Co-Writing 101: Competent Communication
"Honest communication is built on truth and integrity and on respect of the one for the other." - Benjamin E. Mays
We’ve been asked more times that we can count what the essentials of co-writing are. From the beginning, our first reply has always been “communication.” Even if you do nothing else, always, always communicate. It was almost an instinctive answer, as the word “communication” seems to wrap up co-writing in a nutshell.
But why is communication so important? Because cowriting with someone involves a relationship. Like all relationships, matters are apt to get sticky if unmet expectations, racing ahead, and confusion are allowed to run rampant. We learned quickly that the two of us, as individuals, had certain styles, strengths, and skills, as well as weaknesses and flaws that were all our own. We had to talk about both. We’re sure that there are a hundred different aspects of communication that we could share about, but we’ve boiled down the sticky mess to three essentials: respect, surrender, and mediums.
Respect is number one. There is a person on the other end of that blinking cursor. If respect for each other isn’t visibly present, the relationship between co-writers can be easily undermined. One lesson we learned from the very beginning of our writing relationship is that we will always have different ideas and opinions. Often, in writing, there is no “right” way to do something. You can both be right--or you can both be wrong. Degrading the other person’s ideas or style or flaunting your own above their head is no way to strengthen the relationship, nor does it motivate your co-writer to write. Keeping a healthy dose of humility on hand and being willing to lay down your own desires and opinions to make room for your co-writer’s can be tough, but it is equally rewarding.
To give a personal example, several months ago, the first draft of Mended was finished. While we let it sit, we decided to embark on the journey of Book Number Two in the series. For a few weeks, we sat and brainstormed, then slammed out the first few chapters. We even garnered alpha readers. Everything was fine and dandy. But then, as the pressure increased, I (Marit) slowly started to crumble. I was worried and discouraged about the plot, the characterization, and minor details that really shouldn’t have disturbed me. Finally, I decided that I just needed a break. I told Kirsten, and she honored that decision without hesitation. I was so thankful for that support and respect, and it certainly strengthened our relationship.
Surrender feeds off of respect. Here’s the ultimate question: which hill are you going to die on? How far will you let your pride determine your decisions? There are many times when we’ve had an idea that we had to give up in the end because it didn’t work for the overall story. Also, as co-writers, any decision that we make is a mutual one. At one point during the writing of Mended I had been reading a great deal of the Gospel of John. Not to be sacrilegious, but as I read all the mentions of the Father and Son, saying how everything They did was interconnected, I suddenly realized that Kirsten and I operated in a slightly similar manner. That just goes to show you how deeply my writing and faith are intertwined and ingrained in me! Jesus only did the will of His Father (John 6:38). For my part, I can only write what Kirsten agrees with. Whatever she says goes, and the same is true for her relationship with me. It is a constant surrender to the other person. This takes humility, and I can honestly say that I am a better person for having practiced it. Respect for Kirsten, and a surrender of myself, often leads to an outcome that is even better than I had originally planned.
Finally, the last thing that we recommend in a co-writing relationship is that you have a more than one way to contact each other. Choose more than one medium to make communication as open and easy as possible. We Skyped for hours to plot, edit, and simply give each other pep talks. Texting and phone calls also made up our communication, but we liked Skype the best because it offered us the opportunity to see one another. For the actual writing of the book, we used Google Docs to let us both write and edit on the same document. This let us pick up where the other person left off and always gave us both a current copy of our writing. There were no changes made that the other person would not be able to immediately see. It’s amazing what this did for our communication. We were informed and up-to-date. Everything was swift and easy. And if we ever had a sudden idea, a quick Skype message could let the other person know what we were thinking in just a moment.
Respect, surrender, and having reliable and easy-to-use mediums of communication all work together to help with the co-writing relationship. Each of them advances communication, and as we’ve found throughout the nine months of writing together, communication is essential. It is number one on the co-writing checklist. Being intentional about it will advance your skills, your relationship, and every project you decide to take on together. You’ll be amazed what a little communication can do.