Not So Fast! Consider These 5 Things When Contemplating a Writing Partnership

Finding a writing partner has always been an appealing idea to many a scribe. Yes, there are those writers who appreciate the solitude of the process, exposing the work to another set of eyes only when they are ready, meeting the deadlines they set for themselves (or using someone like me, a class or a writers’ group to help them), and managing their own accountability. But for many writers, the idea of carrying the writing load along with another talented writer, of having someone else in it with them, a partner with whom to go into meetings, process rejection and forge their path into the industry, is empowering. Comforting. Exciting.

Which is to say… I totally get why so many writers end up in – or at least consider – a writing partnership. Especially in times like these, informed by COVID-19, where solitude can become all the more pressing. There are plenty of benefits to having a writing partner when the stars properly align. But the reality is that, despite everyone’s best intentions, most writing partnerships do not survive. Therefore, it’s important to put serious thought into any proposed writing partnership before you step into one.

A few months ago, one of my writers submitted to a manager an old screenplay he wrote with his writing partner some time before we started working together. The manager responded to the work and, as often happens, asked to see another sample from the writing team. But they didn’t have one. The writing team only wrote one script together, and then developed individual projects separately.  So my client reached back out and told him that a second writing sample did not exist, though he would be happy to send the manager something he’d written on his own. Here is how the manager responded: 

“You have to decide what you want to be. If you are going to write as a team, then everything you write should be as a team. If you’re going to be a solo writer, then everything you write should bear only your name on it, at least when you are starting out. It can be hard for reps when they’re figuring out how to work with you if you’re not one clear thing.”

In other words, what the manager was saying is: What you write individually is not representative of the writing team. What you generate as a writing team is not representative of the individual writer. Therefore, samples written individually are not relevant for a rep who is repping the team. Therefore, if you proceed as a team, your other works are going to be set aside; if you proceed individually, a rep would not then automatically take out a screenplay or pilot created by a writing team.

While the above can sound limiting to many a screenwriter, it does ring true for me: When a rep signs on to advocate for you in the professional space, she needs to be able to have clarity about who you are and what you do in order to be able to advocate for you effectively. Telling an executive that you’re the best family drama writer she’s read in a long time is much more effective than telling her that you are, indeed, a great drama writer… only you’re even better in a writing partnership. If you’re at your best in a writing partnership, why would she be taking out your solely-written samples? Advocating effectively for the writer requires clarity, both in brand and in the composition of the writer or writing team.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of successful writing partnerships throughout my career, so I’ve had the luxury of seeing close up what make the best partnerships both tick and last. And there have been innumerable successful writing partnership in the industry throughout the years: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, The People vs. OJ, Man in the Moon), Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot (Shrek, The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and different sets of successful brother teams including the Farrelly Brothers, the Duplass Brothers and, of course, the Coen Brothers.

And one more thing: No one getting into a writing partnership knows, for sure, that it will work and last. There has to be some practical discovery done on whether the writers’ styles, sensibilities and work habits actually work well enough to keep going beyond the one script. For those writers with an eye out for a potential writing partner, I always suggest that these factors be considered when taking on a partnership:

Agreement on content, standards and general brand

For the partnership to succeed, the writers in it have to agree on what makes for good storytelling. If two writers have vastly different ideas about what makes for good movies and TV shows, then it may be difficult to come to an agreement when developing material together; instead of writing harmoniously, the writers would find themselves pulling in different directions that better fit with their individual story sensibilities.

But story is not everything; while every screenplay or TV pilot should look different than the last, the partners have to agree on the framework and standards of the writing together; if one partner is a stickler for structure, while the other feels limited by it, that can become an issue in the long run.

Lastly, the writing partners have to agree on what genre and space they want to write in. If one writer wants to focus on 1/2-hour comedy and the other wants to write features that are political thrillers, clearly the two writers will not be compatible. You may think that much of this is obvious but… I’ve seen some things.

Complementary skillsets

In the best writing partnerships, each writer brings a unique skillset to the table, which is complimented by their writing partners’ own skillset. Sure, there will be some overlap, but each writer should bring something uniquely hers to the table. If one writer is great with the structure, the other should be great with, say, jokes if the writers are writing in the comedy space. If one writer is fantastic with character development, it would serve him to partner with a writer who is great with plotting. The idea here is that, put together, the writers should be capable of producing better work than they would on their own.

Similar work ethic

For a writing partnership to thrive, the writers should have a similar work ethic, if not an identical one. That is, if they don’t want to drive each other nuts. Writers should be able to work at a similar pace, and have the same general habits; a writer who values meeting deadlines should not partner up with a writer who tends to get everything done long after a deadline has passed. Such differences will only lead to frustration, and for the partnership to, sooner or later, combust.

Homogenous career trajectory

Of critical importance for the success of the partnership is the destination that both writers are heading towards. The writers have to agree on what sort of career they would like to have, in order for the partnership to be effective for them. Therefore, when considering getting into a partnership, it’s essential that both writers can be satisfied with the same career.

Consider these questions: Do both writers want to write film, TV, or both? If writing TV, do both writers want to staff? After all, with the names of two writers on the pilot script writing sample submitted to the showrunner for consideration, a writer would never be hired without her writing partner in tow. And if the partners are considering whether to write TV or features, then living in Los Angeles has to be taken into consideration as well. On the feature side, are both writers keen to get writing assignments? Do they only want to develop on spec? A general agreement on where it is that the writers are heading is paramount for the success and longevity of the partnership.

Lastly… do you get along?

Writing partners do not, by any stretch, have to be best friends. They don’t even have to hang out or run in the same social circles. But for the partnership to succeed, for the writers to be able to support each other through both creative and business challenges, they have to, in the very least, be simpatico with one another, and respect each other’s point of view and opinions.

A few more things to add, consider, or keep in mind:

  • I have seen writers write solo in one format (i.e. TV) while working with a writing partner in another (features). That sort of separation does make the conversation a little bit easier.
  • When a writing team is staffed in a writer’s room, the team receives the salary of a single writing entity, which they would then split.
  • “Paper teams” refer to teams that were not teams prior to entering a writers’ room, but were paired up on paper in order for the showrunner to be able to bring both writers into the room for a single salary.
  • When a screenplay is created by a writing team, everything associated with it, such as general meetings, staffing, going out for writing assignments, etc., would require the full participation of both members of the team.
  • Lastly, if a writing team breaks up after establishing themselves as a team in the industry, the individual members of the partnership would then need to generate new solely-written material in order to forge ahead in the professional space.

Writing partnerships can be great, but in order for them to be prosperous, they have to possess the components that would allow both writers to thrive, grow, and find creative satisfaction within the team. If you do decide to explore entering into a writing partnership, do so with your eyes wide open; Be aware of not only the immediate benefits of having someone hold you accountable, someone who is waiting on your pages and eager to work through story problems with you, but also of the challenges you may encounter down the road if you don’t do your due diligence up front to make sure that you and your writing partner would be content traveling a similar path. There is a reason that writing partnerships that work last for years and years. So if you are thinking about taking on a writing partner, look for someone who doesn’t only see eye to eye with you on story, brand and sensibilities, but someone who is capable of enhancing the quality of your writing, as you would theirs.