How to Work With a Co-Author (and Why You’d Want To)
Co-authoring is an increasingly popular strategy for pumping out more books and growing a readership, especially within the indie publishing community. But I probably don’t have to tell you that. Those perks of co-authorship are likely why you’re here.
Or maybe you just love the idea of collaborating with another great mind but aren’t sure what that process looks like.
As someone who’s had a writing partner for many years, I can tell you it’s not a relationship you should enter lightly. There are endless opportunities for conflict, and co-writing isn’t always the productivity hack it’s advertised to be.
That said, working with another writer can also be deeply rewarding, a lot of fun, and a unique way to improve your craft. It’s also a writing process that comes with built-in accountability. Writing with my brother helped me build a consistent writing habit, communicate my ideas more effectively, and plan a story more strategically.
So how do you make sure your co-authoring experience is worth it? That’s exactly what you’re about to learn. We’ll go over:
- The pros and cons of working with a co-author
- How to prepare to co-author a book
- How to brainstorm, write, and revise as a team
- Techniques for managing co-author conflicts
- Tools and resources for writing teams
- Success stories
That’s a lot, so let’s get crackin’.
Why You Should (or Shouldn’t) Co-Author a Book
Co-authoring isn’t everybody’s jam. Here are some pros and cons to consider before you commit to teaming up.
You get double the genius - Plus, you’ll ideally choose a co-author who has complementary strengths and weaknesses, which means you can help each other write a better story than you might write alone.
You can complete a novel faster - Probably. Maybe. Eventually. It honestly depends on how well you plan and whether you and your co-author already have solid writing routines in place. But once you get the hang of collaboration, you can expect to see an uptick in productivity.
You reach a wider audience - This is especially true when both co-authors already have a following of devoted readers. When you collaborate on a single book project, you can market to two pre-existing audiences. Pretty slick.
You’ll become a better writer - You’ll learn things from your co-author. They’ll learn things from you. By the time your book is published, you’ll both be stronger writers.
You’re never alone - You succeed together and you struggle together. That’s pretty nice.
There’s a ton of communication - Progress updates, check-ins, questions, the occasional apology… expect to be in touch with this other person a lot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something you don’t have to think about when you write solo.
You’ll have to compromise - If you want to co-author a book, you must be flexible with your creative vision. Even the most harmonious writing partners don’t agree on everything.
A lot can go wrong - A novel is a huge project with so many opportunities for conflict. What if you can’t overcome creative differences? What if one author starts slipping in their commitment and the other person is left to do all the work? Suppose you have to call the whole thing off after dedicating an entire month to the project?
It happens. That’s why we should talk about…
Choosing the Right Co-Author
The person you collaborate with should be an author in your genre who understands their readers and whose work you admire. But that’s just the beginning.
Before you commit to a potential partner, ask yourself:
- Do we share similar professional goals? Would writing together help both of us get where we’re trying to go?
- Are our creative sensibilities aligned?
- What do I know about the way they work? Would they welcome the structure a partnership demands?
- What are they like as a person? Am I comfortable sharing my ideas with them? Do I trust them as a business partner?
When you find the right co-author for your book project, it’s time to start planning your writing process as a team.
Preparing for Co-Authorship
Before you leap into brainstorming and plotting, have a conversation (or two or three) about your goals, expectations, and overall system.
This includes things like:
Defining Your Roles
Who is responsible for what in this partnership? Remember to think beyond just the writing, especially if you plan to self-publish. Decide who’s in charge of:
- Communicating with beta readers, editors, and cover designers
- Formatting the novel
- Setting up a landing page and/or listing
- Creating a marketing strategy
- Designing ads
- Running social media
- Scheduling launch events
- Keeping track of the budget, expenses, and royalties
Even if you and your co-author plan to publish traditionally, it’s a good idea to determine who will take the lead on tasks like agent research, maintaining a submissions spreadsheet, and writing a query letter.
Establishing Goals and Expectations
Any collaboration is bound to break down if both participants aren’t completely clear on what they’re trying to achieve and what they expect from one another.
Before digging into this massive project, get on the same page about:
- Your genre, subgenre, and target audience
- The tone of your book
- Where your book fits in the market
- What you want this book to do for your careers (e.g., make money, grow your readership, generate leads, fulfill you creatively, etc.)
- How and when you’ll communicate during the writing process
- The system for suggesting edits or discussing each other’s work
- Financial investment and budget
If you intend for this to be a one-time collaboration, discuss your individual responsibilities to the book going forward. How will you each promote this novel as part of your backlist?
Set Up a Schedule
Start with big picture deadlines. When do you want to have a first draft finished? How long should the revision process take? What about bringing in editors or a cover designer? What’s your target publication date?
From there, you can create individual deadlines for the smaller steps between each of those milestones.
Draw Up an Agreement
Finally, draw up a written agreement. Include details like:
- How each author will be credited
- Each person’s financial investment
- How profits will be divided and distributed
- Contingencies if one author decides to bail on the project (Is the other writer permitted to complete the book on their own? How will royalties and credit be handled in that situation?)
Address these issues in writing now and it’ll be much easier to navigate conflicts down the line.
How to Create With a Co-Author
You’ve worked out the deets and you’re ready to go. Now, how do you actually write with another person?
There are a lot of ways to tackle this, and if it’s your first co-authoring rodeo, flexibility is key. You may discover that some of your strategies don’t work, and if you do, adjust!
That said, here are a few tips to make the process run a little smoother.
Brainstorming as a Team
Writers have a lot of weird quirks when it comes to coming up with ideas. My brother is a lie-down-and-imagine kind of guy. I do my best thinking when I’m pacing or coloring. I also need structured visuals, like the Plot Grid. Others are into big, messy mind maps.
Make sure you both have space to think and create the way you need to. Be positive and curious to explore your partner’s ideas, even if your first reaction is that it’s not for you.
As you start to nail down your story, make a detailed outline to ensure you both understand what happens in each scene and why.
Writing as a Team
Different duos tackle the actual writing process in their own ways. Common approaches include:
- Trading off chapter by chapter
- Each person takes every section written from one character’s point of view
- One author outlines while the other handles the prose
- One person writes and the other edits
- Each person takes a specific act or series of story beats
If you’d like to take an absolutely absurd approach, my brother and I both write our own version of every scene when we’re working on a screenplay. We compare both iterations of a single scene, combine the best of them, and then write the next scene.
It takes more time on the front end but we end up with a pretty solid first draft. (We do not do this with novel writing, however.)
Revising as a Team
Even if your agreement establishes that one author gets final say on creative decisions (like if this is a special collaboration within that person’s series, for example), there should still be room for both writers to express their opinions.
As you discuss any changes, remember those objectives you laid out in the preparation stage. Consider which revisions best serve your story, target audience, and overall goal.
When you give feedback on something your partner has written, be clear and kind. Accept their feedback with openness and curiosity. And when it comes time to hire an editor (or editors), select that person together.
Achieving a Unified Writing Style, Voice, and Tone
One of the trickiest aspects of collaboration is making sure you and your co-author are writing in one tone with a unified voice and style.
It helps to establish what you’re going for before you start writing. Can you reference an author or book that has a similar writing style and use that as a guide?
As you start writing, make a point of communicating what works. If one of you is really nailing the humor or seems to be a whiz at building the atmosphere, observe it! Then you can both experiment with adding more of those successful elements or invite one another to sprinkle a little of your unique brand of magic into every scene.
Managing Co-Author Conflicts
You and your co-author are real human people, which means you’ll definitely butt heads from time to time. Let’s talk about how to navigate those moments of conflict.
How do you get past it when both you and your co-author are certain your creative vision is the correct creative vision?
First, be respectful of your partner’s opinion. Take time to hear them out and imagine it their way. Even if you don’t love this version, is there something in it that works? Something that might even improve upon your vision?
Don’t rush the conversation. Give each other—and yourselves—time to think through your opinions. Sometimes we feel strongly about our ideas without knowing why. My brother and I have had long-running debates that resolved abruptly when someone was suddenly able to articulate an exceptionally good reason for their position.
And when we’re really at an impasse, we have this rule that the person who seems the most fired up wins. We make the assumption that the passionate person has a good reason for losing their mind over this issue, even if they’re not articulating it very well.
No matter what, remember that you’re not chiseling this novel into marble. Sometimes the winner of the argument turns out to be wrong, and when their approach doesn’t work, do it the other way.
Just know that if you write with a sibling, there will be some light gloating.
What if you and your co-author run into conflicts as people? Maybe one person falls behind on their deadlines or has an irritatingly sarcastic way of delivering feedback.
Once again, it comes down to clear, respectful communication. Express your point of view with as much gentle transparency as possible. Try to understand their perspective. Consider whether adding certain boundaries or making requests might help.
How will you respond in the future if your co-author keeps missing deadlines? How can they deliver feedback in a way that makes you feel like you’re collaborating and not being mocked?
Above all, don’t let frustrations fester. If you have an issue with your co-author, bring it up calmly, gently, and long before irritation turns into resentment.
Tools and Resources for Writing Teams
There’s a lot of great technology out there designed to streamline the workflow of co-authors.
And definitely consider using a writing program that allows for real-time collaboration. It may not shock you to know that Dabble happens to be one of my favorite tools for this very purpose (I also use WriterDuet for screenwriting).
Dabble has lots of smart, intuitive features for planning, writing, revising, and formatting your novel. And with real-time collaboration, you and your co-author can work on the same project and see each other’s changes live. You can also use comments and sticky notes to communicate right inside your manuscript.
Successful Co-Authors Worth Knowing
As I said in the beginning, working with a co-author might be a little more complicated than going solo. But once you discover a collaborative writing process that works for you, the experience can be productive, creatively fulfilling, and possibly even lucrative.
Here are some famously successful partnerships:
Christina Lauren – Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings met online in Twilight fan fiction forums and joined forces to write romance under the pen name Christina Lauren. They’ve since published 29 books (and counting), several of which landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson - Robert Jordan knew he might not live long enough to complete his popular Wheel of Time series. His solution was to leave detailed notes for an unspecified co-author. In the end, it was Brandon Sanderson who took the job, writing three final volumes that were an absolute hit.
James Patterson and Everybody - Okay, “everybody” is an exaggeration, but James Patterson is famous for taking on a lot of co-authors. He supplies the story and hires someone else to do the actual writing. It’s a financial success for all involved—Patterson publishes more books under his name and his co-authors get a hefty paycheck and big visibility boost.
Get on the Same Page With Dabble
Think you want to take the plunge and co-author a book?
Remember that Dabble is here to make the creative process easier. Not only does real-time collaboration spare you the mess of constantly swapping files, Dabble’s planning features make it easy for you and your co-author to create a clear and specific vision for your novel.
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