Build Your Own Anthology (or Collaborative Project) in 4 Easy Steps
The title of this is a bit of a misnomer. Let’s get that out of the way first. There is nothing “easy” about building an anthology or other collaborative project. In fact, many believe that an editor who has put together one and chooses to pursue doing a second project of similar scope really enjoys pain to want to go through the process again by choice.
In all seriousness, when in the thick of putting together Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World, I had a lot of questions about how to make something like this work… and so did others who were curious about how they, too, could create an anthology that they’d been dreaming of putting together. Between the knowledge I acquired from my editors, editors of other anthologies (fiction and nonfiction), and my own experiences, here is how you, too, can create your own anthology.
And don’t worry if anthologies aren’t in your future. This advice works for those who want to do any sort of collaborative project, such as blog series. It’s also likely useful information for those who are considering taking part in such a project as a contributor.
1. Have a clear theme and direction for your collection
This seems like the most obvious piece of advice, but it’s pretty crucial. You need to know what your anthology will be about. Having a general idea is good, but digging deep into what you hope to accomplish, who you hope the audience is, and what the parameters within the topic are make all the difference. Creating a synopsis will help, as will putting together a proposal for the collection, pinpointing where your collection would fit into the marketplace (or into the blogosphere).
While putting together Here We Are I did this exercise: I pictured the reader I hoped would stumble across the book in a library or bookstore. They were 12, and it was their first exposure to the idea of feminism. Twelve-year-olds, for those who haven’t worked with them, are perhaps the most interesting group to think about, in part because some 12-year-olds are incredibly smart and intelligent, ahead of their age curve, and so, so ready to be independent, boundary-pushing teenagers. Other 12-year-olds are still quite young; I hate using the word “children,” but that’s the best way to describe those at that age who aren’t necessarily ready and raring to be teenagers and don’t necessarily crave independence and freedom. And then, of course, there are the 12-year-olds who fall smack in the middle.
I wanted to have an anthology that covered feminism for those who were ready to talk frankly and deeply, as well as those who would be hearing some of the terms and ideas for the very first time. I also wanted to ensure there wasn’t a gendered angle to the collection; this needed to be for all genders and needed to be open and honest about talking to the idea that gender is a social construct.
In sketching out how to do this, I knew early on that I wanted to do some bite-sized “FAQ”-style pieces throughout, but I didn’t want to give those sorts of factual pieces to other writers. I wanted to write them and have them cater to the narratives in the collection. It was at this point I realized I needed to proceed to the second step of building an anthology.
Hot tip: spend some time reading other anthologies. Don’t read them with the eye of a reader, though. Read them with the eye of a critical editor — what did they do that you like? What did they do that you would improve upon were you the editor? Who was the anthology’s audience? How did that come through in each of the pieces? It’s also worthwhile to look at the construction of the collection itself. Can you figure out how the editor chose to arrange the contributions?
2. Reach out to brilliant people and don’t limit yourself
In building a collaborative project, you need to find those who want to take part. You need a compelling theme and topic (see #1) and you need some reason why the people you reach out to might want to help. Passion is a good reason. Publicity is a good reason. Money is also a good reason. If you can wrestle up all three, you’re going to be really good.
Side note about money: blog series posts likely don’t allow you to pay your contributors. But if you’re editing an anthology and have sold it to a publisher, you should set aside money to pay those who are doing the work with you. Writing and knowledge are not price-free, and it seems unfair to expect anyone, especially writers and artists, to work for free. What’s a fair price to pay, you ask? Well, that’s something you have to decide. If you set a single payment, though, for all contributors, regardless of their “acclaim,” you’ll likely bring together a very happy group of writers, knowing no one is getting more or less than anyone else. It’s also much easier for your own bookkeeping.
Brainstorm your “probably will say yes” list, as well as a “no idea what they’ll say” list, and a “dream beyond dream” list of contributors who are knowledgeable or have spoken about your topic in some capacity. Decide how you want to approach them, but create some kind of standard greeting that lays out the theme of the collection, as well as the nitty-gritty details like pub date, their deadlines, the editing process, and payment. Give the person you’re reaching out to some idea of why you’re reaching out to them. What is it that would make their voice powerful in the anthology? Why them specifically?
For Here We Are, it was important for me to let contributors pick their topics of interest. I had a list of things I wanted to make sure were covered topically, but I thought giving contributors the opportunity to write about whatever it was they wanted within the confines of “feminism” as a theme would allow the best pieces.
I wasn’t wrong.
This isn’t always possible, of course, and there are times when I had multiple contributors wanting to write about the same topic. Though I knew that the voices and perspectives would differ, I didn’t want to have an anthology that was half about body image. When those repeat topics were brought to me, I asked about other options and did so in a way that made it clear I knew the contributor’s background and knew what else they may be able to pull from.
How do you decide which lists to pull contributors from? My method wasn’t anything fancy. I asked a lot of people I thought might say yes and waited to hear back from them. As those responses came in, along with the topics they wanted to write about, I saw where there were holes. That’s when I began going toward my “no idea what they’ll say” and my “dream beyond dream” lists. And what’s beautiful is when you have people on board, you can approach those second and third lists with the knowledge you have contributors and you can say as much when you reach out. As far as “how many contributors are enough contributions?” That’s 100% up to you with what you want to accomplish. Here We Are had over 44 contributions; (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, my second anthology with Algonquin Young Readers, will have fewer (more like 25-30).
When you get yeses from your dream contributors — people you never imagined would say yes because of whatever reasons you made up in your mind — celebrate. But don’t treat them as any more special than any other contributor. Instead, know you did something exciting by reaching out and that you’re a badass for not limiting yourself.
Hot tip: Your anthology shouldn’t be all white contributors. But you also don’t want to have people in your collection because they check a box off. If you’re struggling to find contributors of color, contributors across the gender spectrum, or those who are disabled, your best resources are those you are already reaching out to. Ask them who they think might be a good fit. You might get names you’ve never heard of before, but spending a little time looking at the work of others will inspire you and allow you to add so much more richness to your anthology in an authentic, meaningful way.
3. Determine your editorial style and be upfront about it.
My day job is in editing, and editing is my favorite part of the anthology process. I love seeing work as it comes in, however it looks. From the beginning, I told contributors I could be as hands-on or as hands-off as they needed me to be as an editor. I’d rather that contributors use me as I could best be used to serve them and the pieces they were working on.
This set-up worked brilliantly.
Some contributors for Here We Are had never written a personal essay before; others had been doing it for a long time. All along that path were writers who felt they weren’t doing a good job or felt they needed to have a little something more to what they were working on. There were writers who literally never talked to me until they turned in a draft of their piece — and then that draft needed no real work to be considered complete and ready to go. Other writers required going sentence-by-sentence, parsing out each thought and moving them around to make their points shine bright.
As editor, I made myself available for everyone in the way they wanted me to be there for them. I stayed open and communicative about where I was in the editing process with their pieces, and I also was communicative when it might take me more than two or three days to be back in touch with them (so as not to make anyone begin worrying that silence meant their work was terrible — it never was).
This sort of availability isn’t possible for everyone who is editing, of course. Fortunately, there are great tools out there to make the collaboration a little easier. Slack, for example, would be a great tool for allowing contributors to take part in a contributor-wide discussion or to brainstorm ideas and/or share feedback among each other. Maybe you do a Google chat or create a chat room to have once-a-month discussions. Use the tools that are out there.
Knowing your editorial style isn’t just useful for the contributors. It’s useful for your own workflow, too. My process of editing began when pieces arrived in my inbox. I’d download them into a folder, then, when I had time to work, I’d read the pieces through, start to finish, without making any notes. I’d do this two or three times, then I’d set the piece aside for the day. I’d come back the next day and do another read-through without making notes. Between the first reads and the fresh read on day two, thoughts or feedback had been in my head or been made on paper. It was on the second day I’d do more reading and commenting throughout.
I’m a commenter. I love leaving feedback. Often, essays would return to my contributors with dozens and dozens of comments — most were about a thing I loved or the way a piece so nicely described an aspect of feminism. There were questions, places where I’d want more digging, and thoughts about how the essay was constructed peppered throughout.
After commenting and posting my feedback into the piece, I’d save a copy and close it. I’d let it sit for another day or two, then return to reading it. I’d read it without commenting first, then go through again and make any final comments, remove any comments I’d left that I’d changed my mind about, and then I’d do the part that was the real editorial work: I’d write a letter to go back to the writer.
The letter was the key. Because commenting often meant saying positive things, the letter worked to serve as the critical feedback. That doesn’t mean it was negative (and, in fact, not a single letter was negative). It was a way of highlighting the essay’s strengths and weaknesses, and what I thought could be juiced a bit more. I’d offer questions and explain my takeaways from the piece upon each of the readings. It was in those days between reads of the essay I often had further thoughts and it was in rereading where I saw some of the biggest places of potential in them. The letter was my way of talking through those thoughts coherently and opening a dialog with the writer so we could make their pieces sing.
Working with writers from backgrounds that were wildly different from mine was a challenge I loved, and it allowed me to humble myself through the process. There were times I didn’t understand something because as a white lady, I wouldn’t understand them. I used those opportunities not to ask to be educated by the writer; instead, I trusted their knowledge and voice. If you’re choosing contributors based on their experiences and intellect and voice, then you have no reason not to 100% trust their take. In instances where clarity was challenging for me as an editor, I’d make a note offering an alternative wording, saying that the writer could take it or leave it but that it was a little confusing on the reading level.
Hot tip: Have a writer who is stuck? Have them revise their piece and the structure it is taking. More than one contributor to Here We Are got married to writing a traditional narrative when, in fact, doing something a bit different ended up unlocking the piece. It’s worth having a couple of different pieces that are polished to share with those who are having challenges so they can see how each writer approaches a topic differently.
4. Leave room for the unexpected in organizing the collection
While writers begin editing and polishing their pieces, it’s your turn to do the work. Ideally, you’ve read everything at this point or have a good idea of what contributors are writing. You now have the task of figuring out how to put the collection together.
Gather some index cards and/or use the tools inside software like Scrivener. Write down the names of the pieces and contributors on each card. You’ll find yourself wanting to take notes on each of the pieces, so having them separated like that will help tremendously.
Then start with some questions: What are some common threads throughout the pieces? What voices agree with each other? Which ones create an interesting friction? Are there big topics that float through a few pieces? Are there style choices that complement one another?
Be open to the surprising ways that pieces find themselves being placed along one another. It might not be as straightforward as you assumed, but it’s in those surprises that the magic happens. Ensure there is flow among them, but don’t be married to specific ideas of how things should fit together or how they should be labeled coherently. When everything has been arranged, when everything feels like it’s in a proper spot, that’s when you can look at the sections and figure out how to describe and title them.
One of the things I noticed throughout my studying of other anthologies — both for my research for Here We Are and in my college capstone English course which was about the politics of anthologies (really) — was how they led and ended with “the strongest pieces.” I eschewed that from the beginning when organizing Here We Are because as an editor, my job wasn’t to assign value to the individual pieces. It was to ensure each and every piece that was finished was the best that it could be. In other words, every single piece was the best. There were no weak pieces, no spots where improvement could be made, no contributors that made me nervous because they didn’t measure up to x or y piece. Each one had a purpose, had merit, and had been worked to its best potential.
When you realize that every single piece is the strongest piece, then you don’t have to rank your organization. You can instead let it flow the way it is meant to flow. And it’s in this space where you, as editor, get to fill in the places you need to — see step #1.
Hot tip: If you find yourself with a massive hole that you didn’t anticipate OR you find yourself wanting an additional piece on a specific topic, go for it. You have your three lists of people you want to be part of your collection; if you’ve worked with your deadline well, you’ll have the time to make another piece happen. For Here We Are, I realized a hole in the collection I wanted covered. I reached out to more than one writer, specifying an interest in having them write about this idea, and not only did I get one great piece, I got two excellent pieces on the topic… and they could not have approached it more differently. It was the perfect rounding out I needed.
Hot tip #2: It’s your decision as an anthology editor how present you want your voice to be. If you make the decision early in the process, it makes the organization so much easier. I’d decided early on that the only way I wanted my voice present in the collection was in section openers, the introduction, the back matter (book lists, film lists, and other such resources), and in the FAQs sprinkled throughout. Later, though, I decided that I had something to add in a final essay to the book, and I let myself add it. Not as an editor, but as a writer. There’s no right way to be present as editor in the final product, but know that you should hold yourself to the same standards as the pieces you’ve edited. In some ways, this is the hardest part of the whole process.
Even if you never picture yourself putting together such a project nor taking part in one, you’ll be unable to not see the work that goes into the backside of editing a collection now, and it’s worth trying your hand at guessing the “how” behind some of your favorite anthologies. A few excellent examples worth checking out: The V-Word edited by Amber J. Keyser (nonfiction), Slasher Girls and Monster Boys edited by April Genevieve Tucholke, A Tyranny of Petticoats edited by Jessica Spotswood, and any iteration of the Norton Anthology series on literature you can get your hands on (especially great for critiquing and looking at what was selected, as well as what was not selected).