Updated: Apr 12
Co-writing is something that every screenwriter needs to do at least once in their career. It will improve your writing by leaps and bounds. There’s nothing wrong with being a lone wolf, but you miss out on the beauty of collaboration. The moment when youAwesoom are in sync with a writing partner is a feeling that is difficult to describe. It’s like the Tibetan proverb of explaining the taste of an orange. You can’t. You have to taste the orange. It’s experiential.
As with any relationship, getting to the point of Sympatico with a fellow screenwriter can be difficult. There are plenty of horror stories out there about abandoned projects because writers couldn’t work together. The secret to successful co-writing is to treat it like a partnership and not an arrangement.
1. Collaboration Contract
First things first, a collaboration contract must be signed. It stipulates the amount of pay, writing credits, and expected contributions both of you will make to the screenplay. This is a must. Never take a handshake. The best of friendships have been lost because of money or credit being mishandled with a project. You can download a standard contract from the WGA here.
2. Define the Relationship
Many screenwriters blindly jump into co-writing. Someone gets a great idea and brings in a co-writer without the relationship being defined. Two or three drafts later, they are at each other’s throats and the project falls apart. Being passionate about a project is vital, but be smart about it. Define the working relationship between the two of you by what you expect the other writer to contribute. Is one the engine and the other a wheel? Is this a 50/50 split? Have that conversation. Yes, it will be awkward and uncomfortable, but ultimately necessary. This will help to reduce any friction should things get stressful. And they will get stressful.
How well you work together defines how easily the process will go. Find someone who can bring skills and talents to the table that you particularly lack or are weak in. This works two-fold. First, they will obviously balance out the script. Second, you will be able to learn from them as you work together and improve your own skills as a writer.
Constantly pushing ourselves to become better is something all of us should be doing. When I find a writer I want to collaborate with, I offer to exchange scripts and notes with them. We read each other’s work and give feedback. I tell them to be honest and not hold back. You can learn a lot about a person based on how they give notes, but more importantly how they receive notes. It’s a window into their soul. Are they bitter, resistant, argumentative, thankful, humble, or gracious? This will tell you if you can work with them or not.
4. Trust & Respect
Without trust and respect, there is no partnership. They are the foundation of a solid collaboration. After we give each other notes and have decided we are compatible, I go one step further. I get to know them through several “creative” meetings on story development. Once we feel comfortable with each other, then I know that trust is building and it’s time to move forward with the project. You might ask, “How do you know when trust is building?” Simple, are they comfortable sharing things about themselves with you? Do you look forward to seeing or talking with them? And most importantly, do they make you laugh? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are starting to build trust.
Respect for your cowriter’s skill as a writer is a given. You wouldn’t be collaborating with them if you didn’t respect what they can do. It’s about respecting their creative vision and keeping their “voice” in the script. This is something to keep in mind during the rewrite. Especially, when it comes down to cleaning up the script and making it seem like “one person” wrote it.
How do you make two separate writers come across as one? You do a draft together where you both comb through the script side by side and make it as clean and lean as possible. Eventually, if you work with this person enough, you both will write in a way that is almost indecipherable from one another. It will be as if one person is writing. That is when you hit that beautiful moment of Sympatico.
5. Set the ego aside
The work is what matters most. Not you or your ideas. The script. You can’t become too attached to an idea. This unfairly limits the contributions of your co-writer. You must remain open. If you spend most of your sessions arguing with your writing partner about the story, then I’ve got news for you: you’re the problem. You need to step back emotionally from the work. Listen to what they have to say. It’s okay to disagree with them, but make sure you have a compelling reason why it should go your way. Usually, the best solution is something neither of you has thought of yet.
However, sometimes you hit an impasse. That’s when it’s a good idea to have a “trade-off” rule. If there is a moment in the script in which you must have the scene exactly as you envision it. Your co-writer has to respect the trade-off and allow it. Now they are free to make a single change which they want as well. Of course, the trade-off should be used sparingly on a script. Don’t abuse it.
6. Figure out your style
There are myriad ways to co-write a script. Some will pass scripts back and forth. Others will break up which scenes, acts, or even characters each writer will exclusively write. Some will use software like WriterDuet where they can co-write a script at the same time live online. There have even been teams where one co-writer will dictate as the other types. Always do your outline together as a team. No exceptions! I prefer to write the entire script side by side with my co-writers. I feel it’s the best way. You have each other, right there, and can constantly try out what works and what doesn’t in the moment.
There you have it, the fundamentals of developing a script from concept to collaboration. This part of the process can be daunting with its own unique successes and failures. But, we’re writers after all and are made of the strongest stuff in the world. Persistence.
Patience, however, is the true cornerstone of this process. Never be afraid to take a step back for a wider perspective on the story. It’s too easy to get lost in a cone of focus when zeroing in on it with noses buried in keyboards.
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