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Is Writing with a Partner a Good Idea?

By Marilyn Horowitz

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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 collaboration in screenwriting. Think of the Coen brothers (Fargo), the Wachowskis (The Matrix), and Nora and Delia Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle), among others.

But before you decide to enter into a writing partnership, keep in mind that the time you spend writing will now in some way be shared with your collaborator—so be 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 exactly how much time you will be spending with each other 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.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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