Shared Bylines: How to Save Time & Collaborate With Other WritersBy Ruth Terry and Bella Dally-Steele January 20th, 2021
Many freelancers approach work as lone wolves, closely guarding sources and ideas so they don’t miss any opportunities. But that mentality may be misguided. Sharing work presents numerous benefits for freelancers, especially now that the pandemic, protests, and politics have reshaped how we produce and consume content.
Enter the shared byline. There’s no shame in sharing credit for a story, especially if it tackles a topic that’s daunting, draining, or outside your normal area of expertise.
We’re no strangers to the practice. Our first shared byline was a BBC Travel piece on pandemic-appropriate greetings around the globe. With one of us located in Istanbul, Turkey, and the other in Biscarrosse, France, sharing the work meant we could deliver a quick-turn story with eight sources—each in different time zones. (We recommend the Globe Tempus app for time zone math.) We both had limited bandwidth due to the pandemic, but together we were able to break into a top-tier outlet that paid well.
To put together a list of best practices for shared bylines, we tapped into our own experience and asked a few other freelance writers about how they manage these collaborative projects.
Why you should consider shared bylines
Teamwork can protect your mental health during a time when so many of us are fighting burnout, but also when writing about topics that take an emotional toll.
Activist and freelance writer Tasha Williams felt this benefit firsthand while co-authoring a recent story. “I don’t think I would have taken it on by myself… because it was a very highly charged, emotional topic,” she said. “I don’t know if working with a partner took away that [mental and emotional] work, but it helped me feel less alone.”
Shared bylines also present opportunities to amplify voices from marginalized communities. When Olga Mecking, translator and author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, co-wrote a story about activism against Poland’s “N-word” with Ruth for Time, both contributed a vital perspective outside the other’s experiences.
In chats over Facebook Messenger, Ruth coached Mecking on interviewing Black sources, helping her ask the right questions and suggesting ways to handle potentially traumatic themes. Mecking brought her knowledge of Poland and translation skills to the table.
In addition to navigating nuanced topics, there are several other benefits to shared bylines:
- An experienced partner can help you break in to new publications.
- Working across different locations, beats, or mediums can expand your coverage area.
- Meeting tight deadlines is easier when you split the workload.
- Co-writing increases your access to sources and editors.
Determine your strengths and delegate work accordingly
To set yourself up for shared byline glory, the first step is to find the right partner—ideally, someone who can effectively communicate their needs and respect yours.
Our working relationship began with a frank discussion about our work styles, including how we prefer to draft articles (usually in one sitting), organize (Google Docs and Sheets), and communicate (Slack and Zoom). We also discussed compensation (splitting the rate 50/50) and who would receive the payment from publications, which in our experience usually only pay one person.
It’s also prudent to disclose any special strengths or preferences up front. For example, Bella is a better interviewer, while Ruth is a merciless editor. The idea is to establish a dynamic where you can each focus on the work you enjoy most.
“Split your work in a way that works for both people.”
“I think it’s important to know what you are good at and what you like doing,” Mecking said. “Split your work in a way that works for both people.”
Being candid about your needs and expectations also builds trust—a vital element for a positive shared byline experience. When Kelly Glass, who typically writes and edits stories related to race and parenting, decided to co-write a piece about the online BIPOC luxury skincare community with beauty marketing expert Sabrina Bangladesh, both were clear about what they wanted from the exchange.
“It was a mutually beneficial situation, because I got to do something that’s more light and fun than my usual. And she got to see how someone who has [been] actively writing within the last few years has been doing it… from pitching to writing,” Glass said.
Work together to craft pitches
Unless you’re working on assignment, pitching will be part of the process. Glass and Bangladesh went through multiple drafts to nail their pitch, which was ultimately picked up by beauty publication Byrdie. Bangladesh drafted the pitch in a shared Google Doc, which Glass honed before sending. The two relied on an email tracker to see when editors opened their pitch emails.
In our situation, Ruth loves pitching, so she generally takes the first stab at it after talking through ideas with Bella in Slack or on Zoom. Ruth typically corresponds and negotiates with editors, while Bella tracks sent pitches and responses in a shared Google Sheet.
“We can pitch double the amount of publications as I could myself…”
Mecking also noted that having a partner helps lighten the pitching load by reducing time spent finding editorial contact information and cold-pitching editors. “We can pitch double the amount of publications as I could myself, or even more,” she explained.
Use technology for transparency and clear communication
When a piece does land, managing the ensuing whirlwind of work requires close collaboration. Use Slack, Facebook Messenger, and good old text messages for daily communication—but make sure you save interview recordings, supplementary research, and notes to a shared location.
For our process, we typically share scholarly research via Dropbox and interview recordings in Otter, a subscription-based transcription service. We write articles in a shared Google Doc and use the suggesting mode to highlight any tweaks.
You and your partner can choose to edit at different times, or you can coordinate and bounce ideas off each other as you go, as we do. You might even opt for a staggered work schedule, tapping one writer to take over when the other needs a break. Using this strategy, Williams and her reporting partner once churned out a shared byline in under 24 hours, cycling in and out of a Google Doc.
Writing under shared bylines can offer many benefits, but not every collaboration is seamless. Even if the experience isn’t perfect, you can still salvage the situation and file on time by recommitting to clear communication.
“When things in a co-writing situation start to feel like they’re not working, it’s a good opportunity to stop and collect yourself,” Glass said. “Stop, reset, and set expectations. Talk about [areas of friction], and set some boundaries for how you want to work and how you don’t want to work… Be very honest about it. Because this has to be a good experience for you, too. It’s about both of you.”Image by Sylverarts