You’re thinking about writing your first book, but you know it’s a huge undertaking.
You’re right. It is.
Many authors decide to work with co-writers to lighten the load.
It can be helpful to have someone to collaborate with and bounce ideas off of. Co-authoring is a great solution…for some people.
But don’t be deceived. Working with a co-author isn’t necessarily easier—or better.
There are 2 main aspects of writing a book with someone else that you need to consider:
- Co-authoring the book: As an Author, you have to make a lot of decisions. Co-authoring means making every decision together. For example, how many chapters will there be? What are the main ideas? What’s the title? Will you self-publish or look for an agent? You must consider how decisions will be made.
- Co-writing the book: You’ll work together intensely for months, sending each other drafts, editing each other’s work, and sticking to deadlines. You should know if you can work with this person in this way for this long.
Before you sign on to a co-authored writing project, make sure you’re prepared to do both. Otherwise, you’ll be in for a bumpy ride.
In this post, I’ll discuss:
- How to decide whether co-authoring is right for you
- Tips for co-writing a book
- Massive mistakes to avoid when co-writing a book
How to Decide Whether Co-Authoring Is Right for You
Are You Prepared to Share the Decision-Making?
Co-authoring may not be like a marriage—after all, you’re not signing on for life—but it is like a serious, committed relationship.
You’re going to be working closely with that person on a near-daily basis, and you’re going to see them at their best and worst.
That means you need to be sure you’re working with the right person and that you’re on the same page.
Before you can truly agree to write a book together, you need to know what book you’re writing.
One of the biggest dangers of co-writing is discovering later that you each had a different idea for the book. Even a slightly different idea can be a disaster.
You need to be super clear on high-level decisions before you start the book. Either you can decide on them yourself first and then bring someone else on board with that vision—or you can decide on them together. Either way, you have to be on the same page with these 2 major things upfront:
- Your target audience and positioning
- The book’s outline
Identify Your Target Audience & Positioning
Positioning is the most important part of writing a book.
Put simply, positioning is about answering the basic question readers ask: Why should I read this book?
There are 3 steps involved with positioning:
- Determine your objectives. What do you want to achieve with this book? Do you want to make money? Build your brand? Inspire people? Write a bestseller? What needs to happen in order for you to consider your book a success?
- Target your audience. Who do you need to reach in order to achieve your goals? Are you speaking to industry professionals? Potential clients? Readers with casual interest? When you picture your ideal reader, who are they, and what do they need?
- Lock in your book idea. What is your book about, and why will your audience care? What are you going to teach them, and how will you do it? What’s going to make a reader pick up your book and say, “Yes! I need this.”?
The 3 aspects of positioning are connected. Your book has to provide value for your target audience, and that will ultimately help you reach the objectives you want.
If you and your potential co-author aren’t aligned on all 3 areas, you shouldn’t work together.
It has nothing to do with whether they’re a close friend or a powerhouse in your industry. If you don’t want the same things, have the same audience in mind, or share the same vision for the book, it’s not going to work.
Before you move on to the next step, sit down with your potential partner, and create a written positioning statement that you can both agree on.
Outline the Book Before You Start Writing
Your outline contains the structure for your whole book. You must develop this and agree on it before you start writing.
For example, let’s say you and your co-author have agreed on your positioning, and you’re going to write a book for pizza chefs. It will teach them how to make better pizzas, and it will allow you to market your online pizza classes. Great. You’re on the same page.
But when you sit down to write, what if you want to organize your chapters by types of pizza—thin crust, Chicago-style, etc.—while your collaborator wants to organize it by parts of the pizza—crust, sauce, toppings, etc.?
That’s a fundamental disconnect.
Chances are, you can work through it. But if you can’t, it’s better to know that during the outline stage than after you’ve written your introduction.
These are big decisions, so don’t leave them to chance. Your book will suffer if you do (and so will you).
At the very least, you need to:
- create a table of contents, with each chapter’s title (or main idea)
- determine what your chapter’s hook is going to be (i.e., how will you grab readers’ attention)
- identify each chapter’s main points
- indicate what kind of evidence you’re going to use (e.g., stories, case studies, research)
For more details on how to create an outline, you can find an outline template here.
Have You Decided How to Work Together?
If you’ve gotten through those preliminary steps without any hiccups, you’re probably going to be a good match.
Still, if you’re going to work together, you have to figure out how you’re going to work together. You have to divide the work.
There are 2 main ways you could split your responsibilities:
- By type
- By content
Splitting up the Work by Type
Each Author will bring some unique skills to the table.
Maybe you have great writing skills, while your co-Author is a pro at research. In that case, you might want your partner to collect all the data while you write the first draft.
Or maybe you’re both good at different kinds of editing. One person may be a skilled content editor, while the other has an eye for copyediting details.
If you decide to divide the work by type, your writing process will probably occur in distinct back-and-forth stages: one person completes their task, passes it to the other person, and so forth.
Splitting up the Work by Content
It’s often the case that co-authors are experts in different fields. In that case, it makes sense to split the duties up by expertise. For example, one person can write the sections on finance, while the other person writes the sections on leadership.
Even if you’re experts in similar things, you could split the writing responsibilities up by chapters or sections.
Be careful with this system, though. If you’re not in close communication with each other, the book could end up with wildly different writing styles. Even if there are 2 Author names on the cover, you want the book to feel unified.
Make sure you talk about the content of each chapter before starting the first draft. One person might have the perfect story for a certain idea, or they might need you to include certain information they’ll build on in a later section. Having conversations about content as you go will help you streamline your voices.
8 Tips for Co-Writing a Book (and HUGE Mistakes to Avoid)
1. Set Clear Expectations
This is my biggest piece of advice. Be very clear about your expectations for each other.
That includes each person’s responsibilities, your communication needs, the anticipated timeline, and quality standards.
Don’t be afraid to speak up, and don’t assume that the other person can read your mind. Be clear. Be straightforward. Be explicit.
Disagreements and delays are usually the results of miscommunication. If you’re clear with each other, you’ll save a lot of time and avoid potential friction.
2. Lose the Ego
This is obvious, but I can’t overstate how important it is to lose your ego.
When you agree to co-author a book, the book isn’t yours anymore. It belongs to both of you.
If you’re dead-set on being right and defending your ideas, you won’t be able to work with someone else.
It’s inevitable that you’re going to disagree sometimes. People have different perspectives. That’s life.
But you have to resist the urge to be forceful or aggressive. You have to listen to each other and find a way to compromise or come to an agreement.
If your co-author raises a problem with you, acknowledge it and work together to solve it.
3. Honor Your Agreements
Once you split up the work, honor your agreement.
If you agreed that you would be responsible for a certain task, do it. Don’t hesitate or try to re-negotiate because you get busy or don’t want to do it.
I’ll be honest. There are some parts of book writing that aren’t fun, but they still need to happen. If you signed on, you need to keep your word.
Likewise, if you agreed that one person would be solely responsible for something, let them do it. Don’t jump in unless they ask for help.
4. Set Deadlines
Writing a book is a long-term project. There will be times when other things in your life will feel more important, and there will be times when you simply get burned out on writing.
One of the great things about writing with another person is that you each have someone you’re accountable to. Use that.
Set deadlines for every step of the writing process and stick to them.
Showing up for deadlines not only keeps you on track, but it also shows that you respect the other person’s time and effort.
If you make your deadlines a priority, you’ll not only be much more efficient; you’ll also be much more likely to finish the book.
5. Serve the Reader
Remember what I said about positioning? You have to be very clear about your target audience.
What do your readers want? What will make them want to buy your book?
Your book exists to serve the reader. Period.
Don’t make decisions based on what you like or what your co-author likes. Make decisions based on what’s best for the reader.
If both of you take your focus off yourselves and focus on empathizing with your audience, you’re much more likely to see eye-to-eye.
6. Develop a Workflow
You’re going to be sending a lot of documents back and forth. Research, drafts, notes, ideas—it all piles up.
If you’re not careful, things are going to get lost in the shuffle.
When you’re preparing to write your book, I recommend sitting down with your co-author and figuring out a workflow that’s going to work for both of you.
At Scribe, we rely heavily on Google Docs. It’s cloud-based so you can access it anywhere. It’s collaborative. And you can easily track changes on edits and look at previous drafts.
If you opt for a more traditional program like Microsoft Word, you might want to agree on file naming conventions so you can keep drafts in order. If you’re sending a file with the basic name “Chapter 1” back and forth, it’s going to be really hard to tell which is the latest version.
In addition to writing software, you’ll want to agree on some kind of scheduling method. You might want to share a digital calendar, set up an email reminder system, or decide on communication conventions (e.g., “Let’s keep our conversations about the book limited to email.”).
With a project this big, organization is key. Having a system in place from the beginning will save you a lot of headaches.
7. Integrate Your Writing
I tell every writer, “Never edit while you’re writing your first draft.”
It’s important to write what I call a “vomit draft.” Your goal is to get all your ideas onto the page without worrying whether it sounds good. Once you have a complete draft, then you can polish it.
This is obviously a little more complicated for co-Authors. You’re each going to have a distinct writing style, but you want the final book to feel cohesive.
Here’s what I suggest:
Communicate with each other about the content and tone before writing the first draft, so you’re writing from a similar mindset. Then, write your “vomit draft.”
When it comes time to edit, you’ll need to pay close attention to places where the tone, style, or voice don’t match. Then, work together to integrate those moments and make the text feel more seamless.
I’m not going to lie. This might take some serious work, depending on how different your styles are. But the benefits of a vomit draft far outweigh the time you’ll spend smoothing out the style.
Just think, if you and your co-author spent all your time fine-tuning the voice in your first draft, you’d probably write at a snails’ pace.
Once the ideas are already on the page, it’s easier to come to a consensus about what’s working and what isn’t.
8. Be Consistent with Your Point of View
Point of view is one of the trickiest parts of co-authoring a book.
When there’s just one Author, the choice is clear: write in first person. It’s easy to say, “I pioneered this method,” or “My client told me about this technique.”
When there’s more than one Author, things get a little more difficult.
You could write in first-person singular (“I”), but you’ll need to clearly signal who’s talking. You might have sections labeled “John” or “Jane,” but if you’re not careful, this can get clunky.
You could write in first-person collective (“we”), but that can make personal stories difficult. Saying, “We went to school in a small town in Kentucky,” sounds strange unless you both really went to school together.
Or, you could write in third-person omniscient point of view, which keeps personal perspectives completely out of the picture. For example, “John met with Jane’s parents to discuss their retirement options.” This works well for certain kinds of books, but if you have a lot of anecdotes or personal stories, constantly referring to yourselves in the third person may sound odd.
There’s no right or wrong answer to the POV question. But whatever option you pick, it’s better to figure it from the get-go so you can be consistent throughout the book.