Bandersnatch: Insights into Collaborative Writing

I do not identify as a writer. I do write. I have written. But it’s not what I do best. Having said that, Bandersnatch — which is a book about the writing processes of some very influential writers — was a fantastic read for me and would be even more so for someone who actually writes “for a living,” and especially for those involved with any kind of collaborative writing.

C.S. Lewis — he’s my favorite author, by the way — is probably best known for the fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia and his sci-fi space trilogy. But he is also hugely popular in religious circles for his books on apologetics and in academic circles for his numerous writings on literary criticism, especially related to medieval literature and mythology. He was a professor at Oxford, later becoming a Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. A renowned scholar, he should not be mistaken for being only a “children’s book author.”

I probably don’t need to introduce you to J.R.R. Tolkien. You know him as the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Silmarillion, and a slew of other Middle Earth-based writings. Along with Lewis, he was also a professor at Oxford college and a famous philologist, translating “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and “Beowulf,” to name just a couple. He wrote for the Oxford English Dictionary (you may have heard of it) and had a working knowledge of 16 languages (not including the ones he invented!). Impressive, no?

These two friends and colleagues formed the anchor of a group called The Inklings — a group of writers who met and critiqued each other’s works at Oxford during the 1930s and ‘40s. The Inklings were composed of a faithful core with other members coming and going through the years. Some of those more faithful include Warren Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Nevill Coghill. Even Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien’s son) became a regular when he was old enough.

Bandersnatch provides some great insights and lessons for not only those who write, but also those who collaborate or critique each other’s work in any way. Here are a few of the main things that stuck out to me:

For those critiquing:

1. Critique politely and with sensitivity.

One of the reasons the Inklings stopped meeting as a formal group was the rude criticism that Hugo Dyson (an English professor) gave Tolkien regarding The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien had been bringing chapters of his unfinished work to be heard and evaluated, but Dyson didn’t enjoy the story at all. Rather than saying “Here’s what I’d do differently” or “This isn’t really my style,” or not coming to those particular meetings at all, Dyson mocked the characters and complained loudly anytime the script came out, to the point that Tolkien, whose sensitive nature couldn’t take the harsh commentary, would not read if Dyson was present. Dyson’s attitude led to the eventual disassembling of the Inklings.

Editors and managers, know that your words matter. How you say something is just as important as what you say. Remember the goal of critiquing is to help the person improve their work, not to attack the person. And throw in some compliments with your criticisms!

2. Get real.

This may sound like an odd tip, but be a real person to your team members. You must be willing to laugh — if work gets too serious, you’re sure to run into other problems down the road. Have a cup of tea or coffee. Remember when you used to make the same mistakes. Share those anecdotes, and let others laugh with you. Get to know your team well. You don’t’ have to be friends, but you can have a great working relationship.

The Inklings were so successful in their collaborative work because they enjoyed each other’s company and shared many jokes, pots of tea, and fireside chats as friends. They knew each other well, and left pretense at the door. Sharing your work to be critiqued is incredibly hard. Don’t make it any harder on the one asking for your help.

3. Be creative.

In one instance, Tolkien asked Lewis to evaluate his poem, “The Lay of Leithian.” Knowing how much his opinion meant to his friend, Lewis first wrote a praise-filled, encouraging letter to Tolkien about the poem. Later, he set about to assess the work but purposely decided to avoid using a “red pen” approach. He commented not as himself, but as a group of imaginary experts who edited and critiqued the poem, often with humor. Lewis wrote dialogue for each of the characters as they debated and fine-tuned it. His sensitivity and creativity in saying difficult things was much appreciated, and Tolkien incorporated much of what Lewis (that is, his characters) suggested.

I don’t know what creative approach you might take in your work, but try to vary your approach from time to time. Use emojis! Jump on a video call instead of relying on written comments. It may make all the difference to your colleague or friend.

For those being critiqued:

1. Don’t be overly attached to your work.

If Tolkien hadn’t been willing to let Lewis edit The Lord of the Rings, the main character would have been named “Bingo,” and most of the story would have revolved around the Shire Folk chatting, singing, and smoking (things that really appealed to Tolkien!). Lewis pointed out to him that “hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations,” and thus we have the fantasy trilogy as we know it. Remember that sometimes, someone not attached to the work can look in with a new perspective and contribute great ideas! Be open to that! I know it’s difficult. I hate hearing that the thing I worked so hard on — an outfit I am sewing or a craft I’m working on — doesn’t quite cut it, but honest feedback is essential to improvement. To put it in sewing terms, rip out your seams and redo it.

2. Don’t get defensive.

It’s hard to hear criticism — we all know it. But the only way to improve is to listen and hear what the other person is saying. That doesn’t mean you must always do everything that is suggested, but rather than jumping to defend your decisions, consider whether your creative choices might be improved. The Inklings didn’t always “accept all changes,” to use a phrase we’re all familiar with. But they at least read and considered them before moving on. Rather than immediately starting to think about what you’re going to say in rebuttal, make yourself listen wholeheartedly to the other’s advice or comments. Then pause and consider before speaking. In general, that’s a good life lesson.

3. Be willing to share.

If you find it difficult to open your work to criticism, you’re not alone. We all hate it! But it’s truly important. Imagine a world without The Lord of the Rings. Without Narnia. Some of the most famous writers are/were shy and hesitant to share their writings with the world, but I’m so glad they did! Don’t be afraid to share your work, but do be ready to listen, collaborate and improve.

Happy collaborating!

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Laura LeeAccount Manager, SEO Specialist

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