In this post, Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby share the unique approach to collaborative writing that led to their co-written book.
You’ve got a writer friend and you want to collaborate. Or, you’ve got a project that needs a special other writer. You know how to write yourself, but can you write with another person? You can, and it’s called pairing.
Pair-writing (or co-writing) can make the overall writing more fun, faster, and produce a better product.
We (Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby) recently published our book, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver. We wrote it as a distributed agile team. We lived the principles of distributed agile teams to create the best book possible.
Here’s our story.
Pair-Writing Is Similar to Pair-Programming
You might have seen pictures or video of pair-programming: one person sits at the keyboard. The other person looks at the screen, reviewing the work. When we integrate product development with product review we gain several advantages:
- We catch errors fast.
- We might see an alternate structure. (For code, this is called refactoring.)
- We might research in real-time, to verify our assumptions.
Writing simply and having someone review while writing allowed us to write quickly and clearly. Pair programmers often say the same thing.
In the world of agile software development, pairing is a familiar, but too-infrequently used practice.
Pairing can feel awkward at first.
It seems unnatural to have someone staring over your shoulder. However, as your “copilot” assists you moment to moment, you get a sense of confidence that allows the work to flow. Also, many developers find that it can be a highly collaborative and enjoyable experience.
We wondered if we could adapt our understanding of pair-programming for pair-writing. We both had a passion and experience in helping distributed teams collaborate effectively. We also knew that few people even thought this was feasible and we had many stories we wished to share. This passion and experience fueled our drive to experiment with pair-writing and make it successful.
We had some questions as writers:
- Could we make the book sound like one voice, not two of us?
- Would we have to edit more, not less?
- Was pairing even possible for our book?
We decided to experiment with everything to collaborate.
Experiments Drove Our Collaboration
We knew we were going to use leanpub.com as a way to write and publish the ebook first, especially for early drafts. We always planned to publish widely in ebook and print.
With fiction, we get to create our worlds, decide what works and how, and decide how characters will interact in the world. For fiction, we often do not want to review until we finish the entire story.
Non-fiction does require interim review—if we want to get it right. In our book, we wanted to explain concepts but also show how these principles could drive many new practices to help distributed teams succeed. So we needed early feedback to make sure we explained the concepts clearly or we would lose readers in our examples and stories of practical applications.
Leanpub allows writers to publish whenever they want to. And, because the service offers all ebook formats—epub, mobi, pdf—we didn’t have to worry about people being able to download or read the book.
When we started, Leanpub didn’t offer a real collaboration between two writers. (They now support writing in google docs.) We had to experiment to determine how to collaborate.
Leanpub supports Markdown for writing. Markdown is primarily text-based with very little formatting. That means the writer focuses on the words, not the format. We both liked that idea.
We tried writing in a markdown tool, something Johanna had used for most of her previous books. Mark was game to try, but we couldn’t easily collaborate writing in a Markdown tool. It was still a ping-pong writing experience.
We settled on Google Docs, because it allows real-time collaboration between the people who work in one file. As one writer typed, the other immediately could see the words on their screen and act upon them. We wrote in Markdown in the documents. Google didn’t care, and we could sweep the entire document into the files for Leanpub.
Pairing to Find a Blended Voice
When writers ping-pong, they each write something and hand it off to the other. Ping-pong is great as a game. It’s often not so good for writing (or any knowledge work). Too often, the voice differs between the sections. he writers may not align on the concepts. And, writers can find it difficult to agree on how to write that one area, because it’s not real-time collaboration.
With pair-writing, if you can manage the “invasion of privacy” feelings, the writers create a mind-meld. (No apologies to Star Trek and Spock!). Because we used Google Docs, we always worked in the same document at the same time. Pairing felt natural, as opposed to invasive.
We still had to get accustomed to each other’s approach and ideas. We did the typical team formation of forming and storming first. However, the pairing allowed us to work through norming to become performing fast.
Here’s an example. One of us typed this actual sentence: Misspellings were fixed and minor grammar changes could be made immediately. As we wrote, the other person updated that sentence to: We could fix misspellings and minor grammar changes on the fly.
As a pair, we fixed the passive voice, the misspellings, and clarified the intent. Because we pair, the person typing continues to type forward. The other person supports the getting-the-words-down part. We both agree that getting the words down first and editing later works for us as a pair.
To keep our blended voice, we often swapped the positions of typist and “sweeper”. This not only happened in getting-the-words-down, but also in editing. One of us would have an idea when reviewing to clarify the writing and jump into the typist role with the other one quickly taking the sweeper role. We did this naturally without much discussion as we both found ways to clarify the writing.
Working Agreements Drove Our Success
Successful teams create formal or informal working agreements. To support our paired writing, we had several working agreements that helped us work fast:
- Write first, edit later: get-the-words-down first and edit in another pass
- Unpack dense ideas or sentences
- Audio and video to enhance collaboration and see what the other was thinking
- Check-ins at the start of each session
- Writing every day, or as close to it, for up to an hour a day
- Build agreement on what we said, how we said it for the writing
- Build agreement on how to publish and market the book
Sometimes one of us would write down a complex sentence or one that requires more explanation for the reader. The person not typing recognized that need for more explanation. In our collaboration, we called this “unpacking.”
We waited for the writer to first finish writing to completely capture the thought. The other might ask a few quick questions and then offer to rewrite the sentence or unpack it if concepts needed more explanation. All of this occurred in moments.
We also used Zoom for audio and video. We wanted to be able to see each other and read each other’s body language. Johanna tends to be sarcastic and an eye-roller. Mark is easygoing but had his own visual language for feedback. Often Johanna would compose a beautifully condensed statement and Mark would then tilt his head as he read it, like the RCA dog logo.
To connect with each other before we connected on the day’s work, we would often have a brief check-in to discuss what might be on our minds, how was the weather (and how it affected our mood), and whether we could be flexible with our writing session.
We needed flexibility to make decisions:
- Were we writing the blurbs?
- Were we writing a chapter?
- Were we writing a conference abstract?
- Did we need to create images?
- Did we need to write an article?
- Did we need to develop workshop material?
We knew that to effectively market our book, we would need to speak at conferences, on podcasts, and write supporting articles. We could choose—in the moment—the kind of deliverable we needed for that day.
Our first choice was always to get new words done for the book. Then, images. Then, anything around the book, such as workshops or conference abstracts.
Create a Consistent Pattern for Writing
We chose to use the power of a streak or consistency to help us finish the book. We chose to be consistent in our collaboration days, and the amount of time we used to collaborate.
We tried to meet at the same time every day, but that didn’t quite work for our schedules. We discovered we could meet at the same time—9 a. m., on Mondays, Wednesday, and Thursdays. We also chose to meet on Tuesdays and Fridays, at a different time, 3 p. m.
We maintained that schedule through all of our travel when we wrote together.
In addition to a consistent schedule, we chose to be consistent with our writing time. We planned to meet each of those days for at least 30 minutes. More often, we could manage a one-hour timebox. We found that once we learned how to write with each other, we could write a lot in one hour. (Our one-hour speed was often close to 1500 words, more than either of us wrote alone.)
Pairing Powers Momentum and Consistency
We made commitments to each other: We would pair on all the writing. We would also work to build a consistent momentum, despite any changes in our working conditions.
When we work from our home offices, we are in the same timezone, US Eastern. And, we don’t always work from our home offices.
Johanna travels every few weeks. Mark travels every couple of months. So we are not always in the same time zone. However, we wanted to keep our writing momentum, even when our working conditions changed.
In some cases, one of us would stay with our regular writing time and the traveler would adjust. Other times, we both adjusted just to keep our writing session for the day.
Early in the book, we decided to use video and audio to see each other as we wrote. We happened to use Zoom as our tool. And, some of our hotel internet connection speed challenged our “normal” writing process.
Johanna traveled to Israel in November of 2017, early in our collaboration. Her hotel was supposed to have “speedy” wifi. Everyone has a different interpretation of “speedy.”
We found a time during the day to write and hopped on a Zoom session. We quickly realized the internet speed would not support video. Audio mostly worked. When audio didn’t work, we collaborated only by typing into the current document in Google Docs.
Even with travel, we were able to maintain our momentum and consistency because we paired. We didn’t let the other person down.
Lessons Learned from Pairing
We learned a ton by writing together. One big learning was that we were not able to judge our work in the moment.
During our collaboration, one of us was tired, or one couldn’t type (“the typist didn’t show up today”), or we struggled to articulate the ideas. We wrote anyway and left a note for us to review the work the next day. (XX marked the spot)
We learned the next day that what we wrote was fine. When we reviewed it together, we looked at each other and said, “Guess that’s okay!” When we didn’t feel good about ourselves, we didn’t feel good about the product. Many writers, fiction and non-fiction feel that way. Our pairing helped us overcome that problem.
Another thing we learned is that we could review an entire chapter in a few minutes. That’s because we wrote clean, left markers (XX) where we thought we might need to edit, and had already had partial review from the pairing.
The biggest thing we learned is that pair-writing is fun. We had a blast. We laughed with each other. Mark reminded Johanna to have empathy. Johanna reminded Mark that some people didn’t deserve any more empathy. Having an outer voice—through a pairing partner—also helped quiet our inner voice that might otherwise slow down or stop our writing at times. This helped add to the productivity and joy of our writing.
We can recommend pair-writing for non-fiction. We don’t know about fiction, but we all need to write blurbs and ad copy and bios. Consider pairing on those writing pieces for speed, clarity, and momentum.
A previous version was published on TheCreativePenn.com August 9, 2019 by Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman.