How can I make a living as a collaborative writer?
January 11, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor
Someone asked, “What advice can you give those of us who want to make a living as collaborative writers?”
You may not know this, but I made my living as a collaborative writer for years. I was successful at it, and learned some important lessons, so I’m always happy to talk with writers who want to do some collab work. There are a couple lessons I learned…
First, writing speed matters. You see, not everybody works at the same pace. I can bang out words by the pound. It’s obvious Cecil Murphey can. Susy Flory, David Thomas, Mike Yorkey, Steve Halliday, Kenny Abraham, and the other folks in the business who make their living as collaborative writers all write with speed. (True story: When Harvest House Publishers came to me and asked if I’d write a “Y2K” book, I called a writing friend and we banged out 256 pages in 17 days. It sold more than 60,000 copies and, let’s face it, SAVED WESTERN CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT. If it hadn’t been for my book, we’d doubtless all be sitting in the dark and learning Chinese right now. You can thank me later.)
Anyway, most collaborators can bang out words quickly. And not every writer is built like that. It’s certainly not a bad thing if your writing speed is a bit slower, it’s just that you’ll have a harder time making a go of it as a collaborative writer, since being able to produce a lot of words quickly is essential. I find that most writers have a natural pace, and if you try to speed them up too much, they lose focus and quality. Writing fast is probably a necessity for most full-time writers, but it’s not some sort of saintly gift. Many great authors need adequate time. Lisa Samson, one of the best literary novelists in the business and an author I’ve long represented, is a fabulous, decorated writer who, like many successful novelists, normally takes about twelve months to create a novel. Given the choice, she might take even longer. And that’s fine — in fact, to try and “speed her up” isn’t part of the plan. A writer who is creating their own fiction often needs time to create the story. A write who wants to make a living as a collaborator doesn’t have that option.
Second, writing a clean first draft is essential. Most writers take Anne Lamott’s advice to heart, and create a bad first draft — but a draft that they can edit, change, and improve. (Every experienced writer knows that it’s easier to edit words than to create them.) But a collaborative writer basically needs to be able to write a draft cleanly, as well as quickly — a tough combination that few can manage successfully.
One of the best pure writers I’ve ever worked with was Mary Jenson, who wrote beautiful words that made readers stop and ponder (read her book “Still Life” or “Leaving the Empty Nest” sometime, and you’ll see her craft). But Mary is so careful, so methodical, that though her words are wonderful, she’s probably never going to bang out a book a year. She needs time to polish and improve. Brennan Manning was the same way – I represented him for several years, and he was never in a hurry to churn out books. He wanted to make sure it was good, not fast. That’s how most writers are. The “writer as creator” has to take the time needed to do the best book they can. BUT the same isn’t true of collaborative writers. To be a collab, you’ve got to be able to write fast, and have it turn out cleanly. The fact is, if writing fast and clean doesn’t come easily for you, it probably means you need to consider maintaining some other source of income and not focus on collaborations.
Third, keep in mind that there are all sorts of other writing jobs besides collaborating. I wrote magazine articles, newspaper articles, travel articles, book reviews, product reviews, marketing copy, newsletters, speaking summaries, study guides, sidebars, interviews, I looked up quotes, I evaluated manuscripts, I created indexes, and I did copy editing. All of those jobs paid me something, and helped me move from part-time writer to full-time writer. Many of the people reading this just want to have somebody discover their fabulous novel, sell it for them, and turn them into a millionaire (the writing equivalent of hanging out on the corner of Hollywood and Vine). There’s nothing wrong with that — in fact, it’s sort of the dream that keeps many writers going. But I want to point out that you could decide to pursue some alternative writing jobs and turn yourself into a pro by looking for smaller writing projects that don’t require you creating an entire book.
So here’s a hint: If you have a non-profit company or some sort of organization close by, go ask them if you can help create their newsletter, or edit their website. If you know people in an industry, ask about their industry journal. If you are close to a manufacturing company, ask if you could try your hand at creating catalog copy. If you are involved with a mega-church, set up an appointment with the pastor and find out if he has anybody creating sermon outlines for his web site, or turning his sermon series into study guides, or even turning them into a book. That’s basically how I moved from wannabe to actual writer. Yeah, it’s hard work. And what job doesn’t take hard work to achieve success?
The great baseball pitcher-cum-philosopher Satchell Paige once said, “Seems like the harder I work, the luckier I get.” Great advice. He was probably Scottish.