A month ago, a park near me offered dogsled rides. Intrigued by the idea of being pulled along the snow by a team of huskies, I decided to check it out. As I stopped by the fence near the dog enclosure, I saw a team being harnessed by their trainer. Each dog was different. One little brown guy was hopping up and down, tail wagging and all legs straight, tongue lolling out. The lead dog was pointed nose-first, as though focused completely on a tree in the far distance. A smaller white dog was rolling in the snow, belly up. The grey dog right next to her was trying to stealthily eat the snow while side-eyeing everyone else.
Sometimes, collaborative writing can feel a little like that: all of us working together to get a project moving, but all of us with very different personalities. I admit it: I’m often the annoying brown dog jumping up and down in the harness, waiting for the course to start.
RTC uses the collaborative writing process because when used well, it brings the best of all talents to the table. The writer with a creative background in fiction. The whiz at outlining, structure, and logic. Journalists and nonfiction writers or marketers with an eye for business. A great researcher who can uncover the shiniest details of any story. And the editor who can reign in everyone’s flights of fancy and make the prose shine.
While we all want writing to go as smoothly as a sled gliding over snow, we all know there will be some obstacles along the way. Different personalities, various expectations, shifting timetables, and the inevitable surprises life tends to throw at us.
I don’t have all the answers, but here is what I do know: like any relationship, working with fellow writers in collaborative writing starts with respect and caring. One of the core values at RTC is love, so hopefully every interaction within a writing team starts with kindness and respect. Even when a team member feels overwhelmed or grumpy, sticking to the ideal of kindness and love makes a difference.
A productive writing relationship, like any healthy relationship, can be built with some good communication, right from the starting line. What are our schedules like? What preferences do we have for tools and what is the best way to reach each person? What does each individual enjoy best in the writing process? Sometimes the questions can get uncomfortable: what annoys you most in the writing process that I can avoid doing?
Beyond questions, communication means speaking up, which isn’t always easy among professionals known for being introverted. No matter how tough, though, it’s important to clear the air when resentment or miscommunication happens. Constructive debate or a good vent can become part of the process and even lead to better writing by clearing out any simmering bitterness.
Good collaborative writing groups I have been part of tend to work best when things get a little relaxed. Once roles get worked out and everyone has discussed preferences in writing, letting go can be a powerful force enabling everyone to do their best work. Maybe the editor takes a crack at writing or rewriting a part of a chapter. Or the team works together to try a whole new approach. The best collaborative writing groups feel like working with friends—weekly check-ins to brainstorm ideas and the freedom to let loose and take some creative risks, which provide the opportunity for some big payoffs. Sometimes, there are laughs, even in the face of deadlines.
In many ways, the RTC collaborative writing model runs counter to our cultural discussions of artists and writers as solitary geniuses, toiling in ivory towers. Franz Kafka once said, “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” There’s an element of performance to it all—the tortured artist writhing in the throes of agony to create. Is that really needed? Does that really help? Maybe those teams of dogs pulling in tandem in the snow are onto something. Maybe we can let go of the solitary writer stereotype once and for all and agree that writing can coexist with productivity and even joy. Especially when done in groups. Just as long as we all pull together.