collaboration Writing has been stuck in this terrible, romantic format of the lone writer. Writing is a social process. How many times have you heard people say I was commissioned to write a book or I wanted to write a book but never did? But if you shut people in a room for a week with seven other people with the same interests, they have a ball and they write a book.
Adam Hyde, founder of the FLOSS Manuals project

All of us write alone. But for some of us, there comes a time when we find the need to work on a writing project with someone else. Or several someones else.

Collaboration isn’t easy. But it can reap a number of benefits. You can get work out to market faster. You have someone or someones to whom you’re accountable, and that can help you do the work. Or you could just work with interesting people who will expand your writing horizons.

Regardless of why you collaborate, you need to remember that it can be exciting and useful. But it can also be difficult and frustrating.

Here’s some advice to help make a collaborative project run a bit more smoothly.

Pick the right collaborators

That’s easier said than done. You can’t simply enter into a partnership with just anyone. Having said that, there probably are one or two people in your circle who are potentially good collaborators.

What should you look for in a collaborator? Don’t look for someone who is the opposite of you. Look for someone with complementary skills and attitudes. Someone with similar interests to you helps. Also, try to find someone who has different writing strengths from you. Maybe that person is better at research and editing than you are. Or maybe they’re better at writing expository passages or doing interviews.

You’ll also want someone with a good blend of skills and experience. Finally, you’ll want to work with someone who’s enthusiastic and who won’t allow the rough patches to get them down too much.

Get a commitment

Not just from others, but from you too. There were a couple of times in which I was involved in a collaborative project. My partners were enthusiastic at first, but their enthusiasm faded when they were faced with the challenge of writing. I found myself doing the bulk of the work. That’s not a great situation to be in.

Make a pact or an informal contract. Make sure that everyone involved in the project commits to a reasonable number of hours each day or week. That could be two hours a day, or 15 hours a week. Anything more and you lose steam, and the project encroaches into other parts of your life.

Start with a plan

That means an outline. You need to spend some time at beginning of a collaborative project to develop list of chapters and topics.

Keep that list fluid. Chances are you’ll find yourself adding items to, and removing them from, the outline. That’s only natural.

From there, set either deadlines or target word counts. Or both. That will help you and your collaborators focus on the tasks at hand.

As with making a time commitment, you and your collaborators should commit to writing a certain number of words or completing a certain number of sections or chapters a week. Again, make that a realistic commitment. And don’t get angry if you don’t hit those targets.

Division of labour

This should be equitable, but challenging. And it should be based on the strengths and interests of each collaborator.

But don’t let anyone shy way from drudgery. Part of the reason that a couple of my attempts at collaboration failed was because my collaborators either weren’t challenged enough at certain points in the project or because they felt that certain basic work — such as editing or template design — wasn’t interesting and refused to do it.

You need to strike a balance between the two.

Pick your tools

While I usually say that the tool is not important, when collaborating the choice of tool does matter. Emailing word processor files around isn’t the way to go.

Instead, you need a tool that lets you:

  • Easily write and revise your work
  • Share what you’re writing
  • Track revisions
  • Add comments

There are a number of web-based tools that let you do that. I usually recommend Google Drive or Draft. Both tick all of the boxes I mentioned above.

If can’t wean yourself off using a desktop word processor, set up a free Dropbox account and make sure that everyone you’re collaborating with has access to the account. Remember to use a simple directory structure to manage and organize the project.

Keep track of your progress

Again, the right tool helps. When collaborating, I often use a Google Drive spreadsheet to keep track of everyone’s progress. Using that spreadsheet ensures that everyone can see where everyone else is in the project (yes, transparency is important!).

The spreadsheet I use has tabs for each collaborator. Each workbook in the spreadsheet contains the following information:

  • The title of the section or chapter you’re working on
  • The date on which you started working on it
  • The current status of your work
  • Who reviewed it
  • Who edited it
  • The date on which you finished writing
  • Any comments, either from you or from your collaborators

Here’s a template for that Google Drive spreadsheet. Feel free to use it.

Communication is key

That’s true whether you live across town from your collaborators or in different time zones. There are any number of ways in which you communicate: instant messaging, email, Skype, a Google+ Hangout, or over the phone.

You should communicate regularly: daily for status reports, and once a week for a longer discussion. That longer discussion doesn’t need to be just a progress review. You can use it to vent, discuss areas in which you’re having trouble, or just to brainstorm.

If you can, try to meet face to face at certain points in the project. Doing that can boost your energy and enthusiasm. Meeting in person is also a strong catalyst for creativity and can help make the work go faster.

Sprint to the finish

When you’re close to finishing a writing project, try to get everyone together in place for day or two. When you do, jump into doing what needs to be done based on the concept of a book sprint.

What’s a book sprint? Adam Hyde (again!) wrote a good description of books sprints and the book sprint process. You don’t need to follow the three to five day template. I’ve done one-day sprints that succeeded quite nicely.

During the sprint, don’t hesitate to work all out to finish writing, editing, proofreading, and packaging your project. At the end of it all, you’ll be amazed at what you have accomplished.

Thoughts? Let’s start a conversation on Twitter or Google+.

(A quick plug: If you’re interested in learning more about use tools like Google Drive or Draft to collaborate or just write solo, feel free to get in touch with me to learn more about my technology coaching services.)

Photo credit: robinsonma