What You Should Know About Writing a Co-Authored Book

Image: exterior brick wall of an abandoned factory, on which is painted a mural reading "Together, We Create!"
Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Today’s post is by Allison Kelley (@_alikelley), co-author of Jokes to Offend Men.

When people hear about my feminist, humor book, Jokes to Offend Men, first they ask: Do you actually hate men? (The answer of course is no, only on Thursdays).

And then they say: Wait there’s four authors? How does that work? A four-person book is an outlier, but what’s even stranger to me is that I am one of those authors.

Prior to writing this book I had none of the qualities it requires to write collaboratively. In fact I rejected the premise. But now, two plus years after I started, I am a convert. If you are also a type-A, control seeker that’s been scarred by having to work on group projects in school, I see you. I am you. But done right, group writing has some surprising benefits I hope you’ll consider.

When it comes to writing, I have always been wary of sharing the spotlight. In college, I took comedy writing classes in male-dominated spaces where I had to fight to have my voice heard. And on those rare occasions when I finally got people to listen to what I had to say, I held on for dear life.

I internalized those experiences throughout my twenties. I was always deeply protective of my writing and highly suspicious of anyone who was trying to “change my words.” I took all feedback extremely personally and didn’t know how to accept it without compromising my vision.

When people critiqued my work, all I heard in my warped brain was: You are not cut out to be a writer and you should give up now. What I didn’t realize until years later, was that (1) writers are not judged on the quality of their first draft, and (2) my self-preservation method was holding me back.

If you want to write collaboratively, you can’t be afraid to show the ugly stuff.

In my thirties, everything changed. I managed to get a few clips under my belt, writing humorous personal essays about my holy trifecta: 1990s pop culture, teen angst, and the suburbs. I also started writing satire for sites like McSweeney’s. This boosted my confidence and then, critically, I joined an online community of writers who I grew to respect and trust. Eventually that led me to achieve the very thing I was terrified of in my twenties: Being vulnerable.

We swapped pieces and gave each other feedback and for the first time I had some measure of what other people’s early drafts looked like. I was relieved and genuinely shocked to find out other people worked through multiple revisions. With the assurance that I would not be laughed out of the group, I began to solicit feedback, and then I watched as my writing *miraculously* became so much better.

You have to trust each other.

Over time, I developed a rapport with a few particular writers who both shared my sensibilities and were incredible editors. Then, a few years after I joined the group, the stars aligned. I finally had an idea and had the people who could help me write it.

The viral McSweeney’s piece, which served as the inspiration for Jokes to Offend Men, started out as a single joke. I knew it had potential, but on my own I had no clue where to go with it.

For 25-year-old Ali, the story would have ended there. I would have abandoned the idea, too afraid to show anyone my half-baked thinking and the judgment I was sure would follow. But 35-year-old Ali was learning to trust the people around her.

I emailed the other writers the joke: “A man walks into a bar. It’s a low one, so he gets a promotion within his first 6 months on the job.”

And then I asked, “Is this anything?,” knowing that at worst they too wouldn’t know what to do with it, but at best, it might inspire them and together we could make it “a thing.”

Through some mix of right time, right place, right painful lived experiences, the four of us were able to co-write and publish Jokes I’ve Told That My Male Colleagues Didn’t Like in a whirlwind 24 hours.

When that took off, I was ecstatic! It was the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me. I didn’t know it could get bigger. And again, if it was just me, the story would have ended there. Not bad, but certainly not a published book. It wasn’t until one of my co-writers suggested we expand the idea into a full-length book that a new dream began to take shape.

You have to slow down and be patient.

My entire life I’ve been racing to the finish line. Somewhere in the two years it took to write and sell our book, I put this quote on my phone as a reminder to slow down: Be patient with yourself. Nothing in nature blooms all year.” Patience is a virtue I wish for anyone in the slow-moving world of publishing, but when writing a book with three other people, it takes on a whole new meaning.

Writing collaboratively means taking the time to hear each other out, consider other perspectives, allow someone to talk through their idea even if it’s not fully there. While our book is funny, we’re pulling from heavy source material re: sexual harassment, reproductive rights, the gender equity gap. I had to learn to give my co-writers the space to express what was important to them and what was frustrating them.

There were many times throughout the process of writing our book where I so desperately wanted to skip ahead to the pretty, finished end. I am nothing if not a conflict avoidant child of divorce and I hate the murky middle of things. But that is life and as it turns out, it was those lively discussions where we hashed it out and dissected the validity of every single joke, that made the material stronger.

You have to be committed to the idea and each other.

Another rule that applies to all authors: you better love your idea because you’re going to be spending a long time with it. But the particular nuance of co-writing comes from the commitment to each other. I think one of the scariest parts of writing on a team is that you are relying on others to get the job done. You have to be accountable to yourselves, and I’m talking about even before you sign any contracts holding you legally responsible.

Our original piece was published in February 2020 and shortly after we began meeting virtually on a weekly basis to write and talk. We were buoyed by the success of our one piece, but we knew writing a book-length volume of jokes was a totally different beast. It was awkward at first. We had to find our rhythm, not just in the writing, but as partners.

Other than giving each other feedback and meeting in person once or twice, prior to writing this book most of us did not know each other that well. But we believed in the idea and were committed to giving it a shot. It became clear early on that we each offered something unique and having an equal partnership was the only way it was going to work.

That was no small feat—at the height of our workload we were meeting every week for 3-hour phone sessions, in addition to independently writing throughout the week. But that’s a testament to how much we all wanted this book to work. And it’s a testament to the power of co-writers. They can push you to dream bigger and accomplish something you never could have done on your own.

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