How can you collaborate with other writers and authors? And what should you know before you decide to write an article, essay, or book with someone else?
This week's interview is all about collaborative writing, and I caught up with two authors from Nebraska, Becky Breed, and Lucy Adkins, to discuss the process. They are collaborative authors who have known each other for over 20 years.
Collaborative writing involves embarking on a creative project, whether big like a book or small like an essay, and writing everything from the first to final draft together. You will both work through the topic, ideas, and edits and decide what the final piece looks like.
This seems a challenging process to me, but many authors have great success with collaborative writing projects.
In this episode, we discuss:
Becky: Lucy saw all my pieces and looked carefully at them. I saw all her pieces and also looked carefully at them. And so we bonded not only around the writing that we both did, but also accepting that feedback is very important. And so to be a true collaborative writer, you have to be willing to accept and recognize how important feedback is.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: How can you collaborate with other writers and authors? And what should you know before you decide to write an article, an essay, or even a book with someone else? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. This week’s interview is all about collaborative writing and I caught up with two authors from Nebraska, Becky Breed and Lucy Adkins. They’re collaborative authors who have known each other for some 20 plus years.
Now, I don’t have a huge amount of experience with collaborative writing. My experience with collaborative writing boil down to when I worked as a freelance writer, I would send my article off to an editor, he or she will provide feedback, usually negative, and I’d have to go away and fix it and then send the article back. These days, my experiences with freelance writers are kind of flipped. Sometimes, I’ll commission freelance writers to write articles for Become a Writer Today and then I’ll edit them, try and provide some helpful constructive feedback, and then I’ll publish the articles. But that’s not really what collaborative writing is, that’s just the standard freelance writing process. Collaborative writing actually involves embarking on a big creative project, like a book, or a smaller creative project, like an essay, and writing everything from the first draft to the final draft with another author or writer. In other words, you’re both gonna come up with the topic, work on the first draft, work through the ideas, work through the edits, and then decide what the final piece looks like.
A few years ago, I was in a creative writing workshop and some of the other writers in the workshop did collaborate on a series of personal essays together. But to be honest, the whole thing put me off because I felt like collaborative writing will be really difficult. To be honest, writing is hard enough as it is without working with someone else and also without factoring in the amount of time it would take to agree on what an article or an essay or a book should say with someone else. But perhaps I’m mistaken, because lots of authors and writers have had great success with collaborative writing. It gives you that support that you need if you’re at the start of your writing journey. And also writing can be a little bit lonely so collaborative writing is a good way of working with someone else on a project that you can’t really talk to anyone else about until it’s out into the world.
So, in this week’s interview with Becky and Lucy, I asked them all about how they started collaborating on their books together. They offered some great tips and practical insights for any listener who’s interested in collaborative writing. The big takeaway for me was to look inside your immediate circle and your creative circle and see if there’s somebody who’s got a similar worldview or who’s interested in a similar genre to you, because perhaps you could pick one small creative project that you could work on together. In other words, collaborative writing doesn’t mean that you need to spend months or years writing one book. You could collaborate on something much smaller. And the other advantage of collaborative writing according to Lucy and Becky is that you could both hold each other to account and that you could also both encourage each other when the writing process gets a little bit more difficult. So I hope you enjoyed this interview with Becky and Lucy. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes store. You can also reach out to me if you got feedback about the interview on Twitter, at @bryanjcollins, and if you did enjoy the interview, please also consider sharing the show with a friend or another writer on Spotify or Stitcher or Overcast or wherever you’re listening.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Becky.
Becky: Thank you so much, and thank you, Bryan, for having us.
Bryan: And, Lucy, welcome as well.
Lucy: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Bryan: So, I was excited to talk to you both because you’re doing something that I don’t have much experience with but I know a lot of writers find beneficial, which is collaborating with other writers on a book. So I wanted to ask you all about how collaborative writing works and if you have any tips about what to do or what not to do. But before we get into that, I’ll start with you, Becky, could you tell me a little bit about your writing journey?
Becky: I will, Bryan. It’s been kinda convoluted. I started very young writing poetry and loved the process and wanted to continue and then I got a little busy with education and getting my degree but I was still writing some, particularly writing some short stories and essays at that point and then I got serious about writing poetry when I was in my early to mid-30s. And it’s been just a wonderful, exciting journey ever since. Still writing poetry, writing short stories. I’m writing essays. It’s a trip of a lifetime. We think the creative process is absolutely so fun and magical.
Bryan: What about you, Lucy? How did you get started writing?
Lucy: Like Becky, I also wrote as a child, lots of poetry. I wrote a 100-page novel when I was in the fourth grade. I went to high school and college and was busy with my life. Writing was on the backburner. And it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I began to become what I consider serious about writing. We had been away from Nebraska for 10 years and, on coming back, I started reading some of the Nebraska poets and got excited about writing. And one day, my husband, let me say, is a musician and one day, he was working on some music and he said, “Lucy, this is a wonderful melody, but the words, they’re terrible.” He said, “You are good with words, why don’t you come up with new words to this?” and so, between the two of us, we ended up writing a song and I got involved with the magic of writing again and began writing poetry. I learned about a group. I felt that there were places I needed to go to improve what I was writing and I found a group, became very active in this group, eventually started getting serious about writing poetry and expanded to fiction, nonfiction, and have been writing ever since.
Bryan: Yeah, Lucy, when I was reading your bio, I saw that you’ve published in several journals and anthologies but what caught my attention the most is that you are the leader of a generative writing group. So, it’s not a concept I’m familiar with in Ireland, although I have been in some writing workshops. Could you describe for me what generative writing is? Because I understand that’s how you met Becky.
Lucy: Yes. Generative writing — first of all, let me say that a generative writing group is a group that comes together with the express purpose of generating new writing. It’s not a critique group, although I do belong to critique groups, I value them. It is a group in which you go to the group and you leave with a piece of writing. The way it works in our group, we had about nine people, nine, ten people in our group, we would get together and as the leader of the group, first of all, we would talk a little bit, get some words in the air. I would have a prompt to provide and it often started with reading a poem or a piece of prose that I admired, just letting those words be in the air and then I would present a writing exercise. For instance, if we were going to be talking about the first of a person’s life, I would ask everybody to just make the list of some of the firsts in their lives, such as the first kiss, the first time they drove a car, the first time they heard their parents arguing, something like this, and then I would present a line to start with, a starter phrase, something like, “The first time I…,” and then just let the writer go on from there to see whatever would bubble up into their consciousness and encourage them to write. There were — we usually allot about 20 minutes to write. Everything was quiet in the group except for the scratching of pens. And when the time was up, we would share our writing. We didn’t absolutely demand that a person would share. Sometimes something would be too personal or, for whatever reason, they would not feel like sharing, although it was encouraged. And, generally, people did want to share what they had written. And when they did, what we found out was that absolutely amazing things happen. People wrote as they had never written before. Sometimes, people would get tears in their eyes, saying, “I haven’t thought of that for so long,” and they would be surprised at what they had written. And it was often very good. Then we would have the feedback in which people would, in the group, would be allowed to say what they heard in the others’ writing, what they heard that was honest and true and sparkling and created images in the mind. We allowed only positive feedback at that point because what had just been — because it had just been written, this was like a new baby born, just a baby piece of writing born into the world. And, oftentimes, writers do not recognize the worth, the value, what is good in their own writing. So, that is what we did and people wrote wonderful things. People that had not been published before went on to become published with pieces that they started in the group. I’m a definite true believer in generative writing.
Bryan: Sounds similar to the writing exercises that I used to do in a writing workshop I was in. It was hosted by an instructor from Texas but he had like a similar piece of advice. When we were critiquing somebody else’s piece that they would have worked on prior to the class, we had to say something good, then we had to say something we thought that the writer could improve on, and then we had to finish on something good again and the writer wasn’t allowed to comment because the instructor advised that when you’re reading a piece, you don’t have the writer whispering in your ear, “This is what I meant by this sentence or by this scene.” Becky, I was curious about collaborative writing. So I know you and Lucy met in the generative writing workshop. At what point did you start collaborating on creative projects?
Becky: Very, very early, Bryan. We were so impressed with the writers in our group and how they were so confident and brave and told stories that inspired us. And time and time again, they would write these beautiful pieces of writing. And one night, I had this dream, and this is how important I think dreams are to really consider, that we would use some of the pieces from the participants in our writing group and some of the poetry, some of the short stories, and create a book talking about the process, collaboration, and the generative writing and really help people think themselves in new ways about how important it is to have a group or just another person to give that energy and kind of new life to. We found out that hearing other people’s stories, they were inspiring not only for Lucy and me but for everyone in the group. And so our first book writing community came out of a dream I had. I came to the group the following week and I said, “I think this is what we need to do. We need to write a book. Lucy and I will write the chapters and then we’ll use selected pieces from participants in the group.” And it was very, very collaborative. It inspired new ideas and it was a lot of fun to be able to highlight the great writing that had been done for several years in our group.
Bryan: So I’ll probably ask you about this question but I’ll start with you, Lucy. How does the collaborative writing process work? Because in my mind, and you can correct me in a moment if I’m wrong, if I was collaborating with somebody, I would write a first draft of the chapter and I would send it to them and then they would send me back feedback or perhaps they’d fill in some of the missing sections. Could you describe how it works, Lucy?
Lucy: Sure. Let me speak specifically of our second book, The Fire Inside, and how the collaboration worked with that particular book. That book consists of 120 small essays or meditations, as we like to call them. And ahead of time, we decided upon who was going to write what particular meditation, whether it be about the fire inside, whether it be about mentors or different types of creativity. So we each decided that we were going to work on a particular essay and then we would meet, let’s say, the next week later, two weeks later, and we would exchange the essays, as you mentioned, and each of us then would have input on the other’s piece of writing. Sometimes, there were disagreements. Sometimes, there were places where we needed to broaden the scope of what we were writing about. We would have suggestions such as, “This needs a particular story or illustration to prove this point.” And so with each of us providing feedback to the other, we came to an agreement, sometimes it was a compromise, but we came to an agreement as to what was going to be in that particular essay. We made each other’s essays better than they were to start with. So that’s how it happened week after week until we were able to complete the book.
Bryan: Becky, when you think of collaborative writing and if somebody came to you and said that they wanted to start collaborating with a friend or another writer, what would you say to them to help them get started?
Becky: That’s a good question, Bryan. I would say that it’s worth it. I think many times we shy away from that because of possible concerns we carry about, “What if we don’t agree?” or, “What if our styles are different?” “What if we write something that really doesn’t sing to us?” And so what we learned was, as Lucy pointed out, we were better writers. Our pieces in The Fire Inside are improved because of each other really being mini editors to the other person. Lucy saw all my pieces and looked carefully at them. I saw all her pieces and also looked carefully at them. And so we bonded not only around the writing that we both did but also accepting that feedback is very important. And so to be a true collaborative writer, you have to be willing to accept and recognize how important feedback is. Without that, I believe it would be very hard to do collaborative writing. Because if we want to continue solo, just looking at our own pieces, refining and editing our own pieces, I don’t think it would get us to the point where we could really say we’re collaborative writers and Lucy and I, lots of trial and error, lots of trust. I trust her and respect her as a writer. I believe she would say that about me. And so it really is a great process. Maybe it’s not for everyone, because we certainly, both of us, I must say, we write separately also. We write together and we write separately. Both of those pathways are certainly acceptable and we’re celebrating, but to be a collaborative writer, just thinking about how I can improve my own practice, my own skill, and I have become a better writer as a result. There’s something about writing with another person collaboratively, Bryan, that a spark of hers leads almost through these synapses to a spark of mine and what maybe was just an okay meditation or essay, we were able to bring, I believe, our best, our very best to each of the 120 essays because of how much we cared about not only the process, because the process is really, really the most important, I think, but also ultimately the product. And so that spark gave us an opportunity to look inside, to sometimes humble ourselves about, “That line doesn’t work, I’ll take it out,” and then what was a result was really, I think, the best that either one of us could do. And so there was a lot of tugging but there was so much beauty and love that was created, love between us, that I really support the idea of collaborative writing because it takes you — it can take you to a really different place, a place of knowing yourself, first of all, always, one must know themselves to write. But also, it gives permission to expand your world to see all kinds of love and beauty and perhaps new truths about how you stand in it. Ultimately, what is important to you, and that’s what gets on the page, what matters.
Bryan: Becky, when it comes to writing the manuscript that you send to Lucy, are you writing that in Microsoft Word or Google Docs or some other tool? And how do you get the feedback back from Lucy?
Becky: Yes, thank you. Well, I initially started, I’m old school, Bryan, I start with a yellow tablet and so I always do the first draft or the first several on the yellow tablet and edit it, make it absolutely as good as I can. And then Lucy would see it. And so she would have fresh eyes, what we call fresh eyes. I love that term because it’s so important in collaborative writing to have fresh eyes. And I would send it to her on Microsoft Word and then we would meet. We had perhaps 75 to 100 sessions over the years, many, many, many face-to-face opportunities, so when she’s giving feedback, she’s written out comments, questions she may have. I did the same with her pieces. And so it’s very rich. It’s an opportunity to really hear about your piece with somebody else reading it with fresh eyes. And it can be very powerful. It can really help you, you know, dig deeper and see new insights. So that was the process, writing individually our essay or meditation, putting it on Microsoft Word, sending it off to Lucy, and she would do the same, and then I think for us, and some people can’t meet, we’re both in Lincoln, Nebraska, that that coming together really made it so solid, so enriching that I could hear and see her face when she talked about questions she had about my writing.
Bryan: Lucy, how do you manage when a question comes up about the manuscript and you both have kind of different creative opinions about what way to resolve the question?
Lucy: That also is a very good question. And, of course, differences did occur, differences in regards to content. Also, differences as regards to style. We even had differences in regards to semicolons versus commas, that sort of thing. But the way we resolved it was to each of us just think very seriously trying to consider it from the other person’s perspective, pointing out why we believed what we had our particular viewpoint should have the upper hand, but then sometimes just realizing that, “Wait a minute, I didn’t think of that particular angle before. I need to broaden my perspective,” so, basically, just an honest discussion of the material and, nine times out of ten, we were able to resolve that to the other’s satisfaction. If there were issues that — well, I don’t think we ever had anything that we couldn’t absolutely overcome. We sometimes did have to compromise and allow different perspectives and that would be reflected in a particular essay. But, usually, we were able to discuss it and decide, yes, this viewpoint needed to be heard. And perhaps it was just a matter of emphasis, sometimes, as far as content was concerned. So it was a matter of communication and listening to other’s viewpoints and coming to a decision, which sometimes involved compromise.
Bryan: Becky, do you think collaborative writing is faster or slower than writing by yourself? And the reason I ask that question is, I suppose one thing that put me off on collaborative writing is that sometimes I feel I could write the piece a bit faster by myself but I’d be interested to get your take on it.
Becky: Probably collaborative writing, at least in our situation, I can’t speak to others, was slower in some ways, because of those final steps of refining and editing, Bryan. We wrote our pieces by ourselves and came up with what we felt was an appropriate essay for that chapter, the chapters all have a theme, and so we would write a piece that we believed would fit that theme. And so that part of it, depending on how quickly one writes and after refining and editing, it does take some time. Our pieces run between 500 to 700 words, each one of them. We kept them small, Bryan, so people — the busy mom or dad can just pick up the book and read it. But the collaborative writing, because I think there is more refinement, there is more of an opportunity to really dig deeper, I just think it’s such a strong way and it may not be preferred for everyone but I really recommend that one writes with someone else collaboratively because there’s just always an opportunity to hear and see something that you didn’t think about in your writing. And it’s richer. It’s not necessarily faster. If we’re after fast, I don’t know if that would always be true, at least for our experience. But if you’re after the very best writing, the richer experience, opportunity to really look inside your own story making, right? We’re all about meaning making, and collaborative writing gives you an opportunity to look at, “What did come up for you? What is the meaning for me?” I’m hearing what Lucy saying. And sometimes you wanna hold on to your own meaning, right? When you write collaboratively that this is so important to me. Many times, though, I heard what Lucy said and that meaning making was really expanded because of the words she recommended that be included and certainly another point of view or perspective. So I can’t say it’s necessarily faster but I think, for us, at least, the outcome was richer, deeper, just more substance to really examine when you read these essays.
Bryan: Lucy, if somebody’s listening to this interview and they’re thinking, “I’m ready to try collaborative writing,” what tips would you offer so that they could find another writer or author to collaborate with? What makes a good writing partner?
Lucy: That’s interesting to think about. And I’m just gonna say something about the type of material that you might want to collaborate on. What Becky and I are collaborating on is nonfiction and it lends itself to that type of collaborative writing. I’ve never done any collaborative writing in regards to poetry, except perhaps in a classroom type situation, or fiction writing, but never say never. But right now, at least for Becky and I, we believe in the collaborative writing as regards to this particular subject matter that we are writing on. So, first of all, in response to your question, you want a person that is also as passionate about the particular field of interest that you want to write about, so you want that passion. You want someone that that has an open mind, as Becky has an open mind, and is willing to listen to other points of view and to consider them seriously. You want something who, like you, both of us would need to check our egos at the door in order to be able to collaborate with someone. And then you would want someone who is willing to be accountable to the other. That’s another great benefit of being a collaborative writer. You talked earlier about whether it was quicker or slower to write collaboratively and while the process, as Becky has said, of refining slows things down, on the other hand, if you are accountable to another person, you need to get your assignment done, your essay written by the time you are going to meet next. So, accountability in another person is also very important. So I think those are the main points that you need to look for in a person that you want to collaborate with.
Bryan: It sounds like I could look in my local writing group or I could look to other people I know who like to write and consider if we’re writing about the same topics or the same genre or same subject matter and maybe pick a small piece to work together on. Would that be a good place to start?
Lucy: Absolutely, absolutely. People that you already know and have a good feeling about, that you are friendly toward, as I said, that are passionate about the same subject that you are. It’s nice to be able to share some of the same values. On the other hand, you want someone also who is going to question you, to enable you to be your best and to say, “Wait a minute, consider this, again, is this really what you want to say?” So, you want someone who is not going to be just agreeing with everything you write, “Oh, this is wonderful,” but you do want someone who can question you. So, yes, you’re right. Go to your writing group and look there. Think about the project you want to do. And, as Becky did, approach that person. Becky approached me. You may want to approach that person, “What do you think about collaborating on writing such and such book?” That’s a good idea.
Bryan: Becky, what are you going to collaborate on with Lucy next?
Becky: Well, we’re still kind of negotiating about that. We have a lot of material, Bryan, that we have collected, we’ve thought about. We spend a lot of time researching which is a very important part of The Fire Inside. There’s so much to know about the creative process and so much to know about inspiration and, often, people ask about those two, “How can I be more inspired? How can I write and have something like a lightning bolt come down and get me on the writing process?” And so we’re still kind of talking about that. We have a lot of ideas, the two of us, when we come together and there’s just feedback from some of the participants who have read our books or been on our website have said, “What’s going to be next for you two?” because there’s always such a big world out there and so much to share and so much to learn.
Bryan: It’s very nice to talk to you both today. Becky, where can people go if they want to read your book or the book you collaborated on with Lucy?
Becky: We always recommend that people check with their local bookstores. We like to support local bookstores and if they don’t carry The Fire Inside or our first book, Writing in Community, they can certainly order it. Amazon is always available. You can get either one of our books certainly by ordering through there. And I do wanna say that in many libraries, we have local libraries that are now keeping the book as part of their inventory so you can check with your local library and if they don’t have it, you can ask about it. So, there’s many places to get The Fire Inside and Writing in Community.
Bryan: Lucy, are there any other places or resources or tips you like to offer?
Lucy: Yes, I would suggest that any listeners check our website. Our books are available through our website, and also we submit a regular blog with inspiration and encouragement for those involved in the writer’s life, and that website is www.thewritingandcreativelife.com. And/or look for our names, Lucy Adkins and Becky Breed. And I guess final comment I would like to say is for all those who are wanting to write, who aspire to write, you are more creative than you know, than you give yourself credit for. I would say work on your craft, read, read, read, and find someone to collaborate with or to share your writing with and find someone who is kind and can help you along that path.
Bryan: That’s excellent advice. Thank you very much for your time today.
Becky: Thank you, Bryan.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.