A loner’s thoughts on collaboration

Written by Roger Morris, Copywriter at Now.

When I’m not writing copy for Now’s clients, I write novels.

Writing novels has to be one of the most solitary occupations there is. You sit in your garret on your own, staring at a blank screen, which you hope to fill with a certain number of words each day. There’s no one to help you. No one to write the descriptive bits, while you just do the dialogue. No one to try ideas out on. No one to check you’re not going mad, which makes it all the more likely that you are.



In fact, there’s no one to talk to for hours at a time. No one to bump into in the kitchen. Water cooler moments are just you talking to yourself.It has to be like this. Otherwise you wouldn’t get the damn thing written.

Anthony Burgess used to say he could never get any writing done in Dublin because it was such a sociable city. Knowing there were all those pubs and pints of Guinness out there was too much of a distraction. He also recommended writers having their desks facing a blank wall. Windows are too distracting. Even the sight of someone walking along the street is enough to take you out of the story you’re trying to create.

It takes months, even years, before you have anything to show for all this self-inflicted isolation – assuming you haven’t been sitting there all that time filling page after page with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Let’s say you finish your novel. Now comes the terrifying moment when you have to share that thing you’ve been working on in isolation with the outside world.If you’re an unpublished novelist looking for your first break, you send it off to an agent or a publisher. The chances are it will get rejected. That’s just the way it is. Every successful novelist has a filing cabinet full of rejection letters. But the point is, whether it gets rejected or accepted, it’s a binary response (usually). No, we don’t want it. Yes, we do.

If it’s a yes, that’s when other people start muscling in on your baby. We love it, but maybe we could change the title? We love it, but the ending’s too downbeat/not downbeat enough? We love it, but does it change things too much if the central character is a woman instead of a man?

Obviously, because you’ve been working on this project on your own for so long, making all your decisions yourself, choosing each particular word over all the other words you could have chosen… obviously you have a lot more invested in it than any of these other people who suddenly pop up with their ‘helpful’ suggestions. You can’t help resenting them. You can’t help getting stressed out and anxious. You want them to go away. You just want to get back to your garret and shut the door.

When I received the copy edits for my first novel, I have to admit I didn’t handle it very well. It took me several days before I was even able to open the parcel. And I spat the dummy at the first tracked change I came across.

Over the years, I’ve mellowed. Three insights have helped me change my attitude:

(1) The realisation that these people were trying to make it better, not worse.

(2) The realisation that if I didn’t agree with anything they suggested, that was fine.

I just had to explain why I’d done it my way and usually the response was, “Ah, yes, I see now.”

Then if they came back with a reason why their suggested change was better, it wasn’t because I was an idiot and they were a genius (or the other way round), it was usually because they’d seen something I hadn’t seen. So it was good that they were there to catch a ball I’d dropped. Now I thank my editors and copy editors in my acknowledgements, and mean it.

(3) The most crucial realisation came when someone explained to me that, actually, as the writer I had the right to reject every suggested edit without giving a reason.

I could just write ‘no’ in the margin and that would be fine. It was my book after all.

I suddenly realised that if I did that, I would be doing something very stupid. I would be turning my back on the help being offered me by all these smart, experienced people, whose only motivation was to make my book as good and successful as it could be. The very fact that I could ignore them if I wanted to, made it unlikely that I would. Also, even if I didn’t agree with every suggested change, I felt more confident in the book that was produced because I’d been made to think about them all along the way. The book was stronger for being challenged.

Producing advertising isn’t like writing novels. It’s quicker, for one thing. It’s also a collaborative process pretty much from beginning to end.

Not one long period of working on your own followed by a short burst of stressful interference. You might think I’d find it hard because I’ve worked on my own for so long as a novelist. Maybe I did at first. But now, I love it. It’s liberating. Like a huge weight being lifted from my shoulders.

That’s the point of teamwork, I suppose.