The challenge of collaborating with a non-writer

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I’ve been collaborating with some very smart people lately — helping them write long pieces that explain the power of their ideas. Many of them are not great writers, which is why they have asked for my help.

The best part about collaboration is the exhilaration of learning new ideas, contributing to them, building evidence for them, and writing about them. I would be happy if I could keep doing this for the rest of my life.

And when it’s time for them to review what I have created for them, I have no problem when my collaborator tells me that I got the idea wrong, that there is better evidence, that it’s not convincing enough and here’s where to find the stuff to make it more convincing.

I hate the part where my collaborator tries to improve my carefully drafted, crystalline prose with words that would make it clunky and awful. I’m vain about my prose. I feel like a paint-by-number artist has added a bit more lime green and tangerine yellow to my Matisse masterpiece. While this is a completely normal emotional reaction, it is totally unproductive.

It’s not wrong. The reaction springs from pride about what I have created, and pride in what I create drives me to do the best possible job.

What matters is what happens next.

First I scowl.

Then I figure out what the collaborator is getting at. Oh, you would prefer I don’t reveal this embarrassing detail about the subject whose story we’re narrating. You mentioned this other new idea in three places, you clearly want to get it into the document somewhere, even if it doesn’t belong where you put it. No, you cannot change a direct quote I got from an interview, but I can understand what you think the subject was trying to say, even if she didn’t actually say it.

The writer’s job in this situation is to understand the problem, then use their skill to solve it. And if you have the right relationship with your collaborator, the results will be excellent. They’ll get what they want, and you’ll get prose that’s still something to be proud of.

If your collaborator is a writer, then you have the hard job synchronizing your styles, because they do have a right to suggest wording. But if they’re not, then get things straight. Their job is to identify the flaws in how you presented their ideas. Your job is to address to those flaws. Then you can keep working together without the need for therapy.

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  1. IMO a huge problem many non-writers have is that they think they can skillfully say something without actually saying it. The reality is that meaning in communication is binary: people understand or they do not. We can allude to something while being careful about language: “based on the available data, it can be argued this business is doomed” means “probably doomed, but it’s possible we’ve missed something”. But I’ve worked with people who would try to say that in 10 paragraphs filled with so many meandering dependent clauses and untethered pronouns that it is indecipherable. Worse, that kind of non-writer sees “indecipherable” as some sort of victory.

  2. I write for a living, and I often write to explain the thoughts of others, as you describe here. Invariably, these people with great thoughts start editing what I’ve written. The approach I’ve taken (with some success) is to explain that, if they edit what I’ve written, then I’ll learn nothing. However, if they explain where I went wrong, I can rewrite to make the message more clear based on improved understanding of their ideas, which will also allow me to represent their thoughts more clearly in the future. The time they take to explain things to me is an investment on their part, with the payoff being a better product in the future.