Wednesday, October 7, 2015


A Behind the Scenes Look at Co-Writing a Book

Like many of you, I garden and I write about gardening. Both of these are essentially solitary acts. As a blogger, I get to do and say what I am interested in. But I have spent the past few years doing something very different: writing with someone else. It was a process unlike anything I’ve ever done. So I thought I’d share an honest account of that collaboration, revealing both the ups and downs of the process.

Our culture holds collaboration as a virtue. Working together toward a common goal is a parable preached by preschools and MBA programs alike. But actually doing it—sitting down with someone and then developing, for example, a 316-page manuscript focused on a marketable idea—is quite another thing altogether.

So the celebration of having an accepted book proposal was short-lived. The euphoria quickly melted into doubt. Wondering whether I could pull off a book on my own was worry enough. But seamlessly melding two viewpoints and voices into a single message was something I’ve never done before.

Of course, I had a great partner. Claudia’s big ideas and hands-in-the-dirt experience were huge assets. And her passion is contagious. I found myself looking forward to talking to her every week. We logged hours on Skype. I’d fill notebooks with thoughts; mental kindling that set my mind on fire.

But starting was hard. One of the beliefs that initially paralyzed us is the idea that you need permission to do anything. In co-writing, civility is certainly a virtue, but politeness can be a waste of time. Clear writing results from a strong point of view and logic; yet our fear of offending the other left us with little resolution on complicated points. We would end long Skype conversations courteously, but without firm resolutions. It left us mushy ground to launch our next week of writing.

Plants are social. The layered structure of naturally occurring plant communities was the inspiration for the book. Photo by Claudia West.
And it took us many months to get into a rhythm. Initially, we both tried to write pieces of the same chapter. But our styles were so different, the early drafts were a total mess. I was verbose; Claudia was brief. I wrote in paragraphs, feeling my way through arguments as I wrote. Claudia worked from clear outlines that progressively expanded into narrative. I would spend hours polishing a paragraph without knowing what was coming next. Claudia could quickly develop content, but had a hard time expanding this into a narrative.

So we changed course. What ultimately worked best was that we’d both hammer out a basic outline. Claudia would free-form several pages of bullet points about a single topic. I would organize them into an argument and rewrite them in a draft form. Then we’d both tweak the drafts. We each had separate roles, but we also each controlled the content at several points. It was an iterative process that allowed us each to shape the idea in the way what we did best.

We struggled the most with the big idea. Our first proposal was for a book called Native Planting Design. While there were several regional books on native planting, we wanted to write the definitive resource on designing with natives from an international perspective. But several chapters into that book, we realized that the concept didn’t work. For us, where a plant came from was less useful than how they fit together in communities. So four months before our completed manuscript was due, we scrapped that idea and started over. Throwing away tens of thousands of words was painful. Getting Timber Press to agree to a new angle (and re-vet the book through several layers of approval) was even more painful. But in the end, we all agreed on the new direction.

What held us together was a single-minded obsession about the same inspiration: plant communities. The social nature of plants had been almost entirely forgotten by traditional horticulture. Yet I could not even walk down my urban street without being confronted intricately interwoven carpets of weeds. I’d bend over to examine an upright spike of green foxtail, nested in a bed of Indian goosegrass, coming out of a mat of spotted spurge. Though the plants were different, the same scene was happening in the native meadow and forest floor.  It was so seemingly obvious, so ubiquitous, that writing a book on the subject sometimes felt like proclaiming that the sky was blue or water wet.

The patterns and legibility of long established plant communities motivated me. Photo by Mark Baldwin

And yet we came to these inspirations from different points of view. For me, native plant communities were design exemplars, compositional allegories waiting to be explored. My hikes through the grassy balds of the southern Appalachians, or the granite outcrops of Georgia’s monadnocks, or riverside prairies of the Potomac Gorge told a story of patterns and structure. Though the structure is often blurred and the patterns overlapping, the arrangements of plants within these communities are for me a triumph of legibility over chaos. I could not pass a weedy median or walk through an old growth forest without filling my mind with mental notes of new combinations, new matrixes, new X’s and O’s to put together on the next plan. I came to the book wanting to tell the story of design. And to confess to my own ideological bent, I believed deeply in the potential of our native plants, but the lack of good design examples that was holding them back.

For Claudia, it was the layering of plant on top of plant—the gorgeous morphological diversity of plants above and below ground—that was the story to tell. Claudia wanted to weave the science of plant interaction and ecological niches (the natural story) together with the history of the German perennial movements (the cultural story). Claudia’s experience in Germany immersed her in the world of Karl Foerster, Richard Hansen, Wolfgang Oehme, Cassian Schmidt, Bernd Hertle, and Norbert Kuhn. Germany’s emergence from the desolation of World War II produced a renaissance of thinking about how perennials could be viable plants for covering much of the country’s public landscapes. Unfortunately, our book only covers a small amount of this fascinating history (Timber Press wanted us to focus on the larger narrative). But hopefully, Claudia will write and speak more about this in the future (her talk this summer on Karl Foerster at PPA in Baltimore was a big hit).

Claudia and me at a recent talk in Oxford, MD. Photo by Susan Harris

In the end, it was the power of the idea—and a trust in each other as colleagues and friends—that got us through the grueling process. That idea was big enough to hold together both our points of view. It’s a big tent idea: I’m confident it will support many, many other expressive variations. Whether the book is a flop or success, the collaboration itself was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. It blew open my thinking about plants, and has set my thinking onto much broader horizons. I am grateful for the experience.

Planting in a Post-Wild World is available anywhere books are sold. You can find it online here at Amazon or here at Timber Press.


  1. As a fellow gardener (as well as blogger), I have been looking forward to the release of your new book. Yours is the second of three that I have been eagerly anticipating in my quest for developing my naturalistic design skills ("The Living Landscape" by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy and Larry Weaner's upcoming book are the other two).

    As you describe your writing habits they sound oh too familiar and it sounds like Claudia provided a complementary view and style to produce a genuinely helpful work to myself and others with similar goals.

    I am happy that you narrowed your focus. At a previous gardener at a public Japanese garden, I fully realize the high costs of maintenance to create the illusion of nature.

    I believe maintaining herbaceous plantings as a community may be a key to allowing us to develop gardens that can be managed with less resources, time and effort and still bring the restorative effect that well designed gardens can provide to us.

    I hope your work becomes recognized as a stepping stone to a more beautiful and ecological landscape norm.

    1. I must also say I am waiting for a chance to hear you speak as I have enjoyed interviews I have heard you give. I hope you will have a chance to visit either the Chicago Botanic Garden or Morton Arboretum on a book tour?

    2. Hi Jim,

      Great to hear from you. I agree about the other two books you suggest. One IS great, the other I eagerly await. If I could take a sabbatical and spend it learning from one person, it might be Larry Weaner. I do hope to get out to the Chicago area. I don't have anything lined up yet, so if you know anyone who might help . . . :)

  2. Thomas, your process is fascinating and to me, unimaginable. The only way GardenRant has worked as a team effort is that we've never had to agree on anything. You're a better person than I, obviously.

    1. That's a pretty wise approach as well. The diversity makes for good reading.

  3. I devoured your book in a couple of days as soon as I got it. It has given me much to think about as I get ready to convert my own front lawn into garden. It does read as one single voice. Bravo!

    1. Really appreciate the gracious feedback, Amy. After seeing the fantastic gardens of Portland, I'm ready to rip out my own garden and start over. Of course, I'm always ready to rip out my garden and start over . . .

      Great to hear from you!

  4. I'm looking forward to reading your book, and I also see it as connected to Tallamy and Darke's book.
    Your discussion of your team writing process is very interesting. I've just been reading Danielle Allen's book on the Declaration of Independence, Our Declaration, and she spends quite a bit of time analyzing what she calls 'the art of democratic writing' -- not easy, but important. -Jean

  5. Boy, you persevered through some tough stuff! The process is so interesting to me, probably in part because I worked in book publishing industry for a long time, mostly on marketing side. There are lessons to be learned in what you share. I would think your editor might find it eye-opening. I own the book, just have to find the time to focus on reading all of it! Congrats.

  6. Very interesting discussion about writing. A worthy goal can often provide the motivation to get past many obstacles. I give you both credit for listening/speaking at appropriate times, and at times that fostered the other persons voice. I don't know if I could have.

    Viewing/observing nature gives many clues as to what works. From my commercial background I feel our industry is driven by the pursuit of profits versus pursuit of functional systems (inherently sustainable even if ever changing).

    Can't wait to read your book, should be here in days.

    Thank you, Joe Fearn, Drury University

  7. This backstory stuff is always so interesting to fellow writers. Writing is challenging enough, and I can't imagine the added challenge of blending two voices and though processes into one book. I just received your book as a birthday gift from my husband, a most welcome gift indeed. I am excited to start reading it! And by the way, if you ever get a chance to come speak at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, I'd love to hear you.

  8. April showers bring May flowers... but...when aliens will come to Earth: goodbye religion and all its lies

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  10. Hi Thomas, glad to see you back at blogging! I've always enjoyed reading your essays and look forward to reading your book. Like the commenter above, I hope you'll make it to the Chicago area sometime.

    Coincidentally, I was just at a conference workshop today in which i learned about the Menominee ideas about patterns in nature being repeated from the smallest to largest scale, and the way plant communities work together to flourish. A different kind of ecological understanding, but compatible, I think.

  11. Thomas. I just received Planting in a Post Wild World. I have read to page sixteen, and i just had to stop and reflect on your words of truth. As I am not much of a writer I can't really explain in words how deeply reflective your words were over these pages. However your words have hit the mark on where we are as people and as designers of "nature". "A new way of thinking is emerging". I love it......back to reading!


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