Writers and Teamwork : a Team of One? Or More?

fanfare of trumpetsThis week, I finished a book. Writing a book, that is. So I’m feeling smug. (No mention, please, of the fact that the agreed deadline for the MS was end of July.)
And when I finished it, I thought:
“I’m a completer-finisher. Eureka!”

She’s off again, I hear you groan. What on earth is a completer-finisher?

A little history may help here. Decades ago, before I was a professional writer, I was a professional manager. And professional managers need teams of people to manage. Teamwork matters there. And it’s really important to have the right mix of people in your team.

Teamwork and Team Roles

One of the approaches I learnt on various management courses was developed by a chap called Belbin who produced an inventory of team roles. That was decades ago but it’s still used and people still find it useful. I certainly did.

team working together

The crucial point of his inventory is that people naturally gravitate to one or more roles and perform them in certain ways. These roles have benefits — every team needs someone to coordinate the work, like a chairman — but they have downsides, too. If everyone sees themselves as a chairman, for example, a great deal of delegating goes on but no one actually does any of the delegated tasks.team leader possibly about to delegate

Well, if you’re chairman, you don’t, do you? 😉

There are downsides to all Belbin’s roles, as you can see from the descriptions in Wikipedia. It’s great to have someone who comes up with new off-the-wall ideas, for example, but NOT when a project is nearing completion. (Belbin calls that role a Plant. I can imagine scenarios in which I’d want to pull the Plant up by the roots and chuck it on the compost heap.)

So what has all this management-speak got to do with writing?

Writers — a Team of One?

story tellingLast week, I was a driver, focused on the finish line. I was determined that everything would be just right with my book. I’d picked up all the dangling threads and woven them into the story. I had reached a satisfactory ending for the characters. Done.

This week, I was the completer-finisher: I proofread my MS and removed typos and the sort of mistakes that Amazon KDP sometimes has conniptions over, like spare spaces before paragraph marks or two spaces after a full stop.

unlock door to great ideaBut concentrating on getting the detail right isn’t enough, is it? A story has to have the big theme, the broad-brush idea that readers will latch on to and follow. It might even be an off-the-wall idea (from that Plant-chappie again).

And the story has to have shape and momentum; it has to keep focusing. It shouldn’t have diversions down paths that are interesting to the author but bore the pants off the reader who just wants to know what happens next?

And so on and so on. When I looked at the Belbin roles, I discovered that I fulfilled most of them, at some time or other during the writing process. Researcher? Tick. Evaluator? Tick (though often with a sternly wagging finger saying that I’m behind schedule). Teamworker? Double tick because who else do I have to do the work of getting marks on the page?

Adding to the writer’s team? Crit Partners

While I was writing the book, I had invaluable input from Sophie, my crit partner. I would send her the MS every chapter or so. She would send it back with marginal comments, sometimes of the “I love this” variety, sometimes of the less positive, “I’m not convinced X would do this” or “I think it needs more here,” or “Screw the Punch, here.”

star prize for great team memberHer critical comments are usually on the button. Not every time, but almost always. As a crit partnership, it works really well.

I began to wonder whether our Belbin roles had something to do with that. For example, I’m more of a Chairman than a Plant. I can come up with off-the-wall ideas — there are a couple in this new MS that I’m quite proud of — but Sophie is a gold-medal-standard Plant. Ideas fizz out of her, sometimes faster than anyone can keep up with.

Teamwork : with the Ideal Crit Partner

So I think the lesson I’ve taken from this Belbin insight is that crit partnerships can be amazingly productive, but the partners do have to have complementary skill sets. If both of you are always fizzing with new ideas, progress will be slow because you may be off chasing red herrings. (To mix metaphors: sticking to the knitting may often be preferable.)

If both of you are focused on the detail of the writing, the process could be dreary and the big sweep might be lost. If a crit partner is too negatively critical, trust may suffer. And if a crit partner pushes too hard for what she thinks the writer should do, the writer may lose confidence in her own abilities. (I’ve known editors who do that. The editor-author partnership doesn’t usually last.)

Being part of the crit partnership means empathising with the hopes/fears/worries of the other partner and tailoring your input to get the best out of the team. Remembering always that the key role in the team is played by the writer, the one holding the pen.

Joanna Maitland, author


PS I’m now using the author pic from this year’s RNA conference. The previous one was rather old and, though I like it, I don’t actually look like that these days. Sadly. Anno domini, eh?

12 thoughts on “Writers and Teamwork : a Team of One? Or More?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Well done, Joanna! Such a great feeling when you finish a book. So useful to have a critiquing partner. A friend and I helped each other this way for a year or two. Mostly now I rely on my agent as first reader to pick up anything I have missed.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I find it really helps my confidence, especially in the middle when I’m flagging a bit. You’ll know the feeling. If Sophie likes it, I have the confidence to keep slogging away. And I think it helps me to have problems pointed out along the way, so they can be sorted there and then, rather than unpicked later. It means I’m editing at the same time as creating the first draft but, for me, it seems to work.

  2. Liz Fielding

    Congratulations on hitting the finish line, Joanna. Having a crit partner you trust so completely must be very special and, having read the story, I can say with total confidence that you have both done a terrific job. I rarely show anything to anyone while I’m writing – occasionally my editor if I’m in a total jam, but that doesn’t always work. Is there a team player who’s a mole?

    This year I’ve joined Nanowrimo hoping the team spirit will fire up my competitive edge to get me to my desk and writing, rather than dealing with social media first thing. And I am at my desk this morning a lot earlier so it may be working. Fingers crossed.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Um, I don’t think there’s a mole in the team player inventory. Sounds like you play all the roles all by yourself. Which is your choice, of course. What matters here is what works for the writer herself.

      I did join Nanowrimno once but I didn’t stay the course. Completer-finisher, huh? Hope it works for you, though. I do suspect that, for me at least, indulging in social media first thing would kill my creative urge.

  3. lesley2cats

    Funnily enough, I was thinking about joining Nanowrimo this year. With all the faffing around changing from Accent to Headline (although they’ve let me keep my editor) and upheavals at home, I’ve rather lost my way, and I thought it might get me back on track. But after looking into it, I don’t think it would help me. I never show anything to anyone while it’s in progress – although I did show Sophie something once! – my amour proper can’t stand it… Well done for finishing, Joanna!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Lesley. Definitely each to her own, isn’t it? I agree that it’s easy to get very protective about one’s words and to feel a need to defend every last one. I’ve got several t-shirts for that 😉 A crit partner has to have tact, among other things. We find it’s helpful for the crit partner to focus on a reader’s reaction eg as a reader, I felt this went past too quickly; I wanted to know more about why X did Y.

    2. Sophie

      I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times and never found it really worked for me, Lesley. Though I look at it every year and wonder whether it’s worth having another go…

      I always remember you talking about a weekend session in London where people brought laptops and just sat and wrote for two days in sort of exam conditions – was it in a classroom? A library? I have sometimes wondered if that might not work better.

  4. Sophie

    Oh this is fascinating. I suspect I always stay in Plant mode much too long for my own good, when writing. I shall remember that! And look at Belbin to see if I can break down the tasks more constructively than I do at the moment.

    Mind you, my esteemed critique partner snaps me up to the mark quite a lot of the time. Ma’am.

    Many congratulations on finishing.

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