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?


Other Resources



Is Co-authorship Worth It?

Perhaps this is a naïve blog post, but I’m curious to know how both readers and writers approach multi-authored novels. A co-authored novel is, as the name suggests, a novel with two authors (multi-authored would thus be greater than two). I’ve seen them in just about every genre. I’ve read a couple, too. They were generally laid-back, rather simple stories to begin with, but I’m not sure if that was due to co-authorship, genre, or just overall mediocre writing. I suppose there are two sides to this coin: from the writing perspective and from the reading perspective, so I’d like to delve into that here.

Writing a Collaborative Novel:


Image: Morguefile

It seems I really have more questions than answers when it comes to co-authorship. I’m a soloist for just about everything, so when I start considering the prospect of a collaborative writing project, I tend to focus on the future consequences rather than the immediate idea of the story. Admittedly, it makes me more than a little wary, and from the writing perspective, I fail to see how it works. Do two authors endeavor to take on certain characters? Do they individually write certain scenes and then combine them? Do they pass the manuscript back and forth and simply add to the ongoing, already existent writing? I suppose it would depend on the writers themselves—their individual writing style, their ability to combine their varying interpretations into one solid novel, and so on and so forth.

Personally, I would find it difficult to work with another writer on one novel. I don’t like deviation from my particular style, and I’ve yet to meet someone who writes similarly enough to mesh well with the way I approach my work. I am not much of a “group project” type person to begin with, and I’m often stubborn, especially when I have a direction in mind for a story. Plus, as stated above, I prefer to work alone—that way I don’t have to rely on the work ethic of the other writer, whether or not he/she will hold his/her own weight or vice versa (because I’m often lazy and like to procrastinate).

So what kind of discipline do co-authors have? What kind of work ethic and compatibility to be successful? And how much of the work load is equally divided? And most importantly, how do they make the differences in style flow?


Reading a Co-Authored Novel

I don’t have a plethora of experience with reading novels written by more than one author (unless you count academics, but that’s normal enough). I’ve read a couple co-authored YA novels that I thought were sub-par and a few others here and there in the past decade or so, but overall I can’t claim to know whether there is a noticeable difference when reading. Do the styles seem to flow? Can you tell who wrote which parts based on differences in the writing? Is one voice stronger than the other?

And, even more importantly, are people less likely to buy novels with two names on the cover? In this case, we’re relying on the storytelling power of two novelists rather than just one, and we’re banking on their ability to combine their individual strengths and weaknesses to ensure the best possible publication of their work. But that’s a lot to count on in today’s market. I’m not sure I’m biased against collaborative projects, but I think I would take a harder look at the novel before purchasing it.

What are your thoughts about collaborative work?


Some more reading about co-authoring:

Co-authoring: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Should You Write a Novel with a Coauthor?