Co-authoring: The good, the bad, and the ugly

One of the questions we have been asked frequently about our book is one we weren’t expecting: how did we write a book together? Who wrote what?

So we thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about the process of co-authoring for anyone who is considering writing with someone else, to discuss what we found works and doesn’t for us, especially given (warning: shameless self promotion) we’ve co-authored a book chapter on the importance of mothers in Harry Potter that has just been published.

And as always we welcome your thoughts!

* How did co-authoring happen?

RW: I can’t remember if we did the Harry Potter chapter or the book first, but it would have started with something like: hey, what do you think about working together on ABC? Kimberley might have a better memory than me.

KMC: I think we’d already started work on the Harry Potter chapter. And my memory of the initial “let’s write a book conversation” involved jetlagged versions of ourselves in a hotel room, with me pacing and writing lists and Roslyn looking at me as though she was trying to figure how to get past me to the door if emergency assistance was required. 😉

RW: No wonder I can’t remember, I’ve blocked it out of my mind. 🙂 When I was doing my PhD I couldn’t imagine co-authoring anything, since English is pretty much dominated by single-author research. It’s your research, your thinking, your publication. After being employed as a research assistant in health research, I became more familiar with teams of authors who research and write up their findings together, but I was certainly sceptical at first, especially when it comes to large teams. Despite some cases where people don’t actually meet authorship criteria in multi-authored papers, now I am much more positive about co-writing and my current publications are probably about a half and half mix of sole/co-authored work. However, my sole work is still mostly English and co-authored is mostly health, so I think the divisions remain to some extent.

* What are some of the advantages to co-authoring?

RW: Being able to blame the co-author for bad reviews (“yeah but she wrote the bad bits”). Just kidding! There are several good things about it. One is intellectual – you benefit from a different perspective/ background/ mind to help give some more depth to the analysis or to take it in unexpected directions. My co-authors in my publications add a lot to my research, they make me think better and work harder and give new directions to our research, and this is a fantastic benefit for which I’m very grateful.

Another advantage is practical – sharing the workload, another eye to pick up errors, someone else who can carry some weight when things don’t go according to plan, you can cover more ground with two or more people researching something.

A third is psychological – being able to commiserate when the world fails to grasp our particular brand of genius, and to celebrate when a miracle happens and somebody actually likes the work.

KMC: The practicalities, definitely. It helps if the co-author has strengths you don’t; and it makes you more accountable. A deadline you’ve set for yourself and a deadline where a friend and colleague is expecting to have something on which to work are two quite different things. I loved the idea of co-authoring because I found the world of book contracts etc daunting and Roslyn had been through it with her first book. Plus, I am someone who gets stuck at various points in the writing process, and sometimes I just want a second opinion on what I’ve done and where I’m headed. I’m needy like that. 🙂

* What are some of the disadvantages to co-authoring?

RW: Three things come to mind: again with a practical and an intellectual side. First, the practical stuff: tone and coherency. Getting tone consistent across the whole piece is really hard sometimes when you have co-authors. People write differently, sometimes really obviously so. Kimberley and I are fairly similar in our writing anyway, but even so I can tell which bits she writes because it doesn’t “sound like” me, and no doubt the same is true for her (my usual litmus test is that if it sounds smart, I didn’t write it).

KMC: Funny, that’s my litmus test, too!

RW: For my journal articles in health-related work, when I am lead author I really try to go through all the sections and rephrase some things to add a bit of gloss to make it all sound like a united team wrote it rather than individual styles coming through, but in some cases it doesn’t happen and it can sound disjointed.

Second, for coherency, when you split up sections between people (eg, this person does the Intro, that person writes the Methods, or Kimberley analyses that book, and I write about that TV show) you really have to work hard to try to make sure that there is an overarching argument coming across, that ties the whole work together and builds across the chapters. So you need to watch out for repetition, gaps, introducing the same theories or texts multiple times, and so on. Again, doesn’t always happen.

The third element is about the intellectual side. Researchers usually don’t agree about everything (sometimes about anything), so when you write with co-authors you might find them writing things you disagree with – it might be their interpretation of the data/ texts or their philosophy. They might be focused on something you don’t think warrants that focus. I think you have to learn to walk a line – ultimately your name is on it and you have to “own” that piece of writing and take responsibility for it. But you also have to compromise and accept that your co-authors have an equal right to their interpretations and you probably don’t agree with everything so you have to wear it. My only exception to this is when you’re the lead author, I think there’s an extra level of responsibility and if you really disagree with a co-author’s interpretation you need to discuss that to find some common ground.

KMC: I’ve also taken the view that the lead author has the final vote if there’s disagreement, to my own detriment in a very early attempt at co-authoring which saw me avoid it for many years. In contrast, working with Roslyn was easy, as we do share ways of thinking, research interests and style, to some degree.

I think probably our biggest “problem” was around quoting True Blood, because Roslyn was keen to keep the book PG. I am a bit of a sweary bear, however, and it’s a sweary show, so it was quite tricky to find quotations which were useful but then still have them make sense if you removed the worst of the profanity. I was worried it might end up looking like a redacted WWII telegram but the more practical half of the team reminded me that using asterisks in lieu of letters was an option. It’s still one of the more interesting issues we come up against, because sometimes I’ll attempt to clean something up but I’ll miss 27 other instances of the profanity in a chapter, because it just doesn’t register with me.

So our contentious issues were fairly minor and usually sorted out quickly. In the end, the ‘lead author decisions’ have been things like: we had a discussion about whether or not, at final proof stage, we cared enough about the fact that we’d used the word “witches” in a gendered way when talking about Harry Potter, but in a gender-neutral way when talking about True Blood and Roslyn said she didn’t mind either way (So I figured we’d stick with how it was; which followed the texts, more or less. We might change it if there’s both an audience outcry and a reprint. So if you want that change to happen, comment below. And buy the book. 🙂 )

* How did we actually do the writing?

RW: We didn’t sit down together and write it side by side. At all. This is what I think sometimes people assume happens with co-authors, that we set up a computer and sit down and type our shared thoughts. I have actually co-authored with some other people where we literally sit together and work on sections, but that is very rare.

No, for me, co-authoring is a case of splitting up chapters (for the book) or sections (for journal articles/ book chapters). For example, mostly the lead author of journal articles will assign the sections (if the co-authors agree of course) so that each person is responsible for writing the draft of the Methods, or the Introduction, or the Discussion, etc, and then the lead author incorporates those sections into a master document. Often the lead author writes points for each section on what they think could be covered, to help the co-authors and maintain that coherency.

For the book, Kimberley and I split up the chapters down the line and each wrote three chapters and emailed the drafts to each other. We wrote about half the introduction and conclusion each, which involved one person starting it and the other person continuing it (swapping it back and forth until it’s done, not a neat division of writing one half each). At some point I had the bright idea of a seventh chapter so I wrote a fair chunk of that and Kimberley added to it.

We then read each other’s chapters and commented, changed things, and sometimes added a paragraph or a section. We shared responsibility for editing, proofreading and indexing. As lead author, Kimberley took most of the responsibility for that side of things and did more of that kind of work.

KMC: I think this is the fascinating bit. As Roslyn says, we didn’t sit down and write together, but swapped back and forth. There were times, however, when I was feeling a bit isolated by the writing process and invited myself over to hers so that we could work on the book–which meant each of us sitting on a computer in the same room, largely doing out own thing, but which allowed for more immediate conversations about any tricky points and gave me a bit of a jolt.

I’m about to start a co-authored book with a colleague from work and her previous co-authored publication utilised the “sit down together and type it up together” strategy, so it’s going to be interesting to try to amalgamate the two styles. I actually think it has potential – allocated tasks but meet up one morning a fortnight or whatever to join forces — like a staff meeting! We’ll see how that goes.

RW: We should probably point out that this blog is an example of co-authoring in our usual style. One started (in this case me), the other continued, then a couple more interventions from both parties before publishing.

* How does author order get decided?

RW: This can be political in some cases where seniority or other power issues are at work. One idea is that the lead author has more reward because their name is first and they are seen as having the most stake in the project, so they also take more responsibility and more of the load. In some disciplines the most senior person might get the last author position because that position carries some kind of prestige, but that’s not the case in humanities.

There are fairly universal rules governing who can be named as author  and these are pretty much based on: everybody named as an author needs to have made a substantial contribution to interpreting the data, writing the article, and approving the article. In some cases this doesn’t happen in reality but it should always be the case, and you should never be named as an author unless you meet those criteria. We probably all know of cases where co-authors have done zero to contribute, but one hopes they are few. And that’s the bad and the ugly bits of co-authoring. Possibly it can end friendships or working relationships when people fail to contribute to co-authoring or something else happens, but that hasn’t happened for me.

Having said that, it’s tricky to decide the order, is it based on descending order of contribution, ie, author 1 did 40%, author 2 did 30%, author 4 did 25%, and author 5 did nothing much at all? Is it alphabetical? It’s a discussion that should be had, early. It should be transparent to all involved, and everyone (mostly) happy with it.

For our case, I think we would have each been happy for the other person to be lead, and I probably insisted it be Kimberley and that has worked out fine. (For me, anyway … Kimberley?)

KMC: I have mostly co-authored with people who are on a similar level of seniority, which helps with the politics: almost without exception, the division of labour, credit and royalties (where applicable) has been equal. For us, the lead author question has come back to “whose idea was it” – which is why our names are in a different order if you compare our chapter to the book – and does that person have the time and energy to take the lead? (the lead author is usually the corresponding author, so there are more emails to draft etc). This strategy sounds easier than it is, however, since we have a number of, “Hey, we should do [insert wild project idea here]” conversations and sometimes it’s hard to know at what point they became serious. In the book project and our upcoming project, yes, I would have been happy with either order of names and I think draft proposals with reverse orders were emailed about at various points. And so far, it’s working fine, yes.

*Would we do it again?

RW: What a coincidence … Yet more shameless self promotion but it just so happens we are currently working on another project we think is pretty exciting … details to follow (we hope).

And on that note, please feel free to add your thoughts and experiences for this business of co-writing – have you had good experiences writing with other people? Some challenges? Advice to share?

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