This essay exists thanks to the excellent collaboration of Pavel Brodsky.
Before I ever got paid to write anything, I managed to find work as an editor. That held my feet to the fire. I knew that being a good editor meant clarifying the writer’s voice, not replacing it with my own. But I didn’t know, just yet, how to walk that line.
To teach myself, I took on the mindset of a collaborator. Mentally, I framed the finished piece of writing as a goal that the writer and I were working together to attain.
In the process, I stumbled upon my deeply collaborative nature.
Collaboration is a way of being
I remember the moment when this clicked for me: I was reading about the idiosyncratic mathematician Paul Erdős. During his life, this man collaborated with almost every other mathematician on earth. Seeing math as an inherently social pursuit, he lived like a gypsy, always traveling from one mathematician’s home to the next.
The most famous book about him, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, quotes one of his contemporaries as follows:
“Erdős not only asked the right question. He asked it of the right person. He knew better than you yourself knew what you were capable of… he had the unique ability to identify problems which were just beyond what you could currently do.”
While I lack many of Erdős’ qualities (including his obsession with grapefruit), reading about him feels like looking into a mirror. As much as I love to write, there’s a ceiling to the joy I can experience from writing in isolation: without exception, my most joyful writing experiences have all been collaborative. I certainly see writing as a social pursuit, similarly to how Erdős saw math as a social pursuit. I’ve even been told by other people that I have an uncanny knowledge of what they’re capable of writing. I believe this comes with the territory of being a deeply collaborative person.
Collaboration is a pillar of history
Much of the greatest writing of all time was done collaboratively. One of my favorite little-known examples is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. About 20 pages long when published, the magnificent poem began as a manuscript of ~100 pages.
What happened to the other ~80 pages?
Ezra Pound happened.
Together with Eliot’s first wife, Ezra Pound provided the luminous, clarifying edits that made The Waste Land as potent and poignant as it is today. Although Eliot himself also played a role in reducing the length of the manuscript, his self-editing only got him part of the way there.
Here’s a look at Pound’s markup of Eliot’s work:
The result of these edits ended up being one of the most beloved sections of the poem — a scant 8 lines, distilled from about 25.
Without Pound, The Waste Land might never have seen daylight, and T.S. Eliot almost certainly wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. That’s the power of a strong collaborator.
Although their story is my personal favorite, Pound and Eliot aren’t exceptional. In fact, powerful creative partnerships are a pillar of history.
Here are a few famous ones, off the tops of my and Pavel Brodsky’s heads:
- One of the most famous and profitable business partnerships — between Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger — has been going on for 60+ years, and they haven’t even had a fight.
- Steven Spielberg and John Williams worked together on 25 of Spielberg’s 26 films, producing some of the greatest film scores ever.
- The collaborative powers of F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald are legendary, along with their powers of forgiveness.
- Will and Ariel Durant literally wrote The Story of Civilization together — and, just to show us how well they worked together, they wrote a Dual Autobiography.
- Comedic duo Jim and Jeanne Gaffigan “write everything together,” according to Jim.
These are deep relationships, reinforced with the satisfaction of creating something amazing together. Instead of fighting over the spotlight, these people teamed up and worked together — and in doing so, they made the world a better place.
Is collaboration underrated?
In the world of writing, there are many incredible collaboration tools. Yet, many writers seem to do nearly everything alone.
At minimum, digital publishing platforms seem to support that perception. For example, on Medium, I’m not aware of any way to list two writers as equal contributors to a single essay.
Also, in the past, barriers to publication made it harder for writers to avoid collaborating. As happy as I am that publishing has been decentralized, the old-world publishing model may have encouraged collaboration by driving more people to team up in order to get published. Today, it’s easy to fly solo as a writer and self-publisher.
For these reasons, I wonder — have we devalued collaboration?
If yes, I hope the tide changes soon. Collaboration offers so many benefits. For me, it’s cathartic and exhilarating. It’s a way to build amazing relationships, and also to strengthen them. It’s a great vehicle for social learning, self-improvement, trust-building, and — of course — the improvement of ideas. When done right, collaboration is a force to be reckoned with.
So, if you haven’t considered collaborating, I encourage you to give it a try. You might find that it enriches both your work and you as a person — and helps you forge deeper human connections.