Nick wrote to ask me, "I've been approached to do some collaborative writing. What tips can you offer me? What's the most important thing for me to know or do?"
I've co-authored about twenty books, and ghosted/created roughly forty more from the sermons and speeches of various teachers, so I know something about collaborative writing. Since I seem to be long-winded, I'll try to summarize my thoughts in a dozen bullet points:
1. Collaborators come in about four flavors. There's the true Collaborator, who takes the miscellaneous meanderings of a smart or interesting person and shapes it into a coherent text, often finding pertinent material to supplement the content. There's the Co-Author, who adds his own content and generally gets some credit for having a mind of his own. Third is the Ghostwriter, who creates material before getting shafted by the author, whose ego is too big to acknowledge the use of a writer. And finally there is the Mega-Editor, who re-shapes or sharpens the thoughts of the author. (These aren't really the industry terms -- this is from the MacGregor Dictionary of Publishing Words.) I start here just so you'll understand that there are different types of collaborative writing that you can be asked to do.
2. Clearly define your role. Make sure you understand what the job is and what you're being asked to do before you agree to do it. On the one hand, you have to be wary of writing someone else's book for them. On the other, there's no sense writing for someone who merely wants you to do a quick edit of their work. This has happened to me on more than one occasion -- I did great work, which the author always thanked me for effusively, just before throwing it out so that they could use their own lousy, turgid prose.
3. Clearly define your agreement. Basically you want a written letter or email that details "I will do this work for that amount of money." It's also nice if it clarifies "you're going to give me this material, and you expect me to complete my work by this date." I encourage you to do this even if it's a small project. You don't have to make it a formal, signed contract -- but get something in writing that details the assignment. That way, should there ever be a disagreement, you have something you can all look back on that will clarify the job.
4. Define what "success" is for the project. You should know before starting the project what the author wants as an end product. If they're paying you for a rough draft, produce it. If they're paying you for a polished final manuscript, produce that. But if you don't define success, you'll often find that your expectations may not match up with their expectations.
5. Make sure you can do the job. I love writing, and I love learning new things, so I always enjoyed taking on collaborative projects. I wrote manuscripts that taught me about guns, about investing in stocks, about card tricks, about Scripture... Writing collaboratively was as good as any class I ever took in college. (Not that I was paying attention in college. I was a theater arts major -- we just emoted a lot and tried to look worldly.) If you don't like this sort of thing, or if you don't enjoy trying to mimic someone else's voice, you should stay away from collaborating.
6. Don't say "yes" to a project you don't understand. Old preachers have a saying: "If it's a mist in the pulpit, it's a fog in the pew." The same goes for collaborating. If you're a bit misty about the project after you've talked at length with the author, you'll find yourself in a total pea-souper when trying to write. Have a hard and fast rule: You will be able to tell someone what the book is about in one simple, non-technical sentence. If you can't do that, say "no thanks" to the project. (I once said yes to a book that was a complete mystery to me. I kept writing sentences with phrases like "the focusing centerpoint of emphasis." It was terrible. To this day I have no idea what the author was trying to convey.)
7. If you don't like the author, do not take on the project. Never. Ever. Imagine the phone ringing, you look down and see it's the author, Mr. Farnsworth. Your first reaction is to roll your eyes, shake your head, and yell "NO! NOT FARNSWORTH!" A bad sign. Life is too short. If you're not comfortable with the author after spending some time together, politely decline and move on. No matter how much they offer to pay you.
8. You don't want to take on a project if you don't agree with the basic premise. I'm one of those people who has done a lot of faith & spirituality titles, so I have a pretty big tent when it comes to accepting differing theologies. I don't have to agree with you on every issue, since I figure we're all wrong on some small point (meaning, at best, we're all probably heretics). But if the basic premise of the book is whacked, say no. I used to write for Adrian Rogers, a wonderful Southern Baptist pastor down in Memphis who had a big radio ministry and a lot of good things to say. I respected the man very much, but he once hired me to write an article for him in which he claimed that Jesus didn't really drink wine. I thought it was a bad idea to begin with, but once I heard his sermon, I couldn't believe it. One of the hokiest, most contrived mis-uses of Scripture I'd ever heard. ("What about Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast?" "That was just grape juice." "But wasn't the bridegroom praised for having saved the best wine until after the guests were drunk?" "It might have been a non-alcoholic form of strong drink.") Okay, so I wrote it anyway. And I've always felt guilty for perpetrating this tripe on other people. Save yourself the trouble. If somebody asks you to write rot, say no.
9. Don't write like they talk -- write like they ought to talk. There's a myth surrounding collaborators, that they sort of transcribe what the author says, then clean it up a bit. That's not collaborative writing. Quick -- what was the last book of speeches you bought? (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Right. Nobody buys books of speeches. The spoken word and the written word are two very different forms of communication. So don't just write down what they said -- find a way to transition it into well-written prose.
10. If you're asked to ghostwrite something, ask for a reason. I've been at this for years, and I've yet to hear a reasonable explanation why a writer should not be credited. So if you're asked to ghost something, ask them why. It's been proven that listing a collaborative author doesn't hurt book sales. Look at any celebrity or sports star who authors a book, and the collaborator is always listed. Why the change when it comes to pastors, politicians, and speakers? Let's face it, there's only one basic reason for requesting the collaborative writer's name not be on the book or title page: To stroke the author's ego. (Success and money aren't enough -- they also need to pretend they wrote a book.) And to that I can only say "rot." (Another true tale: I once worked with a woman who had a huge TV ministry. She would always ask for a collaborative writer, tell them they'd get credit, then try to back out of that commitment at the last moment. Apparently she couldn't live with the idea of her followers thinking she would stoop so low as to let someone help her write coherent sentences. There's a lesson: if you're going to get credit, get the commitment in writing.)
11. Don't insist on becoming best friends. Sure, when you spend several weeks helping someone craft his or her personal story, you'll develop a bond. But it's just a temporary one. You don't need to be best friends -- instead, you need to write well so that you get the best book possible, get paid, and get another author to hire you for the next project. Sometimes a little distance can actually help you write a more honest, compelling story.
12. "I've got this great personal story!" Sooner or later, you're going to be approached by somebody with a tale that sounds like this: "I've had the most incredible things happen. You won't believe it. God moved. Miracles happened. Whenever I share my story in church, old ladies cry and men slap my back. I want you to come write it for me. I won't be able to pay you much, but it's a dynamite story, and soon we're going to sell it to a publisher, who will get it onto store shelves, where it will hit the bestseller lists. They'll make a movie out of it, probably starring Tom Cruise. We'll be rich. I can't wait. Come join me." The individual saying this will be nice. He or she will be earnest. They may even tug at your heartstrings.
Say no. Don't explain, just say no and walk away. Trust me on this. If you want to do it as a ministry, fine. If you have a couple weeks to waste on this sort of project, by all means go ahead and leave the real jobs to other writers. But listen carefullly to this bit of wisdom: There is no market for personal stories. None. Nada. Zero Zip. Zilch-a-rooni. Yeah, yeah -- personal stories used to be big. It's fun to hear some guy stand up and tell you his amazing tale of miracles and whodathunkits and God at Work in the Lives of Men. Maybe if you could transport that person around the country, so that he or she could explain the story to every potential book buyer, it would work.
But probably not. So forget it. Sure, there's a market for movie stars and the coach of the winning Super Bowl team. Every once in a while a Lisa Beamer will come along and offer an incredibly moving story, touching lives with her grace and poise. But that happens about once every five years or so. I just checked Poor Richard's Almanac, and it says that's not scheduled to happen this year. So forget it. Say no. Put down the keyboard and walk away.
Chip MacGregor (who was chosen "Boy of the Year" by his high school graduating class of 1976...really! Hey, wouldn't that make a great book?)