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How do you avoid the problem of a collaborative work having separate voices?


I've not done collaborative writing before, but I've read several works, and sometimes the text strikes me as having a split personality: some parts were clearly written by one author, while others were written by another. (Note: I would give examples, but I can't remember any off-hand because I'm a bit sleep-deprived at the moment!)

So, the story itself is cohesive, but lacks a unified voice, so much so that it's distracting. Obviously, authors have very distinctive styles, and this can shine through very easily, so my question is really how do you ensure a unity of voice, or at the very least, incorporate the distinct voices of the authors in such a way that it isn't glaringly obvious that two different people were writing?

Would this come down to the editing process, or should you look at structuring the story in such a way that it can accommodate these different voices e.g. different narrators, POV's etc.?

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3 answers


If you want to unify the voices: Get a tough editor.

Explain to him/her that you have two authors and you want to standardize their voices. You might pick a passage or a chapter which particularly reflects both writers, and say "make it all sound like that." Then be prepared to have a whole chunk of everything rewritten.

ETA: Examples of things which might be rewritten to create a balance of styles:

  • One author tends to use long, complex sentences with many clauses, interrupters, and parentheticals, and the other author uses short choppy sentences. The longer ones may be cut and made into several, and the shorter ones may be joined, until there's a happy medium.
  • One author use lots of description. The other is very minimalist. The descriptive sections can be trimmed down to remove some flourishes, and the spare sections padded out.
  • One author rarely uses dialogue tags, even "said." The other uses attributives, action tags, and dialogue tags in every line. Some attributives are rewritten or removed, and then some added where they are missing.
  • One author uses elaborate metaphors, and the other doesn't use them anywhere. Remove some and add to the other sections.

If you want distinctive voices: I like the idea of structuring to accommodate them.

For fiction, each author could take only certain characters/POVs. So Raymond's sections have short choppy sentences, with little description, while Anne's have a more flowing and atmospheric style. But Raymond only writes from the POV of a soldier, a general, and the vice president, while Anne writes from the POV of a concierge, a mad dictator, and the ambassador.

For non-fiction: Give the section an author's byline and quit worrying.



For fiction that can accommodate different POVs, dividing those up per author not only addresses this problem but can be a feature.

For cases where you want a unified voice, if you can't get a tough editor like Lauren Ipsum suggested, try having the authors edit each other's sections. In technical-writing teams I've found that this drives the material toward the center; I have no experience doing this with fiction but would expect it to work. But first sit everybody down to have the "don't take this personally; it's about the work" conversation to reduce the chance of bruised egos.



Two authors divide duties, not content

One very successful technique was the one used by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp in their wonderful fantasy romps such as Land of Unreason and The Incomplete Enchanter.

Pratt, at the time the much more experienced and accomplished of the two, would rough out a plot. They would bounce it back and forth until it was ready; de Camp would write the first draft; Pratt would rewrite it; then deCamp would do the final edit for submission.

What this method accomplished was to avoid carving the work up into separate chunks. Instead, both authors had their fingers in all of it.

The quality of the result suggests that this might be a good way to do a collaborative work.

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