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Two Heads: A Guide to Working Collaboratively

Two Heads: A Guide to Working Collaboratively

A good handshake is a must! (c) Yoel

Writing is usually viewed as a solitary pursuit, insofar as it is typically one writer slaving away in secret (or Starbucks depending on your preference). Yet, once in a while, we get the urge to join forces with others of our ilk and write collaboratively be it as a pair or part of a larger group.

Last week, Heather B. Costa of the, often hilarious, blog Trials of a wanna-be-published Writer (go over there and show her some love) asked me if I had any tips for writers wishing to collaborate. As a matter of fact, I do and this post was born.


The absolute minimum we require to work collaboratively are:

  • An idea (harder than it looks);
  • Something to write with/on; and
  • Some means of communication.

In the bygone days of yore (a period of history succeeded by the My dynasty), collaboration between writers was confined to face-to-face meetings, through letters or by telephone and was an arduous project.

But in this digital world we now find ourselves occupying, ideas and documents can be exchanged across the globe in the blink of an eye and the world of collaborative writing knows no bounds.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, there now exists some pretty good services and software that smooth the collaborative process, making it easier than ever to write as a team.

Online Notebooks

Most online notebooks now allow for and often include cloud storage and sharing of documents created within. Prime examples of these are Evernote and Microsoft OneNote which allow multiple users to update documents with the effects seen in real time.

Document Storage

Research materials, photographs and other imagery, and all the acquired material generated when working on a project require storage. Emails are okay but some limit the size of the document that can be sent. Dropbox, iCloud and other online storage sites allow for the creation of shared folders where this research (and even the manuscript) can be stored and viewed easily be all parties.


An essential part of the collaborative process is the need to communicate. If you happen to live in the same area, this isn’t an issue. Even international collaboration is possible these days through technology such as Skype, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts.


So you have the tools, you have an idea, you have a willing partner, now it’s time to get collaborating.

1. Brainstorm separately as well as together

While two heads may be better than one, sometimes one head needs to plot away on its own without distractions before the diamonds are unearthed. Produce your own little mindmaps before you start to discuss the joint one.

2. Outline extensively

Without a clear direction (or, at least, a subtle steer), projects can easily go off on a tangent and risk ending up on the scrap heap. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, sit down with your writing partner and bullet point the key events in each chapter/part. Keep this safe and return to it often, but remember that it is never fixed until the final draft is accepted.

3. Meet regularly

This is a bit of a no-brainer and yet we all get so wrapped up in our projects that we forget to talk to our writing partners. Set aside a regular time to meet and stick to it. Discuss the highs as well as the lows and use the time to iron out any plotting/writing issues that may have arisen.

4. Keep plenty of notes

A shared online tracker or even diary is almost as essential as an outline. When you encounter problems with a particular scene/character/etc. note it down in the diary. Likewise, note any changes needed to the manuscript and what resolutions have been found.

5. Plan for conflict

As much as we like our friends and colleagues, we’re only human (some of us have a certificate to prove it) and conflicts are inevitable. They could be minor disagreements over wording, differences of opinions about the last scene or the direction of the next one, or even major spats over rights and workload. Plan for these in advance. Decide between yourselves who gets the final say and stick to it. If you want to avoid that, nominate a trusted third party.

[N.B. consider what will happen to the project if one party decides to leave. Who will own the rights? Will the remaining partner be able to continue and complete the work?]

6. Reward yourselves

Working collaboratively isn’t easy and you should be proud of yourselves for your achievement. With that in mind, reward yourselves when you meet your goals. Even if that reward is taking a break from the project for a few days.

7. Patience. Patience. Patience.

This kind of goes with point 5 but many a writing friendship has been lost over an inability to not sweat the petty things.


Has anyone else had any success with working collaboratively? Do you have any tips to share/pitfalls to avoid?


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4 thoughts on “Two Heads: A Guide to Working Collaboratively

  1. I would add a strategy plan. For example how are you going to cut up the work? One write a specific character and trade off on chapters or??.

  2. Interesting, Chris. I know many, many writers, but can only name two or three I’d be interested in collaborating with. Still, I’ve seen it done and done successfully, so kudos to them. Thanks for this post.

  3. I can’t stress enough how important it is to decide rights up front. A great premise with a lot of outlining and work just sits on my shelf because we didn’t discuss that first.

    Collab can be a lot of fun. I’d recommend creating a new idea together as it can be hard to let go of your original vision sometimes.

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