Name a More Iconic Duo — The Benefits of Cross-Collaboration

Even within small teams, creative collaborators often speak different languages. To make these matches work you must know how to communicate.

Teaming up with someone from a different discipline can seem daunting at first. Maybe this is their first time working with an editor and they‘re not sure how you can help. Fear not! As editors, it’s our job to remain unflinching and nurture client relationships that are as encouraging as they are adaptive.

Team work makes the dream work. Illustration by Ida Brogren http://www.vres.se/

However, just as there’s no typical ‘author-editor’ relationship, there’s no average cross-collaborative relationship either. As you mull over how you’d define your own, take a look at these three memorable examples from popular culture for inspiration…

Sir Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl

First edition cover of The BFG (1982). Image via Wikipedia.

Beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl and his partner-in-literary-crime, illustrator Quentin Blake worked together on many books, including Matlida, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, and Revolting Rhymes. They first met in their publisher’s office and collaborated on two of Dahl’s first books, relying on very little correspondence. It was only when Dahl began The BFG that something magical happened. After the first two sets of illustrations were rejected, Blake decided to visit the author in his home in northwest London. Here, having the opportunity to discuss the work face-to-face and see the author with his family, Blake realised how much Roald Dahl and the BFG had in common. While the illustrations of the BFG were in no way a portrait of Dahl himself, the discussions did lead to a more sympathetic visual portrayal of the character, infused by the elements of mystery and wonder in the story. In a recent interview with BBC Arts, Blake mentioned how adapting illustrations from written text was a lot like “directing a play, or playing a piece of music”— the clues are there, but a lot of it still up to interpretation.


Barry Jenkins and Tyrell McCraney

Barry & Tyrell share how they met and worked together on Moonlight (2016).

Writer-director, Jenkins and playwright-screenwriter, McCraney grew up three blocks away from each other in the same Miami-based housing project. However, they only met and collaborated with one another in adulthood. When McCraney was struggling to adapt the story idea for Moonlight into a film script, Jenkins offered his skills and expertise as a filmmaker to do the story justice in a form that suited the screen. This led to Jenkins eventually adapting the stage play into an Oscar-nominated screenplay. As McCraney recalls:

I think what happens [when people watch Moonlight] is [they’re] seeing those memories that I created on the page. Barry framed them in ways that you could be inside of them. And the thing about memory is that it’s not what was remembered visually or sonically, or even what we smell. The memory is the feeling. And what triggers that memory is something that we see. I think that’s what the film does. It locates you into a feeling in a way that I think only movies can. And I think people were hungry for that.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

An interview with Patti Smith about her long-time collaborator, Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith and Mapplethorpe’s friendship, romance and creative collaboration lasted from when they first met in 1967 until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. While Mapplethorpe often got in trouble for his explicit black and white photography, his encouragement of Smith’s talents soon lead to the recording of her debut album, Horses. Mapplethorpe’s infamous portrait of Smith graces its cover. Using only natural light, he achieved the image in 12 shots. The music and art they made together is timeless and speaks to the genuine connection they built over nearly two decades.


As editors, our common sense needs to stay as sharp as our Blackwing pencils. Be pragmatic: unlike a long-term personal relationship, project-based collaborations don’t necessarily have to be on-going or permanent.

Here are some adjustable ground rules for a rewarding and open editor-client partnership…

Get Real — Setting ambitious goals can be great impetus for rising to the occasion, but keep in mind whether the time and money invested is equivalent to the energy you’ll both be able to put into the project.

Plan Ahead — Try to avoid saying “let’s play it by ear”. Even a draft plan makes both of you face up to things like what your goals are and how you imagine the collaborative process playing out. It’s also an opportunity to get rid of any assumptions. These can be a bane on even the most promising projects.

Logistics — Who will do what, by when, and in what order? Get this in writing and hold each other accountable to it. This prevents you both from playing blindfolded chess (Who made the last move? Who makes the next one?) and allows you both to take initiative and get stuff done.

BYO Enthusiasm — If you’re not looking forward to tackling the job, try to work out why. Our job as editors is to bring as much enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for the subject matter as possible, alongside our technical know-how and love of words and stories. Your collaborator may have a moment of doubt or second guess things—help them remember the strengths of their narrative and the project’s overall mission.

Resist Revisionism (or picking up too much slack) — This goes for editors as well as collaborators: sometimes (mostly) error-free is better than perfect.

Remember Your Audience — As an editor, you are their advocate. In the initial planning stages, it’s worth creating a reader profile (What demographic categories do they fall under? How much assumed knowledge will they have?). Revisit this often as you develop your project to check whether you’re on track, or if you think you’ve misjudged who you’re making your project for.

Set Milestones — The best goals are concrete ones. These can exist on a spectrum of easy-to-get-done short-lead tasks (for example, writing up the text for an author’s acknowledgements) versus more complex long-lead tasks (for example, revising an entire manuscript chapter or proofreading all the final text).

In Fact, Use Tact — While the project may not be your baby, it can certainly feel that way to your collaborator. Keeping this in mind, don’t say anything to them that you wouldn’t say to an actual baby. Be honest and respectful in giving feedback. Your collaborator may have a knee-jerk reaction to something you say. You can try the ‘ostrich approach’ (pretend nothing happened) but try your best to be a supportive editor and work out how it can be resolved.

Let Me Hear You Listening — Paraphrasing, and using your own vocabulary to present back what you’ve just heard them say can work wonders. Clarity should always be sought after in moments of chaos or confusion.

Two Brains Are Better Than One (or none) — Make all key decisions when brainstorming together — in person, while Skyping, on Slack/Gmail/whatever other text-based communication you use. Everyone involved should feel like an active participant in the project. It’s a great way to quickly move up from ‘sounds like a good idea’ to the next step in the process towards publication.

Stay Up-To-Date — Things change, dreams evolve. Update your documentation to reflect this. Ongoing admin may not be the most glamorous part of a project, but it’s important that key details and decisions are recorded and kept track of. Editors, this is one area where you can shine and develop great project management skills. Your collaborators (writers, artists, mad scientists, academics, etc.) may find this too overwhelming to keep up on their own.

Not every collaboration is a match made in heaven. Collaborative failure is sometimes a natural part of the process, too. If, for whatever reason, you do decide to end a collaboration, try to maintain a working relationship (if possible). While things may have not worked out this time around, it may be possible to initiate another collaborative project with the same partner, or with a different partner in the same field. As an editor, nothing is wasted. Everything that you’ve learned is invaluable knowledge for the next time around.