Writing Partners

August 1, 2012

For many years now, I’ve had the same writing partner, Edvige Giunta, whom we all call Edi. Edi and I have co-edited a book, The Milk of Almonds, and some of our best writing memories are when we sat in my sun-filled kitchen, drinking espresso and eating biscotti, as we first dreamed the book we would produce, refined our vision, solicited essays from women across the United States, edited first one essay and then another, and wrote and revised our Introduction. Some have called it a landmark work, this collection of essays by Italian American women about the connection between food and their lives, and to us it was. A landmark in our writing—we learned how to work collaboratively and we learned that our writing lives were infinitely more pleasurable and productive when we worked with and sought the advice of a like-minded writer.

Writing doesn’t have to be—I almost want to say shouldn’t be—solitary. I know that when I shrink from contact with Edi, when I go a few weeks without working with her, and, instead, work alone, I get weird. I second guess every judgment I make. I feel like I’ll never get my work done. I can’t figure out what to do first, second, and next. I doubt that the work I’m doing is worthwhile. And yet there are times when I get so caught up in my work that I don’t seek the counsel of Edi, my wisest writing friend. I forget that having a writing partner in my life is a blessing and a gift and that I should ask for help when I need it, which is often.

These days Edi and I are again working actively together. She is finishing editing a book with another collaborator and she is also working on a second draft of a memoir about her young adulthood in Gela, Sicily. I am finishing my book about writing. We’ve found a way of working together that suits us both at this stage of our lives, and I thought you might like to hear how we go about our work.

First, we decided that we’re not necessarily going to share our work, although we might at some point. Edi has said that she’ll read anything I want her to read; I’ve told her I’ll read anything she wants me to read. Still, we both believe that sharing work too early in the process is an invitation for disaster. What, after all, can someone say to a published writer about a work that’s not in its penultimate stage—the stage where it’s ready for someone to read but when it needs perhaps one more revision? Edi and I both work provisionally in a project’s early stages—I’d be giving her meanderings rather than lucid prose; Edi works organically and so what the manuscript looks like now is nothing like the book will be. We’ve both had the unwelcome experience of being asked to read a writer’s work-in-progress and comment upon it while the writing was in its initial stages; both of us have labored to come up with helpful comments; both of us have been told, upon sending off our suggestions, that it’s okay, the writer has already moved on to another draft. We’ve both wasted this kind of time. I don’t want to waste Edi’s time—she’s an enormously busy woman; and she doesn’t want to waste mine. And so we hold back our work from each other and we don’t share work until it’s ready. Sometimes we don’t share it at all, and the first time we see it is when it’s published. This might sound strange. But it’s worked very well for us.
For what we need from each other is something far different than an editor: we need a collaborator in the process of doing our work. We’ve learned that if we have ongoing conversations about the process—detailed ones—then we each can go about our work more confidently.

So, what do we do instead of critiquing our works-in-progress?

We talk about our works-in-progress. We’ve made a plan to have a telephone meeting once a week on Monday at 10AM to talk about our work. We’ve established a few ground rules. During that meeting, which usually lasts about three-quarters of an hour, we talk only about work. We don’t talk about our teaching, or about our families, or about whatever challenges we’re facing in the other areas of our lives. (We have those conversations at other times during the week.) We talk about our writing, only. During the rest of the week, we can check in with each other about our work, but briefly. I’ve called Edi and asked her if I can ask her a quick question, and she’s complied. But I respect that she has a very busy schedule and that we’ve set aside this other time, so I try to gather my questions together to discuss with her at this one time. Establishing these boundaries has made our partnership work.

On Mondays, when we check in with each other, Edi usually goes first. She tells me what she’s done during the past week on each of her projects. She then reports on whatever writing challenges she’s now facing. This past week, she’d established one chapter in a “Second Pass” folder and she’d brought that chapter up to the kind of polish she is looking for at this preliminary, but not early, stage. She’d looked at another chapter (that she’d heavily edited), which will soon be at the “Second Pass” stage and will become, she’s almost sure, the second chapter. As she reviewed that chapter, though, she realized that she had another document in which she established the geographical and historical background that was pertinent to understanding both the second chapter and the first. Should this be, she wondered, a kind of interchapter? Or should she take material from this chapter and insert it into the first and the second chapter. In passing, she remarked that she’d made the edits to the second document on the printed page of the chapter. What did I think, she wondered.

As we talk, I take notes on my computer so that Edi and I have a record of what we discuss. This is enormously useful because I tend to forget the extremely relevant advice that Edi gives me and it’s necessary for me to consult the précis of our notes throughout my writing week. Before I answered, I quickly reviewed the notes I’d taken from Edi’s report.

“Enter the handwritten edits in the second chapter into the computer and make a clean copy,” I suggested. “You’ll go crazy if you try to introduce new material from that interchapter unless you have a clean copy.” And she agreed. We also discussed that at some point she could reread the interchapter and intuitively decide what material could go there. I suggested that she make entirely new documents when she does this—to “play” with introducing the interchapter material into these two other chapters for awhile rather than committing to doing it right away and she thought this was a good idea.

I asked Edi how many hours she had in the coming week to devote to her writing. She’s completing another book, she runs workshops on memoir and yoga, she’s preparing to teach in the Autumn, in addition to living a rich and full family life. This is the stage of the conversation where Edi and I commit to a work schedule and a work plan for the week. We try to be realistic so that we don’t set ourselves up for feeling like we haven’t accomplished what we set out to do. We try not to anticipate having more time than we do.

Edi said that, realistically, she had four hours. I asked her whether she could enter all the changes in that time. She said she didn’t know; that it could take her a half an hour or it could take the week’s work time or more. She decided to begin with entering the changes and postpone deciding what to do about the interchapter material. In the meantime, she can reread that interchapter, and let the decision about what material to shift into which chapter percolate. In this way, when she moves to that moment in the revision, she’ll probably know what she needs to do.

I reported to Edi that I’d finished revising the writing book for the third time and that I’d started to establish the order of the first part of the book which will be quite different from the order of the Third Pass. This entailed rereading all the chapters in the new provisional order and deciding whether they worked in this order. This entailed, too, revising any material that was repetitive. I reported that as I began to reread, I realized I needed to revise the Introduction to the book, and I worked on that. I realized, too, that this is such a big book—it’s running over 50 chapters and 300 typescript pages—that I needed to begin an outline of what’s in each part so that I can readily see if any of the chapters repeat what’s been said before.

My question for Edi regarded how I should plan my work during the rest of the summer. Edi knows my work habits. She also knows how I can get myself into trouble when I try to do too much at a time. She reminded me that it’s the summer and that I’m still in recovery mode. She asked me how long it takes me, realistically, to revise a chapter—the chapters are short. I told her that it takes about an hour. She asked if the chapters will need another revision, and I said that, yes, they would, but that I would like to refine what I have one more time right now, so I decided to revise a chapter, and then print it out, and revise it again—a method I used when I was editing my husband’s chapter book which worked very well. The next revision, then, if I need one, won’t be so onerous.

Edi asked me how finished I wanted the manuscript to be. I realized, when she asked me this question, that I want it to be finished enough for an agent to decide whether she wants to work with me on the manuscript. Edi pointed out that though it has to be polished, that if I work beyond that, I’ll be too committed to what I’ve done and I won’t be open and flexible enough to take professional advice. I realized she’s right so that I decided to try to work towards a Fifth Pass draft and to assess, at that time, whether a Sixth Pass was necessary.

Edi asked me how much time I wanted to work every day this coming week. I told her that I wanted to work for two hours. She suggested that this was too much at this particular time. She suggested, instead, that I set a goal of revising seven to eight chapters during a five-day work week which would mean that I will have completed the revision of the first part of the book. If I continued with this schedule throughout the summer, it would mean that the book would be in its Fifth Pass stage in seven weeks, by the first week of September. But Edi reminded me that, when we worked on The Milk of Almonds together, I insisted that we added a year to our anticipated date of completion so that we didn’t feel pressured. “Add another week, at least,” she said. “Aim for the middle of September or late September.” And I agreed.

Talking specifically in this way about a work-in-progress is invaluable to me. I know it’s invaluable to Edi too. I come away from our meetings revitalized. I know that the work I’ve planned for the coming week is doable; I know the direction my work will take.

If you don’t already have a writing partner, try to find one. Set boundaries. Set meeting times. Commit to keeping your appointments. Commit to doing what you and your writing partner have outlined for the coming week. Edi and I have found that you don’t have to read work-in-progress. Having a fruitful conversation like the one I’ve outlined here has helped me much, much more than any critique of a work-in-progress could provide.


15 Responses to “Writing Partners”

  1. Vanessa Ortiz (Vanessa Melchiori) Says:

    This was just what I needed to read today! My writing partner and I are superbusy and tend to email random chapters at one another with a quick blurb response. With little kids it’s so hard to talk on the phone and either no be interrupted or not allow the conversation to fall onto other topics. Thank you for explaining in such detail about your experience scheduling, and making the most of, time with Edi.

  2. Louise Matarazzo Says:

    This piece was such an inspiration for me. Working alone and sometimes having someone read my work is not working for me. Your suggestions are so helpful. I can’t tell you how many times I have re-written my first chapter. I’m sending this piece to three of my writing pals. I know I have a whole book in my head and I’m past the stage of whether anyone likes my material or not. Now, I want help in organizing a readable manuscript that flows.
    I’m writing about my Sicilian/American upbringing and I have had the same problem that Edi has had. (I think)
    How do I insert all the historical happenings in a readable fashion that enhances the reasons why my parents crossed an ocean to find a better life for themselves?
    And how do I keep the reader engaged and interested while turning the pages to find out more?
    Thanks again for sharing your life on the page. This type of dialogue is invaluable to me.
    By the way, when do you guys find time to make artichokes?

  3. Peter Orozco Says:

    It has never occurred to me to have a writing partner. There are times when I struggle to keep a routine, set goals for writing, and track my progress, but after reading your blog post, it’s clear now that a writing partner is essential to succes.

    I’m part of an organization called the National Society of Leadership and Success, and we have group meetings called success networking teams (SNTs). In these teams, a group of four to five members share goals they want to accomplish and the others give suggestions on how to best accomplish those goals. I see a similarity here between the SNTs and having a writing partner. You need someone that’s going to motivate you and keep you on track while also having the responsibility to motivate others. This kind of commitment, as I’ve experienced from my work in SNTs, helps to provide momentum to what otherwise might lead to a dead end. I see now that writing partners can do the same.

  4. Melissa Hroncich Says:

    Writing partners are essential for many reasons and reading this blog confirmed it. Recently, in our memoir class we had to pair up with one or two peers. I feel secure in knowing I can depend on my writing partners to give me that reasssurance when I need it. Or maybe for those suggestions I will need to improve my writing piece. Truthfully, this makes a lot of sense because I have a teaching partner at school who I happen to be very good friends with as well. We talk weekly regarding planning/instruction and on a daily basis regarding the activities/grading of students. These conversations keep us focused and motivated on what we need to do to better prepare our middle schools students in Language Arts. All in all, we support each other in regards to our teaching ideas and passion. This is exactly the kind of relationship I want to build with my writing partners in my memoir class. This will give me the opportunity to grow professionally as a writer. In addition, it will also keep me focused on what I need to accomplish weekly in developing my memoir. Thank you!

  5. walter skinner Says:

    Dear Ms. DeSalvo,

    It is refreshing to hear that writing partners can establish and accomplish so much without reading works in progress. During my summer, my writing partner and I were doing only that. Because we shared the same job location, we were able to meet up every week and exchange hard copies of our latest projects or revised pieces. However now that the summer has ended, we have not been able exchange our own work because of the workload we receive from school. But to hear how you and your writing partner operate helps me understand that there are numerous ways in which this relationship can exist. Either it be via phone, email, or in person exchanging rough drafts, a writing partnership is as flexible and helpful as the partners themselves want to make it. Seeing how my partner and I have such a different schedules and are in a different circumstances than how we were in the summer, I realize this bond is an amoeba, and it will always shape itself into our odd schedules as long as we not only allow it but want it to.

  6. Melissa Sutaris Says:

    ^ I am Walter’s writing partner, and I agree with the fact that it is amazing that you and Dr. Giunta can talk with one another about your pieces. My writing partner and I had been exchanging pieces but we had never really had a conversation about them without having the work present. The work on paper isn’t only important, the ideas manifesting in our heads are just as important as well!

    Talking about works in progress with a writing partner can help in so many ways. Not only can you both share ideas that may end up coinciding with one another, but you can hear yourself speak about your writing out loud to someone else. My writing partner and I work in different ways, and to share the ways in which we work is essential because we are then able to pick up tips from each other. Asking each other questions may be the best thing to do because those questions may be things that we hadn’t thought about before on our own.

    Thank you for sharing your writing practice with your partner! I now realize that having a writing partner doesn’t just only include exchanging work: communication is extremely important.

  7. Dear Ms. DeSalvo,

    I’m a student in Dr. Giunta’s Memoir class and your blog post reiterates the philosophy that we’ve been embracing throughout this semester. The idea of sharing one’s work and it not being a sole endeavor is something that takes a degree of maturity in a writer. I can say with all honesty, that in my fore years, I lacked such trait. Perhaps it was mixture of arrogance and fear that lead most of my writing to remain in the ether’s of my hard drive. Unshared, unedited, and deprived.

    The importance of a writing partner was especially crucial in my maturation as a would-be writer. There was a catharsis in knowing that you weren’t alone in chipping away at the creative block; the artistry of prose and the honesty in memoir.

    The ability to talk about ones creative process, from a writer’s point of view was an essential one. Acquaintances and friends would give you critiques but none were as sobering than the writing partner. Your partner new and understood what elements were needed in the genre of memoir.

    In being able to open and share your struggles, you knew what issues to address. The commitment to the writing partnership also stressed a discipline to the craft of writing. It was a mutual reinforcement of committing the hours to the writing and to the editing process.

    I learned through Dr. Giunta’s workshop that there was a community, a camaraderie, and that everyone had a unique story to tell. I gained a deep respect for everyone’s writing. We all labored and toiled in the same bunker.

  8. oneup Says:

    I also think that having a writing partner is paramount when writing your memoir and anything else. We had an excecise in class in which we had a random writing partner. That excercise alone helped me greatly for my memoir. It made make ask me questions that I otherwise wouldn’t have asked myself. It was also a lot of fun.
    My regular writing partner although we didn’t communicate that often, played an important part on my memoir development. I can only imagine what could it have been have we had more time together.

  9. Erin Van Horn Says:

    Great post, Ms. DeSalvo.

    I’m in Dr. Giunta’s Memoir class and currently beginning my process working with a writing partner and organizing my first draft of my memoir. A main challenge I keep running into is organizing time well and scheduling interactions between my writing partner and I that seems to allocate the work process and not hinder its growth.
    It seems that even general notes, i.e. comma placements (for effectiveness or emphasis moreso than grammar correctiveness) is helping me out. Also, my writing partner is helping me see the breakdown of me, as the narrator, and me as the protagonist–two that should exist outside of one another. Thus far, I am not seeing any negatives utilizing a writing partner.
    One major difference between your, mine and I’m sure other’s situations exists in the type of writing partner we choose or are assigned. Some peers in class are facing the issue of the “unavailable” writing partner. Due to other classes/jobs I’m sure, getting together or communicating via email becomes hard and in some ways, impossible. This can definitely affect ones work.

    Thank you,
    Erin Van Horn

  10. Michael Frankovic Says:

    I feel lucky to have a close friend that lives down the block from me that I can call a writing partner. We first got creatively involved when he had written a narrative that he wanted a collage or slideshow of pictures to be presented along with. He sought myself and another photographer to carry out this project that ultimately fell through. I’d say that was 2 years before last summer, which is when I decided to contact him to see if he wanted to revive the project. We ended up talking on a hot summer day and a new idea hit me: a photo/poetry book. We’ve been working on this book for the past eight or so months. But of course, that’s not all. A writing partner is more than that. We are always willing to read each others work and talk about it. We share many inclinations towards writing, life, and philosophy. A good conversation with a writing partner helps in many ways such as motivation, encouragement, giving feedback, and keeping clarity.

  11. Davon Crutchfield Says:

    Dear Mrs. DeSalvo,
    I must say that I admire your and Edi’s use of one another for both inspiration and critique on your work. I personally haven’t even considered having a writing partner for several reasons the primary one being I am so sensitive about my writing that I am always nervous to present it to anyone. I know that it is not presumptuous of me to say that I am sure that your relationship with Edi is one of confidence and trust, thus your working together flows between you two beautifully. After reading your blog, I am now considering what benefit may actually come of my having a writing partner. Thank you for your post, you have opened a new spectrum for me to consider in my own writing.

  12. Sandy Mendez Says:

    How fantastic to have a relationship that can be extremely beneficial in several ways! My works are only for the eyes of my professors. I seem to have a fear of sharing my work. After reading your blog, and listening to professor Giunta’s experience with writing partners I feel enlightened. In order to release the fear of sharing my writing I MUST share my writing! My work may not be the best, but in order to make it better I should have a writing partner. I am graduating in the spring but my writing will not stop there. Ill be going on a hunt for a long term writing partner.Thank you for sharing!

  13. Veronica Santos Says:

    This is a great model for me as I tend to be all over the place in my writing time. I can either sit down and type for 1-2 hours straight one day, 15 minutes the next and then leave a paper for 2-3 days before coming back to it in order to finish it. I have found that when I do schedule time for myself to write, I do it. Whereas my current method (getting around to it when I have time) isn’t very productive if I’ve got two more papers to write as well. The idea of having a writing partner to help you schedule times to write is great. Initially I thought a writing partner was someone who read your work and you read theirs and you would offer suggestions on what to fix, what else you wanted to know or clarify etc. But to have a writing partner who you can schedule writing times with so that you can stay on track is a great strategy. In a sense you become like a cheerleader for one another and make sure that you revise accordingly and around the times you feel you can handle. Awesome post thank you!

  14. Mahneerah Says:

    I agree with the concept of a writing partner. Professor Guinta introduced this concept to me and my classmates in our Memoir writing class. I personally like writing and editing alone, there are some things like small grammatical errors that can be embarrassing, but then I linked up with my writing partner Natasha. We’re already friends, so there’s trust there, but when editing and critiquing the friendship has to be on the backburner and you have to read your partners work like a complete stranger. I’ve been struggling with my final memoir, but with the help of Natasha’s input and suggestions it’s one of the most cherished works of writing I’ve ever produced.

  15. […] We feel fortunate to be able to have this writing partnership, which is part of a rich relationship. Louise has written about it in her blog.https://writingalife.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/writing-partners/ […]

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