On Co-Writing

This summer, I did a thing I have never done before in academic contexts: co-wrote something. And co-presented it!  I got together with a friend who’s an MA student of our department in Geneva, and we put together a paper entitled “text-image relationships in medieval and modern Arthuriana”, for SAMEMES 5. We were comparing medieval manuscript illumination strategies to the modern fandom gifset, which seemed like fun when we proposed it, and stayed fun, but also turned into an argument we’re proud of and want to pursue further.

Those who’ve been around for a while will know I was very impressed with Kathleen Neal’s advice on the Buddy System for Humanities Publishing. Unlike Kath, I haven’t had a prior career in the sciences, but I do have enough friends in other faculties to know that the isolation of the humanities scholar is unusual. I’m gonna quote Kath here again, because Kath is wise:

When I was a scientist, publication was a joint effort. Sure, one person would take primary responsibility for writing up the findings, but then the rest of the team would chip in with numerous draft iterations with tracked changes and comments to address. […] the appointed person would prepare the final draft and send it off. When the reviewers’ reports came back, we would instantly share them among the team, and then meet to go through them the following day, discussing which points we thought required only an explanatory response to the editor, and which would require further research or rewriting to address. We’d make a plan, delegate the tasks, and ultimately, the ‘chief’ author would coordinate everything back into a resubmission (or whatever was needed). In this way, the emotional and intellectual burden of receiving the feedback was shared, and ways of approaching and thinking about receiving the feedback itself were modelled positively and pro-actively.

Kath’s advice on how to establish similar support for sole authors is solid. And I think most of us, in the humanities, are trained to think of co-working – especially at early stages of one’s career – as a burden rather than a blessing. Perhaps it’s the hangover of terrible group presentations in undergrad. Perhaps it’s a product of our source materials – although increasingly, funding is going to collaborative projects, and if you want to do anything digital humanities at all, it’s probably better to do it in a team.

I would like now to offer a paeon to co-writing. Granted, clearly I was lucky in my choice of collaborator – if I was assigned a fellow postgrad to work with, it might not end so well (and no assigning authority would put a senior-ish PhD student with an MA student). But assuming one chooses ones writing partners because you think well together, well.

  • It was easy. It was so easy. I can think some great thoughts alone; so can my co-writer Olivia. But I at least found it much easier to wrestle thoughts into shape as a collaborative exercise – I put forth something, she’d respond; we bounced ideas off each other and ended up with a surplus of material much much faster than we would have alone.
  • Motivation turns out to be easier to sustain when there’s someone else involved. I expected the guilt factor (I have to do this on time or it will stress out Olivia!), but I hadn’t calculated for the fact that having someone else reading the words you put on the page and being excited about them makes a world of difference.
  • Editing was much less stressful – including cutting out stuff. The question I had to ask myself was ‘does this point I’ve made best showcase Olivia’s forthcoming point’, and not ‘is this point good enough’. It turns out to be very easy to kill your darlings if you want to save someone else’s darlings more.
  • The built-in audience did a little bit to counteract the slightly impostor syndromey effect you get when you’ve written something and you can’t tell if it’s total bollocks or if it’s stating the bleeding obvious. Doesn’t get rid of it entirely, but having someone there who responds with “I like that! I can do something with that!” was a great change from thesis-writing.
  • It was also much easier to set up a clear structure and keep to it while writing – we had to, or we’d loose track of each other.

A couple of things about this experience were, I think, idiosyncratic to us: we worked best when we did the bulk of the work physically together. I assume most academic co-authors don’t necessarily do that – but it made the research phase much more fun, meant that we didn’t need to read the same things (I didn’t read Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second but I sat next to Olivia while she did, and got the highlights reel; likewise, she did not read the stack of weird articles on tumblr pornography I read, but ranting about them to her quickly helped me sort out what bits were useful and what were just weird).

A little way into the writing, I realised what the process reminded me of. I was taking casual improv classes this summer, and I spend a lot of time hanging out with an improv comedy group here, and the basic principles are very similar. One of the three cardinal rules of improv is “make your partner look good” – you don’t go onto a stage trying to showcase yourself, you go on to showcase how great your parter/teammates are. Along the way, you probably end up looking fabulous, but you won’t if you focus on yourself.

One of the improv class facilitators gave us a metaphor one week: when you walk into a scene, with the prompts you’re given (usually a place and a relationship, sometimes an object, and some kind of constraint, like, you can only utter three words at a time), you don’t come in with the full scenario constructed in your head like a cathedral. If you do that, as soon as your partner veers away from your predicted script, you freeze.

Instead, you bring a brick. You bring one brick to build your cathedral, and your partner brings a brick, and then you add another, and soon. This would be a terrible way to build an actual cathedral, but it’s how you do great collaborative creative work. You have to be convinced that whatever your collaborator could do with your stuff plus their stuff is as good as what you could do with your stuff plus their stuff. And that the things you can do with the thing they produced from your stuff plus their stuff is better than the things you could do with your own stuff alone.

… that’s too many things and stuff for one paragraph. You get the idea. I’m pretty sure this is how playing music, especially jazz, works; and how dance works, and a whole lot of other things. It’s very far removed from the standard model of humanities  academic thought, and I’m not saying I want to eschew private projects forever, but it certainly is a nice break from the Solo Academic model. (It remains to be seen if it stays this nice by the time we’ve written it up and sent it off for review, though…)

One comment

  1. Kathleen Neal

    So glad to know this advice is ringing true and proving useful! Sounds like your coauthorship was really productive! I’m just embarking on some new coauthored work too… Could the tide be turning in humanities; or are we just outliers?!


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