Co-author Writing Routines and Best Practices

by | Jan 19, 2024

I got hooked on co-author writing routines in graduate school. Elise Chatelain and I were in the same cohort and often in the same seminars. Talking with each other about our separate projects always made them come alive in surprising ways—so much so that we started putting those projects together.

More than fifteen years later, we’re still writing together. We’ve co-authored journal articles, conference papers, essays for edited collections, grants, and proposals, as well as countless pieces for the online magazine we started in 2017. For us, being co-authors isn’t just more fun or a way to stave off the loneliness of writing (though it is both of those things). It’s a political project reflecting the value we place on collaboration.

Of course, working with another person brings unique challenges. Establishing an individual writing routine is difficult under any circumstances. Establishing a successful co-author writing routine means coordinating two lives, schedules, and writing styles.

However, with preparation and honesty, these obstacles are manageable. Here are some strategies we’ve developed over the years.

Start with a strong (flexible) plan

The most essential thing we’ve learned in honing our co-author writing practice over the years is to not to skip the beginning parts. We often want to dive straight into the writing, whether from excitement about a project or anxiety over deadlines. But that can lead to burn out or feeling overwhelmed—neither of which are helpful for sticking with a routine.

The planning stage for us involves phone calls, a shared brainstorming document, and a shared calendar. We also have honest discussions about our workload and how much time we can commit to writing and researching for the project.

It’s been helpful for us to understand our individual writing styles as well. For example, I think more linearly and prefer starting at the beginning and writing to the end. Elise is more inclined to a quilt-like method: she works on the most urgent piece first and later stitches all the pieces together. Knowing this about each other, we create work plans and co-author writing practices that fit us both.

Once we’re clear about what we’ll each contribute, we turn our brainstorm into an outline. We then assign tasks with deadlines and put them in our shared calendar—always leaving room for surprises.

Taking this time to start together sets in motion the pattern we want to continue.  

Build safe space into your co-author writing routine

In Cathy Hannabach’s fabulous conversation with Magdalena L. Barrera and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales, co-authors of The Latinx Guide to Graduate School, Magdalena spoke to this part of their routine. She said, “I feel like Genevieve created a real safe space for me as an author and as someone who’s really grappled with issues of procrastination and self-doubt in writing, like I know many writers do.”

No writing emerges perfectly the first time. Writing things that aren’t quite what you mean is part of the process of finding what you really want to say. One of the best things about co-authoring is having a playmate in that messy sandbox of ideas.

So, make sure the sandbox is a safe place to play. Set boundaries. Decide on how you’ll give and receive feedback. Nothing will knock a co-author writing routine off track like being afraid to open comments from your partner or feeling like every draft has to be perfect before you share it.

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Trade off the hard parts

A simple trick that keeps Elise and I from getting stuck is to identify the more challenging elements, alternate who is responsible for completing them, and build that into our co-authoring writing routine.

For instance, neither of us likes to start things, be it an introduction paragraph, a new subsection, or a new draft. We solved this issue by trading off the job of writing the first draft of the first paragraphs—with a shared understanding that it can be terrible.

This takes the pressure off the battle with the blank page. When that first messy draft is handed off to the reviser, their task is also easier. Reworking something that exists in raw form is less daunting than staring into a glowing white void.

Embrace Google Docs for co-authoring

In graduate school, Elise lived five blocks away from me. We co-wrote seminar and conference papers by literally sitting together in front of a computer. Those sessions were exciting and generative but not especially efficient. Imagine all the distractions you face when writing alone—then double them.

Now that we live on opposite sides of the continent, we’re actually better co-authors. Google Docs made this possible. Our collaborative work can be folded into our individual routines, while staying up to date on where our partner is in her process.

Additionally, sharing documents means that during our regularly scheduled check-ins we can still experience the pleasure of writing and thinking together in real time.

Schedule regular check-ins with an agenda

Along with having a flexible co-authoring writing routine and deadlines, be sure to schedule regular check-ins. These aren’t writing sessions. They’re a time to talk about snags you’ve encountered, work through logical or logistical gaps, and generally get re-inspired about the project.

This, for me, is the real magic of a writing partner. When one of you hits a wall or loses steam, there’s someone there to bring you back to the big picture and remind you why you started this work in the first place.

However loose these meetings are, we always set an agenda. Sometimes this looks like a checklist we both contribute to. More often, we exchange texts a few hours before the meeting. Either way, it keeps us from straying too far from the work at hand.

Getting support

Once the manuscript is drafted, an important part of a successful co-author writing routine is getting external feedback on your work. Adding a professional developmental editor and copyeditor to your team is a great way to ensure your work has the reach you’d like. It also helps you and your co-author figure out how to combine your voices into a cohesive text. The editors at Ideas on Fire are experts in progressive, interdisciplinary fields. They understand the specific needs of projects with more than one author.

In my experience, the benefits of co-authoring far outweigh the drawbacks. Built-in accountability and feedback systems can make co-author writing routines easier to stick with. And, with the right preparation, the sometimes lonely process of putting words on a page becomes the vibrant exchange that intellectual work is meant to be.

Cite this article:

Bernstein, Sara Tatyana. “Co-author Writing Routines and Best Practices.” Ideas on Fire, January 19, 2024.

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine and Dismantle Writing Services as well as a freelance writing consultant.

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