We hear a lot about the benefits of collaboration in writing. I’m always banging on about how good it is to have regular writing partners.
But not all collaborations work out well. Things can go wrong. People don’t pull their weight. People don’t meet deadlines. They write really badly and it’s hard to sort through the problems without feelings being damaged. People won’t give up ideas, phrases, sentences, paragraphs because they are too attached to them. They are just not prepared to compromise in order to get the writing done. Every change seems to create a problem.
Any of the above can cause conflicts which, at worst, stay unresolved. The reality is that we can’t write with everyone.
The moral is that it is vital to choose writing partners well. This means being selective. It’s tempting to be overly grateful or flattered when someone asks to be our writing partner. It’s equally tempting to ask someone to join in when the writing assignment is difficult or overwhelming.
My regular writing partner, Barbara, remembers how, early in her career, she was invited to contribute a chapter to a high profile book and was simply terrified. She decided to ask a colleague to co-author since they had already done research together. It was a disaster. The person did not produce text on time or meet deadlines and only contributed when Barbara threatened to write as a sole author. Suddenly text appeared, but it was different in style, undigested in its conceptualization and not up to the job. It took twice as much work to massage the two sections together than if Barbara had done it all herself in the first place.One solution would be speed dating for potential writing partners. Imagine yourself sitting at a table with three minutes to interview a bevy of prospective writing partners. What do you think you would ask?
How quickly do you write? Have you ever not met a deadline? What will you do if we have a disagreement? How do you cope with criticism? Are you precious about your words? What do you think about alternating who is first author? What is your greatest weakness as a writer? What’s the worst thing I could do as your co-writer? Who are your favourite academic writers? Can you provide a reference from a previous co-author? Why and how did your last writing partnership end?
The politics of the academy may not allow us to say such things out loud, but the point is that whether we are choosing a writing partner for a one night stand, or for a long term relationship, the problems outlined earlier can lead to a painful separation. Thinking about potential difficulties in advance mightn’t be spontaneous and romantic, but could avoid unnecessary heartache.
Finding ways to have a conversation about co writing before embarking on a new venture with a new partner might be hard. But it also might be prudent.