How Michael Bolton and I Collaborate on Articles

(Someone posted a question on Quora asking how Michael and I write articles together. This is the answer I gave, there.)

It begins with time. We take our time. We rarely write on a deadline, except for fun, self-imposed deadlines that we can change if we really want to. For Michael and I, the quality of our writing always dominates over any other consideration.

Next is our commitment to each other. Neither one of us can contemplate releasing an article that the other of us is not proud of and happy with. Each of us gets to “stop ship” at any time, for any reason. We develop a lot of our work through debate, and sometimes the debate gets heated. I have had many colleagues over the years who tired of my need to debate even small issues. Michael understands that. When our debating gets too hot, as it occasionally does, we know how to stop, take a break if necessary, and remember our friendship.

Then comes passion for the subject. We don’t even try to write articles about things we don’t care about. Otherwise, we couldn’t summon the energy for the debate and the study that we put into our work. Michael and I are not journalists. We don’t function like reporters talking about what other people do. You will rarely find us quoting other people in our work. We speak from our own experiences, which gives us a sort of confidence and authority that comes through in our writing.

Our review process also helps a lot. Most of the work we do is reviewed by other colleagues. For our articles, we use more reviewers. The reviewers sometimes give us annoying responses, and they generally aren’t as committed to debating as we are. But we listen to each one and do what we can to answer their concerns without sacrificing our own vision. The responses can be annoying when a reviewer reads something into our article that we didn’t put there; some assumption that may make sense according to someone else’s methodology but not for our way of thinking. But after taking some time to cool off, we usually add more to the article to build a better bridge to the reader. This is especially true when more than one reviewer has a similar concern. Ultimately, of course, pleasing people is not our mission. Our mission is to say something true, useful, important, and compassionate (in that order of priority, at least in my case). Note that “amiable” and “easy to understand” or “popular” are not on that short list of highest priorities.

As far as the mechanisms of collaboration go, it depends on who “owns” it. There are three categories of written work: my blog, Michael’s blog, and jointly authored standalone articles. For the latter, we use Google Docs until we have a good first draft. Sometimes we write simultaneously on the same paragraph; more normally we work on different parts of it. If one of us is working on it alone he might decide to re-architect the whole thing, subject, of course, to the approval of the other.

After the first full draft (our recent automation article went through 28 revisions, according to Google Docs, over 14-weeks, before we reached that point), one of us will put it into Word and format it. At some point one of us will become the “article boss” and manage most of the actual editing to get it done, while the other one reviews each draft and comments. One heuristic of reviewing we frequently use is to turn change-tracking off for the first re-read, if there have been many changes.  That way whichever of us is reviewing is less likely to object to a change based purely on attachment to the previous text, rather than having an actual problem with the new text.

For the blogs, usually we have a conversation, then the guy who’s going to publish it on his blog writes a draft and does all the editing while getting comments from the other guy. The publishing party decides when to “ship” but will not do so over the other party’s objections.

I hope that makes it reasonably clear.

(Thanks to Michael Bolton for his review.)

10 thoughts on “How Michael Bolton and I Collaborate on Articles

  1. Why would “easy to understand” not be important? Maybe a better way to ask is – wouldn’t you want an article with a broad audience to be difficult to misunderstand? Otherwise, the reach of your message is reduced.

    [James’ Reply: The only things that are easy to understand, in the kind of technical literature I work with, are the things you already know. Why would I want to write an article about something you already know? I am excited to tell you about things that are complicated, subtle, obscure, difficult, and yet important and useful. Other people can write about the obvious, but I would rather not.]

    • Yes, something I already know is easier to understand than something new I’m learning. Maybe what you mean is that you value subjects that are inherently more difficult to understand than others? The challenge then is to write about that subject so that your message about the complex subject is reasonably easy to understand.

      [James’ Reply: I definitely do a lot of things to try to make things easier to understand. Successfully communicating beautiful truths is exciting. But when you say “easy to understand” the thing that comes first to my mind is the prospect of communicating to people who aren’t very keen on learning. When I am asked to boil something down to an “elevator speech” my first instinct is to cut the power to the elevator and let the executive stew in there until he’s willing to take his job more seriously.]

        • The part of this blog post about being easy to understand was not easy for me to understand. I put in some effort to understand it, but it required contacting the author, which normally I would expect to need to happen only for more complex topics.


          [James’ Reply: Well, that’s not true, though. You DID understand what I wrote. I said being easy to understand is not a high priority for me, and that is true. The thing you wanted to understand is WHY. I had no intention of explaining why in my article. I don’t consider that important. What’s important is that Michael and I have priorities of some kind. But since you asked, I have no problem giving you that additional bonus information. I can give you lots of other bonus information, if you want it. But the fact that you wanted more information is not itself evidence that the post doesn’t accomplish my goal.]

  2. Knowing the “why” helped me to clarify the meaning, though my goal was to make sure I understood your meaning. I first thought you were saying you don’t care whether you’re easy to understand because of the way you write something – the effort you put into writing with clarity. That seemed a bit odd, and it turned out that interpretation was incorrect. I now understand better what you meant, though I’m still trying to think of a good example of a well-written article about a difficult subject where the article can’t be made easy for the target audience to understand.

    [James’ Reply: So, by me saying that “easy to understand” is “not on that short list of highest priorities” you took the implication that it is not something I care about at all. I don’t understand that. Except maybe it’s evidence that hyperbole has ruined America… Either something is amazing or it’s worthless, and there’s nothing in between.

    Regarding your second point. Read any philosophy book. No matter how well-written, philosophy, by definition is not easy to understand. If you think you understand philosophy easily, then you haven’t started doing philosophy.]

    • Sorry about that – I was being sloppy when I said “you don’t care”. My concern was the same whether “easy to understand” was in the middle or the bottom of your priorities.

      Good point about philosophy – the challenge then is to identify the well-written books.

      [James’ Reply: I suggest checking out the Ribbonfarm blog. Here is the opening of the current post: “Authenticity is real. It is a repair process within the order of symbols, within the hyperreal, in which efforts to destroy the order of symbols are channeled into acts that strengthen and expand it.”

      This is not easy to understand, but as a long time reader of Ribbonfarm, I can tell you that I consistently learn deep stuff from this blog, and I think it is well-written.]

      • Thanks – I’ll take a look at Ribbonfarm. Your quote makes me think that I don’t yet speak the language of their target audience.

        [James’ Reply: The weird terminology they use is rooted in earlier posts where it is introduced.]

  3. What would be a crazy interesting, possibly destructive exercise would be to open your Google Doc to everyone to “view” as you compose it. I am not sure how exciting that would be for everyone but it would sure be a step up in the realm of openness.

    [James’ Reply: Composing is slow in real-time. And boring to watch. What you might want to see is the change history, once it’s all over. I considered providing that for this post, but I couldn’t see any way to download it. Google Docs lets me browse all the versions but what I want is somehow to turn that into an animation.]

    • I should point out quickly that I am not accusing you (or Michael) of not being open. This was a very open blog post. What I am suggesting is it would be interesting to see the back and forth between the two of you as you decide what is worthy of a post, article etc.

      [James’ Reply: Parts of that would be interesting. I’m sure Michael shares my feeling that we would feel good about sharing most of it. But a lot of it is him and me arguing about the meaning and use of words. I find few people are into the sort of thing. Most people seems to say “Boys, boys… wake me up when you stop nitpicking about whether no testing is manual or whether all testing is manual! You clearly are both trying to say the same thing! Just pick one and move on.”]

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