Monday, 26 October 2020

How to stay friends with your writing partner/s

In the last 12 months I’ve been part of two different writing collaborations. In the first, I’ve been the ghost-writer, pulling together the words to tell fantasy/sci-fi stories created by a pair of lifelong friends. In the second, I’ve been a co-collaborator, co-creator, and co-writer with another children’s writer, creating a series of junior readers for the general market.

While they’ve been completely different collaborations, both have been fantastic to be part of. Previously, I fulfilled the old, romantic stereotype of being the writer who worked alone in his/her garret (my desk was in a laundry for a while). Solo writing has its benefits, but self-motivation can become burdensome, and there is a certain amount of heartache that comes with loneliness. In contrast, working collaboratively can be a real blessing… if it’s done well.

Here are some tips that can ensure your collaboration gets off—and stays off to a good start.

Be on the same page

Right from the outset in both collaborations, my teams been very clear what the goals of the projects are and who the audience for the work is. 

It’s worth having frank discussions with your team at the beginning about what you’re all hoping for, what you’ll be contributing, what priority you’re putting on it and the processes for writing and production. 

It’s important to lay boundaries around the project, particularly in terms of finances and time. What would your exit strategies be? Is there a point at which you’d both say ‘this isn’t working’? 

Even in a small collaboration, it’s worth drawing up contracts or memoranda of understanding about your expectations of each other. Sadly, it's well known for the best of friends to have fallings out, particularly if there is money involved.

Know and value your gifts and skills, and your partner’s gifts and skills

In my fantasy/sci-fi collab, I’m the wordsmith. That’s why I’m in the team, and that’s what I get to contribute. The guys can suggest ways of putting things to me, but in the end, I’m the one who has the control over the words and phrases. On the other hand, they are the ones who direct the plot, the settings, and the action. 

They’ve given me a bit of leeway with adding character depth, and if I think the story isn’t working well, I’m welcome to speak up. But basically, I’m the writer and they are the creators. It’s their story—in my words.

In the junior reader collab, both of us are writers. We have different styles and voices, so we work together to blend into a combined style. I think she’s a better writer than me. She has unlimited clever ideas as well as an excellent sense for story structure and tension and she pays more attention to detail. She’s great when it comes to working with our very talented illustrator and audiobook narrator. Also, (an indispensable talent!) she keeps excellent administrative records. 

What I bring to the team however, is speed, the ability to get stuff done and stay out of the circular trap of chasing perfection, and proof-reading skills. Also, I’m good at wrangling websites and building sales systems. The reason our team works so well is because we know each of us contributes something unique and excellent.

I think you'll agree that our illustrator has added huge value to our junior reader collaboration.

Ditch the ego

There’s no room in a good collaboration for my ego—or yours. Our feelings and pride must come second to the goals of the group. Even my greatest piece of literary prose needs editing. If it doesn’t serve the story or the goals of the collaboration, it should get scrapped. Being able to take editing and criticism with a happy heart is possibly even more important in a team than on your own as a solo writer.

Find a good workflow

This often takes time to set up. In both collaborations, it’s been a case of trial and error to figure out a system that is efficient and streamlined, so we can get the work out there. It’s not smart to be making last minute, panicky changes!

Allow for mistakes

Collaborators aren’t perfect. I include myself in this. I have made plenty of errors in both collaborations and have been blessed by the graciousness of my teammates in overlooking or working through them. Mistakes are a great opportunity to examine what went wrong and straighten things up so it won’t happen again.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Starting out with frank and robust communication is going to serve your collaboration well. I don’t usually like to disagree with people, but there have been times when I’ve needed to say, ‘No, I think that needs changing,’ or something similar. Being up front all the way through eliminates guesswork. And if you’re honest with genuine regard for the other person, you should be able to get through the project without harbouring resentment or bitterness—and have a fantastic collaborative relationship.

Cecily Paterson is a YA and children’s writer. Her new collaboration with Penny Reeve is a junior reader series, 'Pet Sitters', under the pen name Ella Shine with illustrations by Lisa Flanagan. The stories feature best friends, a grumpy talking cat and a variety of... well, interesting animals. 

Sign up here to read the first story in the series and hear more about the series.


  1. Thanks Cecily for your excellent, heartfelt insights. Your comment that "Solo writing has its benefits, but self-motivation can become burdensome, and there is a certain amount of heartache that comes with loneliness" rang a little too true for me today, especially as the conditions of 2020 have limited regular face to face contact with my beautiful Quirky Quill sisters. Though we haven't engaged in a specific collaborative writing project as yet, some of those get-togethers when we all wrote to a specific prompt or topic and then shared our responses added a special level of engagement and camaraderie that I've sorely missed of late. We have mooted the idea of a collaborative project in the past. I suspect your advice will be most helpful if we ever boot our moot into action.

    I also love the way you acknowledge how your talent with words and phrases is 'the thing you bring' to one collaborative project. I find with the students I tutor, that combining advice on writing technique with a few helpful word suggestions couched as "Are you familiar with the word '?'... No? ... let's look at the meaning ... Oh, that's perfect" can help them convert their own good ideas into a great piece of writing and with that, the lights go on and their enthusiasm for writing grows.

  2. A really interesting read, Cecily, with lots of great, practical advice--thank you. I honour you and all those involved in your collaborative writing efforts--I think you're very brave, as that's something that would challenge me!

    1. I'm sure you would do a great job at it if you found the right people to work with, Joanne

  3. Covid has definitely made it hard to meet up with people. Hopefully soon! And maybe you should boot your moot into action! (: