Writing a Book Together

Brian Taylor

November 21, 2010

Collaborative writing is not as common as it should be in the humanities. Faculty members often consider it too risky for professional advancement, based on what they hear—either in the form of explicit warnings or more subtle suggestions—from chairs, deans, and tenure committees.

Ever since we began writing a scholarly book together, it's been the source of frequent quizzical confusion ("But why would you want to do that? Don't you have a lot of disagreements?") and what might be described as professional envy ("Oh, fun! I wish I could do that!"). One friend, an accomplished teacher and writer, wondered how it was possible to preserve an individual voice in collaborative writing.

In our case, we found a way to harmonize our voices, a literal and figurative process for turning the "I" of individual chapters into the "we" of our book.

In the natural and social sciences, research methods often necessitate co-authored publications, and institutions have devised a framework for evaluating the individual work of scholars collaborating on research teams. But publication in the humanities continues to be predicated on the model of single authorship. As humanities scholars, we typically do our research alone, most often in libraries and archives rather than in the field or in laboratories. And while we often ask for help along the way—for example, seeking peer readers of our works in progress—we include such disclaimers in the published version as, "All errors of fact or judgment are the author's own."

When tenure-and-promotion committees review our scholarship, they emphasize individual achievement, placing the most value on a single-author book, followed by edited essay collections and peer-reviewed articles of various sorts. Edited volumes are the kind of publication in which we most often see collaboration in the humanities, with two or more faculty members sharing the tasks of gathering and editing an assortment of essays. But there, too, review committees are sometimes at a loss as to how to evaluate such co-edited publications, especially if the book does not include a single-authored article by the faculty member.

Our primary concern here is not with essay collections, however, but with co-authored books, which remain rare. The experience of writing Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England's Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870 (Cambridge University Press, February 2011), was just the sort of cooperative-learning venture that we hope to foster among our students, and that carried us through all the early uncertainties, the word-count dismay, and the final editing.

We had two goals in mind from the beginning: to write a book that would bring our two disciplines—art history and English—into a fruitful connection, and to find a topic that would have its roots in our mutual love of gardening. We wrote it for the joy of the experience as well as the professional challenge. and we hope this essay will underscore the value of collaboration at all stages of an academic career, not just among tenured full professors.

Now that many aspects of publishing are up for re-evaluation, we think it is a particularly apt time to describe our process. 

In our previous publications, we found a common focus on female writers and artists and on feminist scholarship. Our earliest collaboration was in the classroom, team-teaching "Images of Women in Art and Literature," a course we offered twice in the 1990s at Millsaps College. Judy’s primary field is Romantic literature and culture, centered on the Wordsworths, Romanticism, and Judaism, and on various female writers of the period. Elise’s interest in female artists resulted in a book on the late Victorian painter Evelyn De Morgan and additional work on Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale and Belle Kinney.

The first challenge, then, was to figure out how to turn our initial idea—of combining our scholarly interests in women and 19th-century England with our personal interest in gardening—into a coherent book-length project. This planning stage was the most difficult part of the whole endeavor. Having a co-author made the process more cumbersome for each of us, in that there was inevitably more need for flexibility and compromise, but we both found those early conversations extraordinarily productive.

We were able to consolidate our ideas through e-mails, phone calls, and occasional screen-porch conversations in a way that neither one of us could have achieved on her own. We moved into each other's disciplines in surprising ways, adding references, enriching our theoretical framework, and expanding the scope of our own expertise.

Still, in those early months we felt like we were floundering, a little nervous about what we'd gotten ourselves into. Once we'd decided to extend the project beyond our own areas of professional confidence, we faced many uncertainties. We narrowed the field to English women, gardens, and the late 18th and early 19th centuries, although the exact dates fluctuated, bulging out in one direction or the other depending on material that happened to surface that week.

But that still left a lot of room for maneuvering—too much, it seemed. Without a working thesis or even a clear sense of our boundaries, we spent months gathering ideas and sources. We took early research trips to England and spent days in the British and Lindley Libraries looking at what we now know to be a rather wild and random assortment of books and early periodicals.

But out of that confusion we slowly began to recognize certain recurrent themes and texts. It took a marathon session on Elise's screened porch, in Jackson, Miss., for us to wrestle our thoughts into some sort of order, finally coming up with a list of eight chapters (excluding the introduction and conclusion) and then fairly easily agreeing on who would be the primary author of each one.

We made the chapter assignments based, in part, on whose disciplinaryarea was most relevant (Judy, the literary scholar, got the chapters on Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Austen. Elise, the art historian. got the ones on sketching nature and on children's literature, because of the number of illustrations involved). Otherwise our choices were determined by what we'd discovered in our individual research forays, or on what most interested us. (Elise went with the gardening manuals, Judy with botanical treatises, both areas new to us before we started digging around in the libraries.)

Elise drafted our first chapter, and it actually ended up being the first one in the book—or more accurately, the first and fourth, since we eventually divided it in two. It was a 91-page behemoth in its first iteration. Two years later, we were still redrafting that chapter and others, sending them back and forth with messages like, "Feel free to fiddle around with my own fiddling, of course."

Without doubt, e-mail and various forms of file-sharing made this collaboration possible. Neither of us could imagine the process working as smoothly—or at all—in the world before those technological advances when both of us were writing our solitary dissertations on electric typewriters.

Although our style of writing is remarkably compatible, there were, of course, moments when our disciplinary training led to concerns. For instance, in the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth, Judy included several speculative comments about Dorothy and her relationship to her brother, William Wordsworth. Elise queried in the margins, asking for evidence to support the assertions. The more stringent need for evidence won out over what one of Judy's daughters jokingly referred to as the "speculative excess" of some literary analysis.

We also had to reconcile our different approaches to verb tense, a seemingly minor but pervasive issue. Elise, as the historian, wrote in the past tense except when directly analyzing an image, whereas Judy, as a literary scholar, preferred the present. So we tugged and pushed a bit until we settled on what sounded best in different sections.

Elise’s art-historical background prompted us to justify every illustration (all 72 of them), making sure that we used them as serious carriers of meaning and not simply to decorate the text. That level of analysis was essential to our argument that we needed those 72 illustrations—that our book was just as dependent on the analysis of visual images as of literary texts. We were fortunate that our readers and editors at Cambridge supported that perspective.

E-mails flew during the writing process, especially in the summers, when we found more time to work on the manuscript. Some chapters were left in a rough form, to be returned to later, while we moved on to new territory. After many readings, rereadings, and revisions, it became hard in the end for us to remember which phrase or sentence, or sometimes even which section, was whose.

Looking back, one of the things that helped was our joint recognition that there would be periods in which one of us would have a major breakthrough and the other wouldn't, or one of us would be able to get more work done than the other. Elise had an early sabbatical and, therefore, pulled ahead for a while in the writing. Judy had a sabbatical in the spring of 2008 and, at the same time, was a visiting fellow at the Chawton House library, in England, where she did the research for her work on botanical writing and also started to think seriously about the overall argument of the book and about sending out a proposal to potential publishers.

Writing that proposal—part of which became our introduction—was a turning point because we had to clarify and articulate our argument. Judy wrote the first draft, and it developed over several revisions with Elise. The back-and-forth process of writing the proposal and then (finally) the introduction guided the revisions that we did on the whole manuscript.

Our work process was remarkablysmooth, even through the months of cutting the word count from almost 140,000 to 112,000. It was a happy day in February 2010 when Judy compiled all of the material into one massive file and sent it to Elise with the summary, "416 pages; 112,242 words. Whew!" The pleasure we took in the process, as well as in the final product, was partly due to our friendship, which dates back a quarter of a century, teaching together, gardening together, and raising our children.

Friends often have trouble working together. They bring along too much emotional baggage. So perhaps equally important was the remarkable congruence of our analytical approaches, theoretical leanings, and writing styles.

We recognize, though, that this manner of collaborative writing in the humanities, which seemed to come naturally to us, is just one way to go about it. Another fruitful approach would be to demonstrate divergent perspectives by using different writing styles to underscore theoretical differences. Whatever the approach, we hope to see collaborative writing valued more highly by those in positions to review and assess scholarship in the humanities.

In our own case, getting through our first book together has inspired us to begin planning a second, in which we move beyond the period we considered in Disciples of Flora and into the world of 1880-1945 (a new stretch for us), when women were no longer primarily limited to domestic landscapes but began to consider gardening as an increasingly professional commitment. Our new project will challenge the boundaries of our knowledge, but it also provides a promising new plot of ground to cultivate for several years to come.

Judith W. Page is a professor of English at the University of Florida. Elise L. Smith is a professor of art history at Millsaps College. Their book, "Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England's Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870," will be published in February by Cambridge University Press.