Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives

Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives

The stereotype of the writer is the lonely artist starving in his garret, right? Hunched over The Work, completely alone with his (or her, or your) thoughts?

The truth is, at some point in the process, most writers work with someone else in some capacity. You might collaborate with people who are actually involved in the writing part (like co-writers or critique partners) and/or those who play some role in helping you get whatever you’ve written out to readers (like publicists or cover artists). Certain types of writing tend to be more collaborative than others – screenwriting is not a great profession for loners – but journalists, novelists, short story writers, even poets will find at one stage or another, it can be handy to have some people around who complement your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.

These team members tend to fall into three categories, and ideally, over the course of your career you should have all three types on your team:

  1. Professional and writerly. These are people whose job it is to work with you and support your writing. Agents and editors, for example. The fact that you pay them doesn’t mean that the relationship is necessarily mercenary. Acquiring editors nearly always talk about “falling in love” with a book, and if you’re lucky, your editor is just as passionate an advocate for your book as you are. Your agent, too, can be not just a powerful ally, but your fan, protector, cheerleader, coach, confessor, and friend. The fact that they’re professionals means that they have interests that are aligned with, but not identical to, yours. That can be a source of frustration but it can also be the core of strength you need to truly succeed – it helps to have someone who can be objective about your work when you can’t.
  2. Personal and writerly. These are the fellow writers who form your support network, the people who can weigh in on subjects that concern you because they’ve been there themselves. The writing community is nothing short of amazing. Beta readers, critique partners, other authors published by your same imprint, writers to go on retreats with, authors you follow on Twitter – there are so many other writers who can provide insight or assistance when you need it, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you stay alone in your garret (although an internet-equipped garret can provide the best of both worlds.)
  3. Personal and not writerly. This is the category most often overlooked, but it’s just as essential to your career and your sanity. You must, must, must have some people in your life who have no particular personal stake in your writing. You can drive yourself crazy with the weirdness of modern publishing, the inside-baseball intricacies, the stuff that seems incredibly important at the time (“What do you mean, my release has been pushed back an entire week? It’s a disaster!!!”) but may or may not truly matter in the big picture. If you’re tempted to spend a day flipping out over asking a more established author for a blurb, the best person to have lunch with might be your friend who doesn’t know or care what a blurb even is. Perspective is a huge boon, and it’s your family and friends who often provide that.

This isn’t to say that you aren’t the person ultimately responsible for everything you write. You are. And in that, you’re alone, but on the journey, you should really have some company. So who’s on your team?


About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.