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How Did This Collaboration Work?

A commenter on this blog finally asked a question about Freakonomics that, while seemingly obvious, has never really been asked. (This hasn’t kept a lot of people from commenting on the subject, but most of the commentary has turned out to be wrong). Here’s the question, from one “RJ”:

I am curious. Mr. Dubner is not an Economist, but he is a widely regarded journalist/author. How did you two approach writing this book? I understand that a good writer can write about a subject he is not an expert about (just look at the popular non-fiction titles about Super String Theory and such), so it’s no surprise that Mr. Dubner could write about this subject matter, I am just curious how you two delegated what to write about. Thanks

I won’t bore you with a lot of details but I’ll quickly sketch it out. In the beginning, Steve Levitt and I got together a few times in person (in Chicago and New York) just to bat around ideas and outline the book. Of course, we made several false starts. We had many ideas for how to organize the material. At first, we did make a go out of writing together: actually sitting in the same room, talking through ideas, and me typing the sentences. That was largely a failure. Quite fun, but largely a failure. We did decide that the introduction, instead of simply setting up the premise of the book, would tell shortened versions of three of the main stories in the book. So late one night in Chicago, after all of Levitt’s kids were asleep, I did start writing what turned out to be the book’s introduction, based on the conversations Steve and I had had earlier that day. The three intro stories, told very briefly, were about Roe v. Wade and crime; real estate; and campaign spending.

We soon found our stride. We would talk an hour or two a day, mapping out the next section or chapter. Sometimes I had an idea for how to start a story; often, Steve had the idea. He is, in addition to being a rather smart fellow and a pretty good researcher, an excellent teacher, which makes him very good at explaining complicated concepts in story form. So our collaboration was truly a collaboration. Yes, it’s true that there are chunks of the book that I wrote sort of on my own — but always Steve and I would revise them rigorously together. And yes, there are sections of the book that I essentially adapted from his academic papers, but always with an eye toward creating a piece of narrative non-fiction that non-economists would want to read. (By the way, for the occasional Amazon critic who complains that the book is just a repackaged version of the original Times Magazine story: what are you talking about?) And yes, I often took voluminous notes even as we chatted casually, since oftentimes he would toss off something in conversation that would become a cornerstone of the book — i.e., that morality is how we’d like the world to work, whereas economics can represent how it actually does work.

Much of the commentary about the collaboration has been laughably wrong. Not that I care much (nor do I think Steve does); but people assume that I’m responsible for certain elements and he’s responsible for others, and very often they’ve got it exactly backward.

Steve would sometimes say that the book didn’t “sound” like him — the writing, that is. I think that’s because he’s more used to his academic papers, where the tone is necessarily formal. But in fact, I think a lot of the book does sound like him, at least as much as it sounds like me, since so much of the manuscript was a product of the many and long conversations we had during the writing process. The good news, for me at least, is that we’re continuing to write together, with a monthly column for the Times Magazine and, maybe four or five years hence, another book.