No writer is an island. By finding our fellow writing partners and working together on projects rather than always flying solo, we can exponentially improve our writing. There is something irreplaceable about bouncing around words and sentence structure with another person to help us pinpoint exactly the right way to convey our intended meaning, to shape our inner thoughts, and to fashion them into a piece of writing. When we write with another person and establish a rhythm, we improve our skills and produce better work.
Building a relationship with another writer takes time, though. It’s one thing to proof a piece for grammatical errors. A step above that is to give somebody basic feedback on their work by telling them what you like or don’t like. But where two writers often achieve their full potential is when they establish a rhythmic back and forth discussion about the piece that makes beautiful prose move across the page. Powerful collaboration takes time, dedication, and a willingness to truly understand one another.
Over the past few years, RedShift has established numerous successful partnerships among our writers and between ourselves and our clients. One thing we have noticed that has enhanced our collaborations between writing partners is the use of certain magical phrases that keep our minds and our conversations active. These phrases have led to some of our best work. Try them out to see if they help you, too.
There is a push-pull relationship that often happens in a successful writing partnership in which both writers have different perspectives on a piece of writing. One writer conveys what they think, and the other writer listens; then, they switch. Eventually, both writers need to hear each other out and decide how to integrate either one or both perspectives into the piece. Sometimes, we may even uncover a new perspective that unlocks additional creative potential.
At the end of the day, though, the words we use aloud to communicate with one another are not foolproof. We may struggle to use words to get our point across during the writing process, even if we are gifted with words to begin with, and doubly so if we feel strongly that our preference is the better one and that nothing else will do for a given part of the writing.
If you’re working with another writer on trying to find the right way to say something, and the person you’re working with starts to verbalize the sentence aloud (“What if we put it like this…”), that’s usually a good opportunity to say “try it.” Then, they can write it down on the page before it leaves their head, striking while the iron is hot.
Conversely, if your writing partner seems on a roll and you don’t want to interrupt, try jotting down what they’re saying. Your writing partner might speak faster than you can type, so you may only be able to jot down the beginning of what they say. By writing it down, you can remind them of where they started so they can retrace the thread and capture the whole idea.
“Try it” tells your writing partner to feel free to play with what is there. It dissipates all of the judgment that might have been looming in the air. The person saying it opens themselves up to the idea in front of them, and the person then challenged to “try it” is given the motivation to outline their vision on the page so both partners can assess it.
“Show me” busts down a lot of the same barriers as “try it.” It’s a phrase that implicitly reminds us of how we should usually write: by showing, not telling. It also expresses from one writing partner to another that while an idea may be good, they are having a hard time immediately envisioning it. If we are shown an idea, we can then make a healthy assessment of it.
“Show me” helps overcome a lack of visualization. If you’re helping your writing partner write an instructional piece about how to clean a dog’s paws, and you notice there’s a lack of detail that could confuse the reader such as “take a wet wipe and rub it on your dog’s paws,” you could ask the writer to “show me” what that looks like.
They may say something like, “Well, the wet wipe should be made of natural ingredients. You also want to clean the pads of their paws, and wipe between each digit of their paw. Oh, and the dog will probably try to pull their paws away if they are sensitive, so you may want to have someone help you calm them and keep them still.” And suddenly you have a lot more information and detail to work with. You could even go on to ask, “Can you show me what different dirty paws look like?”, to which your writing partner might respond, “Sure! They could have muddy paws, dusty paws, paws with dirt caked on the nails…” and now you’re writing a far more helpful and informative piece.
“Show me” can also stave off what Stephen Pinker calls the Curse of Knowledge, the assumption that someone knows more than they actually do. The Curse of Knowledge leads to writing that goes over the reader’s head. They won’t understand it unless they go look it up themselves. If you want them to understand the concept you’re discussing without the same amount of knowledge that you have, you will need to break some concepts down for them. “Show me” encourages writers to outline their thoughts in a way that can be understood, or “seen”, by the reader.
Many writers talk too much on the page. We write too many words. We say the same thing over and over again, going on and on to make our point.
Sometimes, readers need a pause to process what you are saying. A long complex-compound sentence can be powerful once in a while. But if your piece consists entirely of long, complex-compound sentences with no paragraph breaks, you’re going to overwhelm the reader with a wall of words.
“Break it” is helpful when a sentence with multiple clauses becomes unwieldy and would simply be better if it were made into more than one sentence.
Here’s an example:
The people gathered around, pointing at the seals flopping around on the pier, drawing the attention of onlookers from a passing boat, who snapped pictures as the ship made its way toward the dock.
There are multiple ideas going on here:
- Seals are flopping around
- A ship is sailing by
- There are people on the ship
- Those people are taking pictures of the seals
Putting all of that in one sentence is not only confusing but also leads to grammatical errors; in this case, the passing boat is supposedly “snapping pictures” as it sails “toward the dock”, which isn’t what the writer means.
If we “break it” and rearrange it, it will read better.
We might edit it to read:
People gathered around to gawk as the seals flopped around on the pier. Onlookers from a passing boat pointed and took pictures as they sailed toward the dock.
See how there is less going on in any given sentence and you can follow the train of logic from one idea to the next? When we “break it”, we make the sentence into smaller, more easily digestible pieces.
“Break it” can also apply on the paragraph level, too. If you look at the page and it seems like there are no paragraph breaks in sight, you may want to separate each large idea into individual paragraphs.
“Break it” naturally leads to conversations about reorganizing and restructuring a piece of writing to be easier to read. Sometimes you’ll find that the conclusion of one paragraph is better as the lead sentence of the next paragraph, or vice versa. So feel free to also say “combine it”, “move it here”, “move it there”, and experiment with the order of your writing.
Headings, section titles, subtitles, and lists are also great ways to break up information to make it more approachable and less intimidating to your readers.
Your writing partner has good ideas, and so do you. When you say to your writing partner, “Let me know what you think” or “Tell me what you think” or any other derivative of that phrase, it is a sign that you trust their opinion. In a healthy writing relationship, your writing partner will give you open, honest feedback, telling you what they liked about your writing and how you may be able to improve it.
If your writing partner is asking for your opinion, it’s important to remember that good writing is all about taking chances. The writer you’re working with is testing an idea on the page—using a new frame, playing with a new voice, or exploring new ways to structure their ideas—so it’s important to encourage experimentation while also letting them know your honest opinion. If we simply tell our writing partners, “It’s great!” or “I don’t like it” without telling them why, we are doing them a disservice.
One good way to encourage your writing partner is by actively being inspired by their ideas. If they show you a piece that they framed as a funny list, you can let them know that you liked it by adding to their idea. Your writing partner might say, “I wanted to introduce this piece with a checklist for summer; what do you think?” And you can say something like, “Sandals, sunscreen… what if we add koozies?!”
When you allow yourself to be inspired by your partner’s ideas, they in turn become inspired by your ideas, creating a positive feedback loop or a creative flow between you and your writing partner.
You may be thinking “Doesn’t that remove my fingerprints from the piece?” or “What if every time I say ‘see what you think’, they think that my idea stinks and delete what I have written?”
If those thoughts enter your head, remember three things:
First, when you have a collaborative relationship with a good writing partner, the end piece is co-authored equally. No one owns any particular words or paragraphs. Your contribution to the piece is not the words you typed, but rather the effort you put in to get to the final product. Let the ego go. It’s not about who is the better writer; it’s about the greatness you can achieve together.
Second, just as you want your partner to “see what you think”, they deserve to have you ask what they think, too, especially when it can make your piece so much better. If your writing partner is inspired by what you wrote and wants to add to it or heighten it, don’t be afraid to allow ideas to evolve with their contribution, even if it means re-writing some of what you wrote. Some of the words you write are going to get deleted, and that’s okay. Those words got the conversation going, and established a framework for the piece.
Lastly, if you are feeling too much friction to keep up basic communication with a writing partner, you may want to take a step back and talk about the relationship. If they always seem to shoot your ideas down, talk about it. Let them know how it makes you feel. Stay calm, but be firm that you feel like your creative potential is being hampered. If they are not clear about why they dislike your ideas, you may want to ask them, “Why? What don’t you like about my idea?”
As writers and general creatives, we can sometimes let our egos get in the way, so actually letting someone know how it makes you feel when they don’t provide constructive feedback may help them become a better collaborator. Of course, there may come a time when you need to move on and explore the possibilities that other writing relationships have to offer.
While it is always important to give honest feedback and to suggest how to improve a piece of writing, sometimes a person simply needs confirmation that their writing is good.
“I like that” can be a simple, positive nod to a phrase that stuck the landing. If you’ve both been searching for the right word or phrase and someone finally lands on it, you may find the other writing partner saying “I like it” or “Yeah, that’s it.”
“I like that” can also be used to encourage someone to carry an idea even further. If your writing partner uses a particular word such as “howdy” to evoke a folksy or plain tone, you can say, “I like that. That’s folksy,” to encourage them to explore other folksy language and build on that tone.
Telling your writing partner that an idea works gives them new techniques for their tool kit and makes them feel more confident about writing outside the box.
Try telling your writing partner every once in a while that you appreciate working with them and are grateful for that opportunity, too. If you want people to enjoy working with you, encourage them. Lift up their strengths. The opportunity to write together is priceless.
Every writing relationship is unique. Different writing partners may vary the words they use when working together. These are just five of the phrases we use at RedShift Writers.
Keep a running list so you can recognize the phrases that unlock creative potential in your writing relationships. Show us the phrases that will make us say “I like that” at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking for writing partners? Consider joining us at Community Writing Hour.