Authorship: A Solitary Endeavor?

The image of the author as a solitary soul retreating into him- or herself for creative genius has taken on something of a romantic tinge in our culture. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck have the reputation of being rugged loners, outcasts, and staunch individualists. Truman Capote, Philip Roth, and J.D. Salinger adopt the role of eclectic recluse, thereby earning a strange sort of fame.

Self-Reliance is the title of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s master work. Henry David Thoreau retreats to Walden Pond to compose his reflections upon life in America. And Emily Dickinson spends her life gazing out the window at a society she is destined never to participate in but perpetually to influence.

So most of us are left with the idea that to be a great writer we must cloister ourselves from the madding crowd, chain ourselves to our desks, and wither away in our gables just to put words to the page. With these as our role models, we think authorship must depend upon solitude. And the more time we spend alone, the more we discipline ourselves to the task of writing, the better writers we will be.

I’d like to challenge that notion with other examples of writers equally as profound, who lived dazzling, brilliant lives of interactivity, and who found thereby their greatest inspiration. Homer, for example—the greatest poet of the Western world, whose twin epics the Iliad and the Odyssey have influenced every subsequent author to this day.

Homer (if he existed) was illiterate. He composed his poetry orally, taught it to apprentices called rhapsodes, who recited it verbatim, and continued to do so for hundreds of years until finally teaching it to scribes, who recorded it in manuscripts of which we have only fragments today.

Virginia Woolf, author of Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, and Orlando, among others, began the Bloomsbury Group.  Hers was a household filled with intellectuals, young people who gathered to talk about the important issues of their day and to publish the results of the conversations.

These are not the models of authors working in solitude. They are collaborative writing at its finest, a model that is perhaps more appropriate to the professional, technical, scientific, and academic worlds where much of today’s writing is taking place. Perhaps for the creative writer solitude may allow for the emergence of the imagination, but for the more practical corporate writer, it seems to me that interaction, discussion, and cooperation are more viable, productive modes of articulation.

In particular, three situations call for a team instead of a solitary author. In the first, a project is simply too large for one person to complete in a timely manner. Many hands make light work. So call all hands on deck, parcel out the assignments, and have at it.

In the third, a variety of opinions are requested to gain consensus on a tricky issue. This is a situation that calls for diplomacy as many different interests are represented. The team must have the backing of its constituents, and its leader should have no obvious bias. 

The second situation is one that most corporate professionals are currently using.  It’s a collaborative writing situation that requires a variety of experts to each weigh in on different aspects of the document.  The problem most organizations face is that they are currently using a linear approach to such documents.  One person, very low on the chain, writes the document, which then goes through many layers of review before being kicked back down to be completely rewritten.

That process is time consuming, demoralizing, and self-defeating.  By turning the specialized collaborative writing project into a true team effort, organizations can streamline the process, use their time and resources more efficiently, and train their staff more effectively.  In the next few blog posts we’ll talk about how to do that.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about the collaborative projects you’ve worked on.  What are your own closely held beliefs about solitary authorship versus collaborative writing?  What works on a collaborative writing project, and what doesn’t?  Leave your comments, share your experiences, and create a collaborative writing community right here, at Keys to Easy Writing!

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