enjoy being one. I’ve discovered that some of the best things I write about came from comments on my blog. By the way, a lot of your readers are writers, but not cooking authors. Your column has become a tool for surviving family life for a lot of people.

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