A writing partnership was born when the first edition of The Big Book of HR hit the market in 2012. Since that time, Barbara Mitchell and Cornelia Gamlem have gone on to write The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, The Conflict Resolution Phrase Book, the award-winning The Manager’s Answer Book, and They Did What? Unbelievable Tales from the Workplace. In 2022, they are celebrating the 10-year anniversary edition of their first book.
Barbara and Cornelia share some of the secrets of their successful writing partnership.
Question: You’ve been writing together for a long time now. How did this writing partnership start?
Answer: [Barbara] In 2008, I coauthored a book with another colleague. Then the publisher asked us to write another book together. That colleague quoted Wanda Sykes, the comedian, saying, “I’d rather pass a kidney stone than write another book.” So, I wrote the proposal, asking for 10 months to write the book. The publisher gave me five and a half. That’s when I asked Cornelia, “Would you consider working with me on this book, because we’re both experienced leaders, but we have different areas of emphasis?” I knew that she had skills that I don’t possess. We joke that we have been writing together for 10 years and are still speaking to each other.
Question: Can you talk about the process of working with a coauthor?
Answer: [Cornelia] When we wrote the first book, The Big Book of HR, 10 years ago, it was easy to divide the work because we have different areas of expertise. We looked at the different chapters, divided them, and realized we had an even division of work. I like to say, we divided and conquered, because we stayed out of each other’s way as we wrote, not reading what the other was writing. We had a lot of trust and competence because we were each writing about familiar topics.
In order to check in on progress and see if there were areas that we needed each other’s help, we had a standing Tuesday breakfast meeting. It worked seamlessly. We didn’t read each other’s chapters until the end, before we submitted it to the publisher, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that we had written in a voice that was so similar.
Question: Did that process continue, especially the division of labor. Does that look the same?
Answer: [Barbara] It depends on the book and the subject matter. I think the most important thing, as Cornelia mentioned, is that we do not get in each other’s way. The bottom line is we totally respect each other and the work each other does. We believe that the key to a good partnership is being able to respect each other for their talents and experience.
Answer: [Cornelia] The biggest exception in the way we divided the work occurred when we wrote our last book, They Did What?! Unbelievable Tales from the Workplace. We wanted to write a book that talked about the biggest challenges that HR people and managers encounter working with people. To do this effectively, we decided to tell stories rather than just relate pure facts — creative nonfiction. This was a different writing experience. Neither of us had ever written anything close to fiction before. We had to learn about character arcs and narrative arcs and dialogue. Despite the challenge, we started out dividing the chapters around the topic as we normally do. For example, topics about interviewing to Barbara and Cornelia would take sexual harassment. But it was necessary to exchange chapters along the way and review each other’s writing. We would talk about how we can make each chapter better. There was a lot of back and forth and rewrites, but I honestly can say, with the exception of a couple of passages or lines, “I don’t know who wrote what.”
Question: Was it just the subject of the book that made you think a different writing style would work better? Or how did that come about?
Answer: [Barbara] We decided we’d rather tell stories than present case studies because that’s an interesting and effective way for adults to learn. We collected stories from many business leaders and HR professionals, asking them, “What was the biggest employee challenge, or worst example of employee misbehavior you’ve encountered?” Themes and topics emerged, and we put them together to determine the chapters. Then we realized that all of this could not happen to one person. So, we decided, Let’s create a company. Let’s create a fictional workforce and have the stories come through them. It became a very different process from pure nonfiction, where you have a topic that you research and then write about it. We had to write this book very differently, which partially explains why it took us a lot longer to write it. However, that was not the only reason—our publisher asked us to write three other books and update our first book, so we were busy.
Question: So, what would you say if someone approached you and said, “I’m thinking about writing this book. I think I need a coauthor. Give me your best tip for working with someone.”
Answer: [Cornelia] First, make sure the person that you’re choosing to write with understands what you’re writing about. Even if it’s nonfiction, make sure you both have a good understanding of the topic. Beyond that, it’s really discovering each other’s strengths and weaknesses and respect them because we all have different styles—different ways of doing things. For example, when I finish a chapter, I’m ready to move on the next one, especially when writing pure nonfiction. Barbara, on the other hand, and she will acknowledge this, wants to keep researching everything to make sure she hasn’t missed anything. Our different styles drove our virtual assistant, who helped us with formatting and footnotes, crazy at times. I think it’s important that you not only respect each other’s expertise, but respect each other’s work style, as long as deadlines are met.
Answer: [Barbara] And I value the fact that Cornelia doesn’t get in my way and understands I take far longer to write things than she does. But what she does do is gently keep me on track, reminding me, “Okay, I know that you’d like to add to this chapter. But we’ve only got a week to get this manuscript in.” That has worked very well because I know I’m the person who would never finish anything without a firm deadline. I always think there’s something else that I could do to improve it.
Cornelia Gamlem took the HR expertise she gained working for a Fortune 500 IT services company and started consulting to help organizations develop and maintain respectful workplaces. Barbara Mitchell began consulting after working as an HR Executive in major corporations to help organizations find, hire, engage and retain the best available talent. Both authors are recognized experts in human resources and organizational leadership. They both write, speak and share their expertise on podcasts and webinars.
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