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Howdy, Partner

October 02, 2015 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

There was no Internet service based on algorithms in 1985 to see if we clicked as business partners or even friends.

And now 30 years later, we’re happy to share with anyone who will listen: “We’re still partners! We’re still partners!” every time someone asks, and they often do, phrasing it usually this way: “Are you two still writing together?” Many seem to imply by their query that two females can’t work together closely and get along…for long. Would they ask that of men? Hmmm, but that’s another blog post.

The answer to the question on the table now is a resounding “yes,” and even after all these years. The question continues to crop up especially when we’re together in the same city. Let us explain, At one point, we both lived in the Heartland; then, Barbara moved East after her divorce to start a new life.

People are even more eager to know, however, how we manage to write together when living 1,000 miles apart. We developed a system. Typically, one of us will come up with an idea or an assignment–could be an article, series of articles, blog post, or a book. We’ll discuss what the idea might entail to be completed, decide how we’ll approach it stylistically–sometimes with a rough outline, and then divvy up the research and interviews.

One of us, and there’s no set pattern, says, “I’ll start it!” and we’ve begun. When the initial draft is done, it’s sent to the other for adding to, editing, tweaking, major or minimal rewriting. We typically send it back and forth several more times, being very honest, open, and kind. We’ve been known to say, “I can’t believe how great this is,” or “What were you possibly thinking…” But we can do so because we adhere to the credo that every writer needs a good editor–open and honest but kind. We have each other; how lucky we are. And, we don’t take any criticisms personally but view them as necessary to make the final product the best it can be. When we think we’re done, we usually send the piece back to the other for another read and spell check.

Computers have made this partnership much more possible than by typing on a typewriter and mailing through snail mail, as we share files, photos, links, and more with email, FaceTime, Skype, and texting. It wasn’t always this way.

When the two of us first lived in the same city, we wrote our first book together in Margaret’s basement on her IBM PC in WordPerfect. We met through a mutual friend in 1981, who thought as two writers we’d enjoy each other’s company. When we discovered an interest in writing about some of the same topics, including family business, we casually talked about doing a book together on that topic. There was no other book on the market, except academic and lackluster business tomes. Our book would offer a narrative, human-interest approach. We’d profile families and their businesses across the country, who worked, struggled, and achieved success, or sometimes failure. In doing so, we’d cover the dynamics and gamut of issues that affect them, from bringing in another generation to deciding if and when to retire or sell. The year was 1985. After doing massive amounts of research on the topic and gathering the names of any family business we read or heard about (including businessman Donald Trump who informed us he was writing his own first book), we wrote the many business leaders to line up possibilities, and narrowed our list to 14. At the same time, we co-wrote the proposal, sort of our courtship as a way to test the waters to see if we clicked; if there was chemistry.

Fortuitously, our agent sold our proposal, we received an advance, and used some of it to travel to interview the families in person–as far away as California’s Napa Valley and Santa Barbara. The book came out in 1989. Equally important, we found we were simpatico and had all these traits in common: general agreeableness, extroversion, intellect, curiosity, fairness, small egos, ethics, values….all keys to a successful partnership.

We also had different but complimentary writing styles. Barbara is a very linear and organized writer.

Barbara reigns in Margaret, whose style is more horizontal, literary, and out of the box. She is great at embellishing and expanding Barbara’s more business-like prose. Barbara is more visual. Margaret is an auditory writer; her phrases have to have a rhythm to work for her. And Barbara’s learned to listen and learn to do so much better.

Interviewing styles are similar, however, with both of us able to step over some boundaries to get what we need from a source and even eliciting tears from women and men at times. Neither of us is particularly computer savvy, but Margaret tends to do more of the mechanical tasks such as posting on our blog (lifelessonsat50plus.com) while Barbara is a much better typist. Margaret has a good eye for proofing, and we’re both good editors–changing each other’s copy—without wounding one other–to make all our joint prose seamless. Often times, we can’t recall who wrote which phrase. When we say, “I don’t like that lead or the ending needs to pop,” our feathers remain unruffled, and we add the changes necessary to make the other happy.

Tempers have never reared their ugly heads, although we might have mild disagreements of sentiment and statement. And our partnership over the years has morphed into a close and solid friendship. In addition to writing, we gossip together, laugh, and cry together, cook and eat together, socialize together, discuss books and politics, share in grief and happy milestones, in mistakes, in joys and in fears, and relish good junk food that Margaret has stashed but is generous in sharing. We each have our own work as well and often vet the other’s copy, if asked. Most of all, we are each other’s cheerleader. In short, we have become both sisters of the pen and the heart.

Here is our formula for a successful writing partnership as we continue to co-author books, articles, and our weekly bog. And these 9 tips can work for other forms of partnerships, too–doubles tennis partners, racing sailing buddies, cooking enthusiasts, and no matter what gender:

  • Contract. It starts the conversation about what the expectations are and what the consequences might be if there’s an infraction or disagreement and one of us walks. We drafted and each signed one before we started our first book.
  • Division of labor. We never keep track of who does what or who gets how much remuneration even if one of us does more than the other on a certain project. It tends to even out. We get paid 50/50. Also, we rotate who does the billing and receives the checks if the client only wants to issue one check.
  • Copy changes. We do so without remorse or having to explain…and do it gently. The conversation might go: “I really love the way you started the piece, but it tends to go off course by the second graph. I’m going to move some things around and tighten.” And typical response is: “Just do anything you want to make it better.” That might mean adding humor, some fact, citing a source, or doing more interviewing or research.
  • Trust and respect. We know that if we tackle a project together, it will get done on time, often ahead of deadline. We’ll submit clean copy, and it will be fact checked and spelled checked. We trust each other to do the work we don’t do and know it will be done the way we each expect.
  • Listen to each other. When one makes a suggestion, we don’t get defensive or take it as criticism. We talk it out and often come to a compromise. If we have a problem, we air it on the spot. We don’t let it fester.
  • Value added. Again, we have different and complementary strengths, similar values, and goals. We love our craft and our work is not all about the money.
  • Stress points. There are times when one of has a lot of other work or an ill parent or child or a health issue. The other then picks up the slack without either of us feeling any guilt.
  • Both admit mistakes and take responsibility. If a name is misspelled, someone is misquoted, or a fact inadvertently left out or misstated, we’re only human— although we do our best to check and double check. However, in the event of a mistake, we both take responsibility. There is no finger pointing. We are a team that works together and takes our licks together too.
  • Compliments. We try not to take credit solo but let others and each other know when someone has liked our work, as well as when someone hasn’t.

We’re in this for the long haul as both writing partners and good gal pals. And we’ll let you in on a very important ingredient of our success. As writers who now each work from home, it’s so much nicer having someone on the other end of a phone, text or email to tap for conversation and share almost everything with.




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