Two Heads are Better Than One: The Pros of Partnerships
Writing is a solitary profession…but not for us. We have each other in this process and have for 33 years. Our partnership is solid and likely to last until we draw our last breath, whomever does so first.
Whether giving a talk in person or more often these days on Zoom, the question always arises that has nothing to do with the content of our books (or articles). Instead, it has everything to do with how the two of us work together and have lasted in this relationship for so long.
Someone will ask, “How do you write with someone else for so many years, especially when you’re not in the same room?” Often, another person, will follow up with, “How do you keep getting along?” And the unsaid follow-up response to that question is, “It seems surprising that two partners can be women.” Would anyone ask that of two men? Now, we’re the ones who wonder.
The truth is that we’re proud we’re still partners after three-plus decades, certainly longer than many marriages and other relationships. And certainly, as we both age and watch others retire, we have decided we’re having too much fun to stop.
Working together—and apart--keeps our brains percolating, stops us from feeling lonely and isolated, especially during the pandemic lockdowns, lets us each enjoy laughs—and sometimes sadness, too. And we think our partnership has improved over time like a good exercise regimen that makes you healthier and more fit.
So far, there’s been no sinking into frequent bickering, which some “couples” do. So why have we become a successful duo? Part of our secret may be that we started out young when we were flexible and eager for an adventure after each of us had toiled years in offices. One of us was in her early 40s and the other had just hit 40.
Another reason is that we shared an interest in our first topic together of family business—one from writing about so many in her newspaper work and the other from watching her husband join her dad’s business and writing about it and family business for a national business magazine.
Because we had only recently met, we decided we needed to see if we’d click as business partners. This was long before we could have the Internet check algorithms to see if we’d be a good match. We tested it the old school way by writing a proposal and our first book together on family business. This not only blossomed into a great working relationship but evolved into a close friendship as well.
That’s when we both lived in St. Louis. Since then, Barbara moved to Chicago, then back again to St. Louis and then East 11 ½ years ago. Margaret came East two years ago but to a different area.
Despite geographic separations and different time zones, our little writing engine kept chugging along—churning out articles, books, family business histories and giving speeches in person and on Zoom about a myriad topics and a weekly blog seven years ago.
How did we manage to write and speak together when living apart? We developed a rhythm or system with that first book. Together, we decided we would take a narrative, human-interest approach rather than write an academic business book. We’d put a face on the topic. So, we profiled families and their businesses across the country--those who worked, struggled, and achieved success, or sometimes failure. In doing so, we covered the dynamics and gamut of issues that affected them, from bringing in another generation to deciding if and when to retire or sell. To get inside the minds and dynamics of the families we chose, we asked if we could spend time living with them for a few days near their homes and businesses so we could interview them in depth.
The approach worked. We slowly developed a model that could be used wherever we lived. At that time, we had no idea of our future moves. It also could work on future projects.
Up close, our process works like this. One of us comes up with an idea or assignment. We discuss what the idea might entail to be completed, decide how to approach it stylistically–sometimes with a rough outline, and then divvy up research and interviews.
When the initial draft is complete, the person who works on it sends it to the other for adding to, editing, tweaking, making major or minimal rewrites. We typically send it back and forth multiple times, being honest, open, but kind.
We’ve been known to say, “I can’t believe how great this is,” or “I think you need to flesh this out.” Early on we knew to adhere to the credo that every writer needs a good (but gentle) editor.
We know not to take criticisms personally—our other work toughened us up. We view changes as necessary to make the final work product the best it can be. After both of us sign off on a final draft, we do a final read and spell check. As a result, our writing has become seamless.
In the process, we have found more similarities. We laugh together about our ability to get lost when out for interviews, commiserate about the peccadillos we end up in occasionally, are impressed by our shared ability to draw forth information from tight-lipped CEOs, interrupt each other in our enthusiasm and finish each other’s sentences.
And we keep pace, as much as two older writers who hate technology can, with changes that come our way faster than we want, switching from floppy disks and computer key commands in WordPerfect to mastering MSWord and all its functions including using a mouse, Google docs that we can share and all the ins and outs of Zoom. Neither of us is intuitively computer savvy, but Margaret is the more adept at mechanical tasks and Barbara is a better typist.
Yet despite so much togetherness, tempers have never reared their ugly heads, although we might have mild disagreements of sentiment and statement. Our partnership over the years has morphed into a close, 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. 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 sisters of the pen and the heart. We share almost everything and know confidentially each other’s best and worst moments. Despite all our time together through the years, we still preface confidences with, “You know this is not to be shared.”
Here is our 10-point formula for a successful partnership. These tips can work for others--tennis, racing skiers or sailors, cooks, and offer ideas even to help romantic partnerships:
- 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 wants to walk. We drafted a contract, had an attorney eyeball it and each signed before we started our first book. We always discuss work to take on—or not--and agree about the pay.
- Division of labor. We don’t keep track of who does what or who gets how much remuneration even if one of us does more work than the other on a certain project. It tends to even out. We get paid 50/50, and split expenses 50/50, too. It’s the same method we each tried to use when married regarding who takes out the trash and loads the dishwasher versus who does the grocery shopping and bed making. We always try to sign emails from both of us, so we establish from the get-go that we’re a team. And we’re transparent.
- Copy changes. We do so without remorse or having to explain…but we also do it kindly. 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.” A typical response is: “Just do anything you want to make it better.” That might mean adding humor, a few facts, citing a source, or doing more interviewing or research.
- Listening closely. 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. We apologize easily.
- 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 and know that it will be done the way we each expect.
- 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 but the process and journey of each becoming better writers.
- Stress points. There are times when one of has a lot of other work or ill child or our own health issue. The other then picks up the slack without either of us feeling guilt. But we still try to compensate and repay the favor.
- Mistakes and 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, there is no finger pointing. We are a team that works together and takes our licks together, too.
- We try not to take credit solo. We let others and each other know when someone has liked our work, as well as when someone hasn’t. Taking a bow together is so much more rewarding and fun.
- Long-haul business plan. Every partnership needs to take its pulse—look at the bottom line and decide when to close shop, sell, step away or go in a new direction. We do that, too. We’ve taken the attitude that we’re in this as writing partners and gal pals until we can’t do the work, have nothing more to say and write or aren’t having fun. The good news; that’s not the case!