What are the circumstances under which true collaborative writing either improves or diminishes the quality of the finished product?
The whole series so far:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
There isn’t a whole lot of data available on how creative writers who write stuff collaboratively actually work together. Most of the time, though, it’s reasonable to assume that story, plot, settings, and characters have been worked on collaboratively while the actual writing takes place in a non-collaborative manner. Chapters, subchapters, or even more finely grained textual units are assigned to individual participants, and the publisher’s editors then go about smoothing things out. True collaborative writing this is not: it’s rather simple, cooperative writing. True collaborative writing would be recursive writing where every participant writes, rewrites, edits, and reedits everything without reservations or limitations, so that the finished product, stylistically, approaches the state of a thoroughly shuffled deck of cards.
Most writers find the idea of true collaborative writing repulsive. But in most cases, I’d suggest, true collaborative writing would actually improve the finished product, or at least it’d be none the worse for it. Let me explain, with this little matrix:
- Let’s say you have two or more writers and they’re all about equally clueless about writing techniques, rhetorics, and style. (As editors are often clueless too, or publishers don’t care, stuff like that gets published all the time.) Nothing is lost for the finished product if these writers truly collaborate.
- Now, if at least one writer among them has learned the tools of the trade, two things can happen. The clueless writers might be too clueless to know a non-clueless writer when they see one, and the latter will go berserk and/or throw in the towel. For the quality of the finished product, nothing is lost. Alternatively, the clueless writers might realize they have someone in their midst who, say, knows the difference between idea and story and plot and story and fun stuff. Then, the product can only improve.
- As a third possibility, you have two or more writers who actually know what they’re doing, but each one isn’t good enough or smart enough to understand what their co-writers are doing. Houston, we have a problem: true collaboration would spell trouble, and the final product will, in all likelihood, turn out worse than it would have with simple, cooperative writing.
- For a final option, all of the participating writers not only know what they’re doing, they’re also good enough to know what their co-writers are doing. Hooray: the finished product might take a while to emerge, but it will be awesome.
So, with one exception, true collaborative writing either improves the product quality or at least won’t make things worse than they already are. There’s only one range of professional knowledge where things become difficult, and the quality of the finished product will drop: if the collaborators know about writing techniques and what they’re doing, but don’t know enough to understand what their co-writers are doing.
But do not expect to see this one potentially disruptive combination in the wild very often. Experience strongly suggests that it is precisely this state of professional knowledge that aligns most neatly with the most strongly developed writer’s ego—and that sure isn’t predisposed to embrace the idea of true collaborative writing in the first place.