Managing the review zoo: vision, respect, quality, communication, and draft control

When you’re writing a book for multiple reviewers, it’s a minefield. One false step and all your work can get blown up.

Right now, I’m ghostwriting a book in a process that includes four reviewers (including the author) and a publisher. Any one of them could make my life miserable by saying “No, no, this is all wrong.”

And yet none of them have.

I’ve already written about the tactics for a process like this. You have to carefully design an authoring and review process. But unless everyone gets the attitudes right, no amount of careful design and attention to tactics will work.

Five key attitudes that make reviews far less painful

Run your project according to these principles and it will likely succeed. Fail to do so, and you’re in for a world of hurt.

  1. A shared vision. If everybody has a clear idea of what the task is, then they’re a lot more likely to collaborate effectively. Defining the vision (and the resulting table of contents) is essential at the start of the project. Without this, everyone will be operating from different assumptions, and you’re sure to have conflicts.
  2. Mutual respect. In my current project, I have enormous respect for the author and his reputation. I also respect his team, each of which are expert in a specific area that’s important to the book project. Equally important: the client has repeatedly mentioned how much he respects me for the expertise in authoring and publishing that I bring. Nobody is trying to assert power or influence in this process, which is why it’s working peacefully and efficiently. Maintaining that mutual respect is essential: if any of us started to behave disrespectfully, everything would become contentious.
  3. Quality. I never deliver anything that’s incomplete, contains writing errors, or lacks references. I’d rather spend a month on a chapter than deliver half-baked crap. While the results may appear overengineered for a first draft, this level of quality makes it a lot easier for reviewers to see how the draft chapters fit and where the challenges might be. Similarly, the draft we turn in to the publisher will be as perfect and pristine as we can make it, so they have no reason to raise serious objections.
  4. Communication. Clarity of communication is essential in a shared process like this. We communicate in detail before I draft chapters to get the author’s ideas clear; I also deliver notes along with each draft chapter regarding issues I’ve resolved and others I want the reviewers to pay attention to. I’ve also put in serious effort to explaining the publishing process to the team, since they lack publishing experience. We communicate by email; a tool like Slack isn’t appropriate when the client is a senior executive with many other responsibilities.
  5. Draft control. Every draft file is numbered in a rational way. There is a spreadsheet, visible to all, that shows the schedule. While I’m writing a draft, the others don’t comment. When I’m done with a draft, I stop writing and wait for all the comments to come in. They all see each other’s comments. At any given moment, there is a latest draft of each chapter, and everyone knows where those drafts are stored in our shared workspace. Rigid and disciplined draft control is the only way to manage a process like this, and everyone needs to buy into it.

When this works, it’s great

Everybody gets along and we all know our roles.

If you’re in a process like this, get the attitudes right. If you’re a freelancer, vet the client for these qualities. If you’re hiring a writer, vet the writer as well.

If you don’t do this, writing a book can devolve into painful politics. Everyone involved will suffer. That’s an expensive way to make a mediocre book.

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