7 collaboration tools and tips that make book writing go smoothly

Photo: Rob Hurson via Flickr

Collaborating on a book is hard. Deadlines make it harder. The key is to develop a disciplined process and stick with it. To help you get to the end without tears, I’ll share some battle-tested collaboration tools and tips that will keep you focused on content excellence, not process glitches. (You’ll see where the bear comes in at the end.)

Collaborations always start with the best intentions. Everybody’s excited about the possibility of writing a book together. If you prepare properly, you can spend most of your time researching, dreaming, and writing. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself wasting time on screaming, regretting, hating, and crying.

I’m about to start on my seventh book collaboration — three as a coauthor, and four as an editor. All so far have produced high-quality results on tight deadline, but I couldn’t have done it without everyone in the process sharing an understanding of how best to work together. These tips are best for nonfiction authors, especially those writing business books.

1. Get everyone in sync before you start writing

Unless you share one goal and one definition of quality, you’re not going to succeed.

One way to make sure you have these discussions at the appropriate level of detail is to prepare a proposal together. You’ll have to agree on the title, subtitle, main ideas, and table of contents. Beyond that, you’ll have to create a sample chapter, which is a great trial run for what it will take to complete the book. Even if you’re self-publishing, the exercise of writing a proposal is a good way to get everybody on the same page.

2. Start long lead-time items — like interviews — early

Some things can’t be rushed — for example, identifying potential people to interview and lining up times to talk with them, or conducting survey research. You should get started on these at the very start of the project.

Use a Google Sheet as a collaborative tool for tracking interviews. This allows authors, editors, and assistants to all share one resource to understand the status of interviews in progress.

3. Create a disciplined review process and stick to it

The more people involved in creating a book, the more communications overhead you have. Creativity is great for content, but not for process. The process for creating and reviewing content should be clear and well defined. This is a pain point; in my recent survey of writing professionals, only 32% said their review and collaboration processes were effective.

To succeed with reviews, you must treat the table of contents as sacrosanct; you can’t build the pieces until you know what they are. Then, to reduce the pain, formalize a review process. For example, on the project I’m about to begin, with two authors and an editor, the process looks like this:

  • Author 1 writes the chapter draft as an MS Word file.
  • Author 2 marks up the chapter draft with comments.
  • Editor marks up the chapter and adds more comments.
  • Meet to discuss any contentious issues.
  • Author 1 creates second draft based on edits.
  • Author 2 and editor mark up second draft.
  • Author 1 creates final draft based on edits.

We will follow the same process, regardless of which author is the writer and which is the reviewer on any given chapter. It’s the editor’s job to identify, not just content weaknesses, but inconsistencies that need to get ironed out so the final manuscript follows a uniform set of conventions for style and format.

4. Start with a shared document template designed to make reviewing easy

Use the same document template to improve consistency. A template ought to have styles for chapter title, one or two head levels, bullets, numbered lists, quoted material, and captions (if you have graphics). It really helps to see all the chapters in the same format.

My template uses 12-point Times Roman, double-spaced, on 8.5 by 11 pages. You can use any fonts you want, but for readability of reviews, put body text in a serif font. My template also has the advantage that it generates approximately a 1-to-1 ratio between manuscript pages and finished typeset pages in a typical 6 by 9 book. This helps my authors and me to keep track of page counts as we’re working.

If you want a peek at my template, you can see it in the proposal I did for my latest book.

5. Use folders and naming conventions to keep the pieces easily identified

I’ve used both Google Drive and Dropbox on shared projects. Either sharing tool allows collaborators to share folders (and backs things up automatically, too). A typical book project will include folders for planning materials, marketing materials, graphics, and drafts.

When you’re shuttling drafts around, it makes life easier if you can immediately identify any piece of content from the filename. My filenames look like this:

4Trans Ch 06 Missing Link v1 jb edits

Here’s what this means:

  • 4Trans identifies it as a book chapter (in this case, from “The Fourth Transformation” by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel). It should be easy to spot book chapters and tell what book they’re from.
  • Ch 06 tells you the chapter number. It’s two digits long so that when you’re looking at a directory of book chapters, you can sort them and have everything in order. (Otherwise Chapter 10 would end up sorted ahead of Chapter 6).
  • Missing Link is a short name for the chapter. This makes it easy to tell which content is in there if you don’t happen to have the table of contents in front of you. It’s also helpful when you need to renumber or reorder the chapters.
  • v1 tells you the draft. This is a first draft.
  • jb edits identifies this as a copy marked up by “jb” (that’s me). If I’m the second reviewer, it might read “v1 si jb” — you just add your initials on the end of the filename.

This may seem like secret code, but when you’re drowning in drafts of 14 different chapters, you’ll be grateful for the clear filenames. Conversely, if you’re shuffling around files with names like “Future chapter revised” and “Chapter 6,” you’ll waste time trying to figure out which file is which or, worse yet, end up editing a chapter that’s not the latest version.

You can write and edit in Google Docs instead of Word, but I find that Word makes it easier to keep track of draft status and deadlines. The vision of everybody collaborating on a document is sort of cool for brainstorming, but ends up being confusing for formal content like book chapters. (You don’t really want anyone to just go in and change stuff around outside of your disciplined process.)

6. Use a tracking spreadsheet to keep track of chapters

Are you on schedule? Are you going to make the deadline? There’s really no way to be sure without a tracking spreadsheet. Here’s the one I used for The Fourth Transformation.

The dates in white cells were planned; I shaded things in grey once they were actually done. A Google spreadsheet like this will let you know when things are due and when reviews have to go back. And for a project manager or editor, it helps them realistically estimate if it’s possible to hit deadlines and to spot what might get in the way of the schedule.

7. The Bear

The problem with all big projects, including book projects, is to create urgency at the start, not just at the end. If your book deadline is three months from now, you’d better be working hard on that book every day or you won’t make it. Procrastination is deadly — it not only busts deadlines, it destroys quality as you rush to get things done at the end, when there’s always something going wrong that you hadn’t planned on.

So I use a motivational technique called “The Bear.” Here’s how it works. Each morning, when you wake up, you imagine that a bear is chasing you. You must work relentlessly to stay ahead of it. If you let up, even for a couple of days, the bear will catch you.

The imaginary bear helped my coauthor Charlene Li and me to complete the publisher’s draft of Groundswell in 11 weeks. All these other tips are a great way to maximize your time spent on content, not on process screwups. The Bear will help make sure you spend that time on creating effective content every single day.

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  1. I love the BEAR idea. I need to find a way to make him more real. Perhaps a growling app or something?