The surprise value in collaborating as writers

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

When I say there’s value in writers collaborating I DON’T mean “writing together” as Google suggests. I’m referring to a more generic type of collaborating — more like helping and supporting each other. 

My kids inducted me into the Nerdfighters club, curated and executed by best-selling author John Green and his brother Hank (pictured above). My triplets are now 20 and they did this about five years ago. But John and Hank are both awesome and entertaining enough that they’re forever protected from any sort of “follies-of-my-youth” status. (Unlike, say, readers of the Twilight series.)

If you haven’t heard of the Greens, rush out and buy John’s book The Fault in Our Stars, aimed at young adults but exquisitely calibrated for adult tastes as well. (It’s the story of young girl with cancer, and it’s sad, but it’s told with humour and without being the least bit saccharine.) You might also want to check out the Greens’ Vlog Brothers video channel. Or you might enjoy a recent New Yorker story on John.

Bottom line? I admire John immensely. He’s a talented, thoughtful writer and, an exceptionally engaging human being. And he’s damn funny, too. So when he talks, I listen. But here is a comment he made recently that puzzled me.

“Curiosity is not the most important human trait,” John said. “The urge to collaborate is…. We have the ability to cooperate, to make online communities and space telescopes and imaginariums and movies, so the great thrill of this whole experience is seeing humanity do what I think it’s best at, which is not competing, it’s cooperating.”

Because writers usually reside in their minds (a friend of mine describes it as listening to a bunch of mosquitoes buzzing around in her brain), and work alone at their keyboards, I initially wondered how collaborating could be the least bit relevant to writing. (Unless of course, you were a staff writer for a TV-show,  locked in a Hollywood writing room.)

But then I gave it some thought. Here’s why I think John is right about the value of collaboration:

  1. It gives us more raw material. Writing is isolating. If we don’t regularly step away from our desks, we won’t have enough to write about. Talking with friends, going to movies, taking walks in the park, living our lives informs our writing and gives it the richness and detail it needs.
  2. It gives us great reading ideas. Serious writers are always serious readers. One of the things I most enjoy about my friendships is getting book suggestions (and, sometimes, gifts) from people I love and respect. I learned about John Green from my children. My friend Eve gave me the marvellous book The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett last Christmas. My friend Greg, who knows I’m a rock-ribbed New Yorker fan, gave my husband and me a hardcover collection of its essays titled The 40s: The Story of a Decade, as a wedding anniversary gift.
  3. It allows us to exchange editing duties. I meet with a good friend once a week. She’s a talented writer and an insightful editor and I like to imagine I have similar skills. So, we exchange each other’s columns: She edits mine; I edit hers. This allows us to have a semi-professional edit at no cost to either of us. (Value? Priceless!)
  4. It improves our motivation. I know many of the writers who hire me for coaching discover the increased motivation to be the biggest payoff they get. Somehow, being responsible to someone else helps ensure we get the writing work done. Aside: You don’t even need to pay for this! Find a friend who’s willing to hold you accountable and arrange a regular meeting (Skype or phone is fine for this) during which you report in to each other.
  5. It allows us to connect with our readers. One of the great joys obsessions in my life is reading the comments you leave for me in my blog. I LOVE hearing from readers! It gives me a network of friends — that’s how I feel about you — around the world who always have something interesting and insightful to say about what I’ve written. I really appreciate hearing your views, even when you correct the mistakes I’ve made and especially when you don’t agree with me.

Here’s how I think it goes: Life is about collaboration. And writing is about life. They’re inextricably linked.

How do you collaborate with other writers? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by July 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the very useful book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.