Collaborative Book Writing – The End Stage

online collaborationRecently I’ve been writing books in collaboration with other authors. I collaborated with Dr Janet Salmons (aka @einterview) on Publishing From Your Doctoral Research which was published last December. I have also been collaborating with Professor Richard Phillips (aka @PhillipsSpace) on Creative Writing in Social Research which is due for publication next January. We’ve just finished the draft manuscript and it’s gone for peer review.

The final stages of producing any book – or thesis, or dissertation – are tortuous for a solo writer. There are so many little details to check and re-check. Is each heading in the appropriate style? Does every citation in the text correspond to a reference in the bibliography? Is every reference in the bibliography cited in the text? Are there any typos? Does the text make sense? I have dreamed of having someone to help with all this checking and re-checking, yet to my surprise it seemed even more tortuous when I was working collaboratively. This is no reflection whatsoever on my collaborators; they were both a delight to work with and I would happily work with either of them again. However, it seems to me that collaborating may be easier for strategic and creative tasks than in painstakingly detailed work.

Janet is based in Colorado and when we were finishing our book, the number of emails whizzing back and forth across the Atlantic was enormous. They said things like:

“I’ve restructured chapter 6 and I think it works better now, please could you take a look and see if you agree?”

“I’ve sorted out the figures, they’re all numbered and captioned now.”

“OMG – I’ve just noticed the chapter titles aren’t consistent – how did we miss THAT?!?”

And many, many more such messages. Working with Richard was easier in that he’s based in the UK and, what’s more, works at a university which is only a short journey from me. So at times we could meet up in person to go through comments and make decisions together. At other times we met on Skype, as I also did with Janet. Not that speaking in real time is foolproof – more than once I wrote down something one of my collaborators said, then found later that my notes made no sense.

In my latest meeting with Richard we divided up the final tasks. Here’s the to-do list I scribbled at my desk the next morning:

book finishing to-do list

I rarely write by hand these days, but this task was so complex I felt the need for an old-skool list rather than the digital ones I usually use. Getting through that lot took me about three working days. The deadline was tight, and I had to fit the work around other commitments, so I ended up working till 10 pm two nights in a row. I don’t usually work in the evenings because my brain shuts down around 6-7 pm, but checking references is fairly mindless work so I saved that for the late sessions. Once my tasks were complete, Richard had a list of similar length, and it took him a good few days, too, to get through all his tasks.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that the end stage of a collaborative book is at least as time-consuming for each author as the end stage of a solo-authored book. This is counter-intuitive: you’d think that with two of you, it would take each person half as long as if they were working alone. In some parts of the book writing work that’s (almost) the case – but not at the end stage. So when I next collaborate on a book, I will allocate the same amount of time to the end stage as I would if I was doing it all myself. Then, with luck, I won’t need to work in the evenings.

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