Is Writing With A Partner A Good Idea?
This past week I spent writing on Fire Island. I’ve used the Island as my local slice of paradise for a long time, and each visit inspires me anew. I have written books, screenplays, articles, done script doctoring, and, this time, worked on an animated series intended for late-night network TV.
I am by and large a solo writer, but this new project comes with a co-writer. I have worked with several writing teams and am a fan of co-writing if the circumstances are right. There is a time-honored tradition of screenwriting being a successful medium for collaboration. Think of the Coen brothers (Fargo), the Warshowksi’s (Matrix), and Nora and Delia Ephron (Sleepless In Seattle).
Before you decide if you want to co-write, remember that the time you spend writing will now be in some way shared with your collaborator, so make sure you can spend time together without stress. For example, here’s how the Coen Brothers describe their writing process: “We go to the office, we’re there, we’re in a room together…We take naps, but, you know, the important thing is that we’re at the office, should we be inspired to actually write something.”
Beyond this fundamental consideration, I have a few rules of engagement that I follow when coaching writing teams and which I am using in my own current collaboration.
Here are “The Five Rules of Engagement” for writing teams:
1. Have a signed agreement that outlines both the financial and artistic terms. The issues are credit, compensation, and creative control. In addition, there are different kinds of corporate entities that can be explored. You should consult a lawyer, if possible. My grandfather Charlie, who was an entertainment lawyer, used to say, “A contract helps you stay friends.”
2. Agree in advance who will do what. For example, my co-writer and I begin by creating an outline, which we then refine into a “beat sheet” using my trademarked writing method. The beats are what happen in each scene. My partner then writes the first draft, and when he’s finished, I take the draft and make changes for structure and story. Then we re-convene and do the fun part: coming up with the jokes.
3. Plan your work and work your plan. Set clear goals for every step of the project, then create a flow chart with deadlines—and meet them. Otherwise the work won’t get done and tempers will flare.
4. Design a system for creative disagreements. While you need your writers’ agreement for the big disputes, you also need a plan for the disagreements and arguments that inevitably arise. My advice when these things happen: agree to disagree, move on to something else, and revisit the issue in the next writing session.
5. Be sure that everyone shares an equal commitment to the project. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard writers complain that they are the ones doing all of the work and that they had expected their writing partner to participate equally. This is an issue that needs to be addressed before any writing agreement is made. So many partnerships split up over this type of misunderstanding!
To recap, make sure you and a potential writing partner have addressed the consideration of how much time you will be spending with your co-writer and follow the five rules listed above. As a bonus, here’s a link to a classic agreement that will give you some ideas of how to structure yours (but still use an entertainment lawyer):
Personally, I use Robert L. Siegel, Esq., and recommend him highly. (RLSentlaw@aol.com)
Here’s to Your Successful Writing!
Professor Marilyn Horowitz