Collaborating Couples: How to Share a Writing Life (and a Byline) With a Significant Other

Hart Fowler is an independent journalist. S. Noelle Lynch is an incendiary nocturnal fiction writer and journalist.

There are many relationships in which both partners write, but true writing couples are few and far between. For every Joan Didion and John Dunne, there are other ambitious, talented, and romantically involved writers who have tried integrating their work in a collaborative effort only to fail to find a balance—or, even worse, fail to maintain their personal relationship.

As a writing couple, we have collaborated on six published articles over the past six months. This experience has had a significant learning curve, and we are here to share what we have learned from our collaborations.

Two heads pitch better than one

Having two independent thinkers conjuring up story ideas expands your realm of expertise. If you read our previous collaborative guest post, The Power of the Shower Curtain Whiteboard, you already know that we keep track of our pitches on an 6’ by 8’ transparent shower curtain pinned to a wall in our writing room. When either of us encounter a breaking or topical news story or an interesting juxtaposition that is in one of our wheelhouses, we write it on the board. We are fortunate in that we have both similar and contrasting interests, so having two heads to generate pitches doubles our idea-generation regiment. 

For example: Hart was recently interviewing a musician on speakerphone for an article previewing an upcoming concert for a regional magazine. When Noelle overheard them discussing a shared passion for recreational game, she mentioned she’d seen a sports magazine in the library that focused on the game. Hart pitched the sports magazine on a profile piece about the musician’s love for the game and the piece was accepted.

Knowing what turns your significant other on is key to a successful relationship—and being able to help them find a place to write about their interests and passions can help your partnership in more ways than one.  

Use your partner as an in-house sounding board

One important skillset a freelance writer must quickly develop is the ability to work to meet the needs of different clients and editors. The first draft is just that, and having a second pair of eyes on your work helps you hone in and whittle down your piece into something more lean and focused—and gives you more confidence when you finally press the send button. This increases the chances of the piece coming back with fewer edit requests from the client, which is a good look for everyone involved (especially in an industry where time is money). 

When the edit notes do come back, your partner can serve as a sounding board and help ensure you fulfill your editor’s requests. One example of how this worked for us was with the piece Joystick Fantasia: Inside the Spectacle of Video Games Live for Electronic Gaming Monthly. After investing many hours on the researching, reporting, and writing of a piece, it can be frustrating when the piece comes back with significant feedback. That can get to you, affecting both your confidence and your workflow because rewriting often takes a substantial amount of time.  

But your partner’s emotional and intellectual support can be a godsend. When the edits came in around 11 p.m., we dove in, worked through the night, and had a rewrite back to the editor by that morning. The editor was pleased not only with the new shape of the piece, but also with the piece being turned around so quickly. It was a win-win, as we both could enjoy the satisfaction of not only making the work better, but also knocking it out before it began to over-ripen—which can happen if you sit and brood on a piece too long. 

It is important to note the difference between helping your partner edit a piece and encroaching on their writing voice. This is definitely an acquired skill, and we have found this to be a fine line that, when crossed, can lead to tension. While it is important to accept criticism if you ask for it, it is similarly important to not try to rewrite their work in your voice. This can be detrimental to not only how you approach collaborating on future pieces, but also to your relationship in general. Tread lightly and have thick skin.

It is, after all, a team effort. 

Develop a singular voice

While we’ve put together many collaborations where one of us does the writing and the other serves more of an editorial role, we have also begun working together as co-authors using a singular voice.

We are still learning the skill of developing a shared voice, and understand why there are very few co-authored works out there. We marvel at Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the husband-and-wife showrunners of HBO’s wildly ambitious and successful Westworld. They are one of the most successful collaborative couples of all time, and somehow manage to have maintained a singular vision over three seasons working hand-in-hand on the acclaimed series. 

For our recently published Love on the Rocks for Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, we first brainstormed ideas of what we wanted to include in the piece, and made a shared Google Doc that consisted of potential section headings and raw notes and anecdotes. We really hit a creative flow when we began composing the piece simultaneously on separate computers on different sides of our writing room. 

Be forewarned that this is not for the faint of heart; this was the third time we tried this technique and the first time it worked. What we learned this go around was to work on different sections, and to actively avoid writing in the same graf, as to not step on each other toes. We also learned to trust each other’s edits and additions.

It is freeing when you can let go of your voice and find the voice that fits the piece—and it was a beautiful thing to watch the story get fleshed out in real time, revisiting a section and seeing it develop, returning to a sentence and suggesting a better wording. With a trust in one another, disagreements over phrasing or flow reached a new level of constructive criticism as we were reminded that we both are good at this, and it helped our mutual respect shine.    

Know when—and how—to share a byline

Joan Didion wrote of her collaboration with her husband, author John Dunne: “I never had to finish sentences because he would finish them for me.” Yet they rarely, if ever, shared bylines. 

One of the many satisfactions of being a published writer is reading your byline on the piece. Be it print or online, seeing your name and/or a short bio gives a sense of pride in your accomplishment. Your byline can also encourage readers, and perhaps editors and publishers, to look you up, send feedback, and/or approach you with other story ideas.

Similarly, reading your names together as a co-authored byline shows a mutual respect and satisfaction. 

However, you need to extend that respect to your clients as well. For the aforementioned Shower Curtain Board story, Hart pitched the story, and Noelle both edited and wrote many of the lines. Even the concept of the shower curtain board was a shared idea. 

The piece went live with Hart’s byline. When we asked Nicole to add Noelle’s byline to the story as well, Nicole was happy to do it—but let us know that we should have told her it was a collaborative work during the initial pitch.

Lesson learned: Be upfront and clear with the editor from the get-go. As long it doesn’t affect the agreed-upon pay for the piece, this shouldn’t have any negative effect. In fact, the editor is getting two writers—and if they have a following, two sets of readers who follow the writers’ work—for the price of one, which is a win-win. 

There’s some gray area when assigning credit in the byline when one of the collaborators serves more of an editorial or “second set of eyes” role. 

We requested an “additional reporting” credit for the EGM piece, for example, because Noelle played a more heavy-handed role in the editing process and was less of a co-author. But if you want to work on a story together from the beginning, pitch it to the editor that way— and if it turns out one person does the brunt of the work, do your best to avoid conversations of who did what. The field of creative collaboration is littered with failed attempts at assigning authorship, and as a romantic couple, it is of the utmost importance to not get bogged down in such conversations. (If you find yourself arguing over who contributed more, it is a good time to rethink future creative collaborations.)      

While we are most definitely not a “power couple,” we are a couple that writes both independently and collaboratively. Being a collaborative couple is not easy. It takes work, just like the romantic part of our relationship. There will be conflict, that is for sure. But regardless of whether you’re reading your partner’s byline, editing your partner’s work, or sharing a byline together, working creatively with someone you love can give you a twofold sense of pride.