Writers have varied reasons for working with a co-author. Perhaps you have a slam-dunk idea for a self-help volume but lack experience with the topic. Maybe your friend or acquaintance has a stellar story but little to no writing chops. Or perhaps you just work better in a team.
In the last decade, I’ve published four solo books and four with three different partners. It’s been an enjoyable ride, and I’ve found many benefits to writing as a duo. I don’t have to shoulder the load of creating, editing, and promoting the book alone. Often, another set of eyes makes the finished product much better, contributing further creativity and depth to the work.
Pam Farrell has worked with a co-author on many of her 45 titles. She notes, “Books that are co-authored bring each author’s sphere of influence into the circle when launch time comes. It could also mean a varied platform, since one of you might be terrific at Instagram while the other rocks Facebook. One might have a radio show or podcast, while the other has a powerful online video presence. A co-author might also have a reach into an audience you don’t have.”
However, there are also downsides to working with a partner. Personality clashes, differences in working styles, and busy schedules can wreak havoc on even the best of relationships. You could become derailed from your own projects or hit a snag in finishing (or publishing) the book. From my experience, and the experiences of others, I highly recommend asking yourself these five questions before you agree to co-write a book.
How well do you know your potential co-author?
The writing process, from initial concept to publication and marketing, can last several years. Therefore, it’s vital to go into the relationship with your eyes open. Though it might seem like overkill at first, try to perform “due diligence” about the person with whom you wish to write.
Pro tip: “Date” your writing partner for a few weeks or months, via online, phone, or in-person conversations. Once you are more comfortable with each other, ask for work references – and offer your own. Assess your different personalities, perhaps even taking an online personality test. Will you clash or complement each other during the writing assignment? (My husband and I recently wrote a book together, so we skipped this step. However, we also had been married 20 years, which helped with communication and problem solving.)
What size are your egos?
Does your partner seem teachable? How open is he/she to critique? If he or she is too sensitive, it could lead to problems during the editing process. Pay attention to clues from your potential co-writer.
Pro tip: Listen to the conversations you have together, especially as you discuss writing and editing. Does the person focus more on what he or she has accomplished or how he or she has been helped along the way? Does he/she seem open to learning new things? Although you can’t know everything about someone before you work with them, it’s best to trust your instincts. If a potential co-writer seems overbearing or insecure, beware! You don’t want to become a counselor or spend energy defending your ideas.
How will you divide the work?
If one of you is more experienced than the other, the more advanced writer should take the lead. It’s very difficult to divide the work completely in half, but at least honestly discuss strengths and weaknesses. Early in the process of writing a book with my friend Tina, it became clear that she excelled at storytelling, while I could make our separate styles come together seamlessly by editing the work.
Pro tip: Try out the writing relationship before getting too far down the road. Once you’ve discussed an overall concept, each of you could craft a query letter that serves as a pitch for your project. During the honing process for the letter, you might discover a natural ebb-and-flow to the creative process. Or you might see some red flags, in which case you can decide whether or not to pursue writing as a team.
Being part of a writing duo was rewarding for author Charity Singleton Craig. She co-authored On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts with her friend and colleague Ann Kroeker. Craig explains, “One thing we learned was the importance of dividing the work between us rather than doubling the work. To the extent co-authors can share the load, these relationships are fun and effective. It was great to have someone else to walk through the entire process with, especially in the final promotion and marketing phases.”
What are non-negotiables for you?
As the sage Kenny Rogers sings in “The Gambler,” you need to know when to walk away and when to RUN. Two different times, I’ve stepped away from co-writing projects I had once been excited about. Why? In one case, the workload was not fairly divided from the start, and we couldn’t agree on an equitable solution. In the second, I had fair questions the other writer was not willing to answer.
Pro tip: Ask yourself: What can I live with? What can I not live with? My writing partners have to be secure enough to both receive criticism and give advice. People you partner with should be far enough along in the writing journey that they’ve invested time, talent and resources in the craft. In addition, the person should respect that my family comes first, not my career. (I have a good agent who handles money matters, and he’s been a wonderful gatekeeper and support for me as well.)
Connie Wetzell, who co-wrote The You Plan with Michelle Borquez Thornton, advises, “Choose someone not like you. Another fun part of working together is that I learned so much from hearing my co-author’s story. Work out all the important details before writing together. Be on the same page, and you won’t have any problems.”
How badly do you want this?
Both authors have to be “all in” for a project to take flight. Both also have to be willing to compromise on some things. Talk about how much money and time you’re willing to invest in the book. Will you split the cost of attending writing conferences and networking events? How much time can each of you spend on building a solid marketing plan? What if you can’t get an agent or publisher – are you both prepared to self-publish the work?
Pro tip: Cut potential problems off at the pass. Before you ever begin the writing project, think about who will receive the first credit on the book cover or article. (Someone has to be first). Talk about marketing and promotion, speaking engagements, and networking.
If you keep the lines of communication open, problems can be resolved. Deb DeArmond, who wrote Don’t Go to Bed Angry: Stay Up and Fight with her husband, Ron, offers this advice: “Set regular times to discuss, imagine, review, and edit together. Create a schedule to help establish a routine and allow each party to protect time on the calendar. Meeting in person is best, but if you’re writing remotely, try Skype or one of the other online meeting sites. Zoom is great – and it’s free.”
Does co-writing sound time-consuming? It is. However, all the hours spent together pay off in non-business ways. One of the unexpected highlights of the books I’ve co-authored has been the development of authentic, deep friendships with kindred spirits.
Michelle Medlock Adams, author of Love and Care for the One and Only You and 70 other books, agrees. “I only co-author with people I really like, so our ‘work time’ is always full of laughter, fun, and usually chocolate,” she says. “That’s the real benefit of co-authoring – sharing the writing journey with a good friend and celebrating all that comes from the venture.”
Yes, co-writing has its challenges, but the benefits of writing with a partner far outweigh them.
One last piece of advice: Don’t forget to enjoy the journey.
Dena Dyer is the award-winning author or co-author of eight books and a contributor to dozens more. She co-wrote her newest release, Love at First Fight: 52 Story-Based Meditations for Married Couples (Barbour), with her husband, Carey.
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