Stephanie Palmer from “Good In A Room” discusses fine tuning these tricky relationships.
When was the last time you and your writing partner had a meeting about your partnership?
A writing team’s success is, in part, a function of the warmth and strength of your personal connection. This connection is what determines if you can listen and build on each other’s good ideas when writing, as well as how effectively you pitch together.
Your writing relationship will thrive when there is honest, direct, empathic communication.
1) SHOULD WE WRITE TOGETHER OR SEPARATELY?
From time to time, you may need to write separately or together depending on the context (i.e., developing a outline for a spec vs. doing a production rewrite). Experimenting with your creative process can help prepare you for different circumstances, and may help you develop a more efficient way to work. Even if you have a system in place, always fine tune your process. Here are some options:
A) Write Together In The Same Room
Example: Matt Damon and John Krasinski (Promised Land) [Writing with John] was really, you know, two actors in a room jumping around, playing all the different parts, and trying to make each other laugh. And then a script kind of came out of it.” – Matt Damon (via Vanity Fair).
B) Write Separately In The Same Room
Example: Marc Silverstein and Abby Kohn (He’s Just Not That Into You, Never Been Kissed) Our normal process is just to loosely outline together, hash out the broad strokes, then one person will start, write five, ten pages, send it across the room, or email it. Go back, rewrite, go a little further, back and forth, back and forth.” – Marc Silverstein (via John August’s Scriptnotes).
C) Writer Separately In Separate Rooms
Example: Stephen Scaia and Matthew Federman (Jericho, Warehouse 13) We work really hard to be as specific as possible in our outlines, allowing us the luxury of not being stuck in a room together for the actual writing process.” – Stephen Scaia (via The Write Environment).
This is also the method used by writing team Lennon & Garant.
2.) WHAT ARE THE TERMS OF OUR PARTNERSHIP?
I’ve known a lot of people who don’t discuss terms because they are afraid of spoiling their relationship. The question is whether or not you’re serious. Professionals value their investment of time and energy. They choose their projects carefully and they plan for the future.
How you decide to set the terms of your partnership is up to you and your partner. However, I recommend using the WGA’s Collaboration Agreement as-is or adapted to meet your needs.
While negotiating an agreement in the beginning can be uncomfortable, it is far better than negotiating down the road when you HAVE to negotiate.
3) WHICH IDEAS ARE “IN DEVELOPMENT”?
You and your partner should have a Development Slate. This is a list of all your ideas that relate to your current projects. The idea is that you collect and sort your ideas, and the best, most valuable ideas percolate to the top.
I recommend being explicit about what ideas are in development. The fewer ideas have your attention, the more likely you are to finish them.
4) WHAT IS OUR “PRIORITY PROJECT?”
You and your partner can work on multiple things in private. Your priority project is what you mention in public.
In other words, whether you and your partner are together or separate, when someone asks, “What are you working on?” your priority project is what you talk about.
The priority project should be in a genre where you have many more projects in development, and the script should be finished.
NOTE: If you and your partner don’t have a finished script yet, your answer to the question “What are you working on?” should be one that buys you time, e.g.: “We’re working on a few things. When something is ready, would you like me to get in touch?”
5) WHAT IS THE SHORT PITCH OF OUR PRIORITY PROJECT?
No matter what room you or your partner is in or with whom you are meeting, when someone asks you for the pitch of your project, each of you should be saying the same thing.
Script your short pitch. Hone it and polish it. Know it cold. Yes, you may have to adapt it to different circumstances, but even the way you adapt your pitch can be (to some extent) prepared for in advance.
6) WHAT IS OUR POLICY ON BEING ON-TIME?
Of all the ways that a writing team can get off track, the issue of punctuality is the most common and the easiest to fix.
- For some people, a writing session that starts at 10 AM means that you arrive at 9:50 AM, get yourself together, and are ready to start working at 10 AM on the dot.
- For other people, a 10 AM writing session means that it can start anywhere between 10 and 11 AM, depending on traffic and other variables.
My advice is to talk about this and have clear expectations for each other’s behavior.
7) WHEN ARE YOUR DEADLINES?
What are your deliverables? When should they be delivered? What are the consequences of one or multiple parties not delivering? Better to have a plan before writing rather than managing a crisis?
8) WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO GIVE EACH OTHER NOTES?
Imagine you were asked to give notes to someone you admire, like Ron Howard. Then, take care to give the best notes you can to your partner.
Some advice for giving each other notes:
- Always start with positive notes.
- After positives, give your most important critical note first.
- Avoid general notes, e.g., “I didn’t like it.”
- Give specific notes, e.g., “This (particular aspect) confused me.”
- Avoid attacks, e.g., “This sucks.”
- It is often better to ask a question than give a note, e.g., “What was your thinking about…?”
9) HOW WILL WE RESOLVE PROBLEMS?
The key is to remember that when you disagree, that’s almost always a good thing. Disagreements usually happen where there is an opportunity to make something better. Figure out why you disagree, and the project almost always improves. What we have learned over time is to start with questions like “What are you trying to get to?” Not to get caught on the specifics but to step back and look at the big picture. Generally we find agreement there. So now it becomes a question of “does this accomplish that?” What happens now pretty much 100% of the time is we either tweak something or find a third way that both of us agree is better than either of our options from before.” – Federman (via The Write Environment)
That said, there may come points when you disagree and a decision needs to be made. At this point, the person who is either the “project manager” or with whom the idea originated would be the decision-maker.
If one of us has the lead in a project and or it was their idea that person would ultimately have veto power if there was some sort of creative road block or disagreement.” – Rick Jaffa (with co-writer Amanda Silver: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Jurassic Park IV) (via Media Mikes)
10) WHAT ARE OUR NEXT ACTIONS?
At the end of each writing session, you and your partner should each have a clear understanding of the next actions for which each of you is responsible, along with due dates for those actions.
Keep This In Mind
Your partnership will be stronger if you communicate about your work as well as your relationship.
A clear mission, explicit creative process, and reasonable expectations for each other can make it easier to enjoy the work.
And when you’re having a good time, it’s easier to produce better quality, saleable projects.