BALLS OF STEEL: 11 Ways to Avoid Disaster When Choosing a Writing Partner

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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I love to learn. In fact, I try to learn something new every day, not just about writing but also about life and history. I’m fascinated by the History Channel and spend a lot of my weekends with it on in the background while I write.

As I watched a marathon run of The Men Who Built America this past weekend (you really have to watch it; it’s fascinating!), I was struck by statements moguls of today made about the concept of partnerships. Mark Cuban commented on how when Andrew Carnegie, of Carnegie Steel Company, partnered with the ruthless Henry Clay Frick, he was looking for someone with sensibilities opposite of his own, feeling that would make for a stronger union. But in the end, that partnership almost ruined Carnegie twice before he let Frick go.

writing partnerWhy did some famous partnerships work and some fail? If only there was a foolproof formula for a successful partnership.

Then it struck me, I have asked that same question about writing partnerships.

Before I dive into the topic further, let me share a critical warning no one told me when I started writing:

When you submit a script to a production company with a writing partner, you will be put into a database with coverage on the quality of that work. If they love you and give you a “recommend,” do NOT think that will get you any farther in your career when you submit a script of your own to that very same production company. You’ll be starting all over again as an “unproven” writer.

I hear some of you saying, “That’s nuts! I already proved myself!”

Not so fast. You proved yourself to be a great writer ONLY when you are writing with that one partner. An executive has no idea who wrote what, who was the idea person, who did the rewrites or who has the talent. Together, you may be great, but they have zero confidence in what either one of you can do alone.

So think long and hard if you want to enter into that kind of marriage. It’s not just a commitment to one script. It’s a career commitment.

For the sake of this column, let’s say you’re determined to tie the knot.

What Makes a Good Writing Partnership?

This is as difficult of a question to answer as, “What makes a good spouse?”

For both questions, the answer is an individual one and depends on not only your potential partner’s personality, but also on yours. You may not be as hot of a catch as you think. I’m confident some of my past writing partners have dartboards with my face on them. I have OCD and am extremely detail-oriented. It works for me, but not for everyone. Part of my process in finding my new writing partner was recognizing that about myself and making sure he didn’t find it annoying as hell.

It’s essential to take off the rose-colored glasses and be honest about what your strengths and weaknesses are and what holes you’re looking to fill by bringing on a partner.

You should be just as selective in choosing a writing partner as you are in choosing a life partner. Think of it this way, If you decide to partner with someone without getting to know them well first, it’s akin to intentionally getting pregnant on your first date. That glowingly, charming suitor could turn into a narcissistic monster before or after that baby pops out… and the only way to get rid of them might be to throw your “baby” in the trash.

Even if you know the partner well beforehand, you could still end up walking away from years of work. But sometimes it’s necessary for your sanity and/or saving the relationship. You can be amazing friends, but working together artistically may not be in the best interest of that friendship.

How Do I Find a Writing Partner?

Most people find writing partners after joining writers’ groups in their neighborhood or by connecting with writers online or at a screenwriters’ conference.

But how can you tell if you’re a good fit?

Stalk Them

  1. Follow them on social media platforms. You can learn a lot about people by how they behave online. Watch how they interact with people, see if they’re respectful and kind. Sometimes people feel “safe” saying nasty things from behind a computer screen. If a lot of their interactions are rants or attacks, stay clear!
  1. Do they have a large network? You hear all the time how Hollywood is about relationships. One of the benefits of having a partner is doubling those connections. But often when you connect online with writers, you have similar networks. Ideally, a writing partner would not only bring talent to the table, but also new contacts.
  1. Do they understand the craft of screenwriting? How many scripts have they written? What is their process? Talking about writing is easy, but the proof is in the product. Make sure they know structure and can get words on the page before you commit. The best way to test this is to read each other’s scripts and give feedback. You can tell in the first five pages if they know how to write, and by offering notes, you’ll be able to tell if they can take constructive criticism.
  1. Are they more experienced than you? A former mentor, maybe? If so, can they let go of control and let you grow? I love to write with people more experienced than I am because it’s the best way to learn. But some people who are more accomplished can’t resist being condescending to a newer writer. Make sure everyone’s egos are checked at the door. A partnership requires equality.
  1. Are they “idea” people or are they the type of person who’s happy executing someone else’s idea? This is often a question of control as much as creativity. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but finding someone who will allow you to contribute to molding their idea into a script is a little harder. Again, this is another one for the “ego” category. Pay attention to any red flags. If it’s your idea, a potential partner can’t be afraid to offer input, but should be confident enough in their ideas that they’ll offer them freely.
  1. Do they understand the business side of the industry? Succeeding as a writer means more than just being able to write well. Unfortunately, we can’t hide in our writers’ caves and churn out words. We also need to know how to take meetings, listen to executives’ notes, and query production companies. It’s helpful if you both have knowledge about how the industry works.
  1. What are their overall career goals? If you’re partnering with a writer who really wants to be a director or a producer, you need to be aware of that up front. The danger is they won’t understand the importance of rewriting and getting the script nailed to perfection before pitching it. They’ll be eager to either get behind the camera or get into “producer mode” and do a disservice to the script by putting it out too early. You have one shot at making a first impression. Also, the other danger is, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll be judged only by that partnership. If you’re aligning with someone who wants out the second they hit big so they can move onto their real career goal, you’re up a creek without a paddle.
  1. Are they collaborative in nature? Writing with someone is a fantastic way to test your ability to collaborate and also your ability to compromise. The trick is being able to compromise without feeling compromised. With some people, that ain’t easy. Make sure you won’t always be the person rolling over and crying, “Uncle.”
  1. Do they like rewriting? I shouldn’t need to say this again, but I will. Writing is rewriting. Do not ever… and I mean EVER… let your script hit an executive’s inbox unless you think it’s near flawless. Just as I said before, your “rating” will be tracked in a company’s database, and no one wants a red mark next to their name because a writing partner didn’t want to do the work to make your script the best representation of your talent as possible.
  1. Are they comfortable pitching? If you’re an introvert, you want to find a partner who is comfortable in crowds and in presenting your work. After a few times pitching with a confident partner, you’ll improve your own skills and comfort level.
  1. Can they behave in public? This is a big one and one often overlooked. You are judged by the company you keep, and even more so by the writing partner you choose. If your partner is always tweeting about getting drunk at bars and sleeping with the bus boy, you might want to step back and rethink. Sure, I may tweet about tequila a lot, but anyone who has seen me at a conference or social situation knows I only have one or two drinks. Even at an event when my peers are whoopin’ it up, I keep it in check. You never know who will be there or who will be tweeting out pictures while you’re two sheets to the wind. In today’s age of all access, it’s more important than ever to keep it classy.

Look in the Mirror – you may not be as pretty as you think.

Like I said before, think about what you bring to the table. Go through the above list and ask the same questions about yourself. Why would someone want to write with you?

Also, explore why you want to start a writing partnership at all. If you’re capable of coming up with and executing great ideas, you can continue to write them by yourself. It’s important to be clear why you’d even want to “get married” in the first place.

Are you just afraid to write alone?

Writing with someone can be scary too. When you hand a scene over and it comes back with your words slashed and rewritten, it’s a humbling experience. Make sure you’re ready for it.

It’s critical to be honest with yourself about not only your reasons for wanting a partner, but also if you would even make a good partner for another writer. Only collaborate with someone whose strengths compliment your weaknesses and vice versa.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner – Now What?

You scoured the world and found the writer of your dreams, and they are eager to partner with you too, but don’t run to the altar too quickly. Sit down and have a candid conversation about some of the following topics:

  • What is the contribution by each person?
  • What is the division of work between partners?
  • How will you divide the sale of the script?
  • Do you have the same goals for the project?
  • How will disputes between the partners be resolved?
  • What happens if one person dies or is disabled?
  • What happens if one person wants to leave?
  • How will the dissolution be handled?

I think you get the idea. Writing with someone isn’t as easy as, “Hey, you look cool, let’s write a script together!”

Bottom-line, you have to trust your gut. Being confident enough to listen to your gut is what makes great leaders… it’s also what makes great partnerships.

Becoming a “Writer & Partner” takes courage. You know what it’s like to write alone, but when you join forces with someone else, you’re entering the unknown, and it does not always end in happily ever after.

But if you find the right person, you won’t have to give up your individuality. You can still shine as a writer by being part of a team. In fact, I’d argue you can be a better writer working with the right person.

My writing partner and I push each other, passing ideas back and forth, challenging the other to raise the bar. Sure, we can write the hell out of a script on our own, but when we put our two twisted minds together, we are better writers as a team than we are as individuals.

Frankly, isn’t that the same thing people look for when choosing a mate – to find someone who makes them a better person because they’re in their lives?

Don’t settle for less in a writing partner or in life.

In my next column, Balls of Steel: How Do Writing Partnerships Work?, I’ll share some of the techniques I’ve used in my writing partnerships to get from idea to script as a team. There are more options than you realize, and it’s important to try out a few until you find the right recipe for both of your sensibilities.

I’d love to hear how you found your writing partner or what struggles you’ve had in searching for one. Share them and let’s get a discussion started!

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One thought on “BALLS OF STEEL: 11 Ways to Avoid Disaster When Choosing a Writing Partner

  1. jeffguenther

    A heavyweight post. If you partner up with someone who drinks, keep in mind that you’re forming a writing menage a trois with both his Dr. Jekyll AND his Mr./Ms. Hyde. The combination may be disastrous beyond your wildest dreams.

    That “candid conversation” is an absolute necessity. It’s also necessary to get it in writing.

    Casual relationships, as in someone you meet at a weekly workshop or in passing at a conference, really don’t give enough to go on, and are therefore risky bases for partnering. Lots of people can put up a good front for an hour a week or between presentations, but there’s nothing like working alongside someone several hours a day for weeks or months to learn what they’re like under stress and what their skill set consists of.

    Even then, I wouldn’t form a writing team with anyone whom I wouldn’t be willing to give a free ride on the current project and still share the credit without resentment, if they (1) were unable to continue through no fault of their own, and (2) showed willingness to move the project along to the extent they could, and (3) acknowledged what was happening. I can count the people I’d do that for on the fingers of one thumb. I had to do this once (not on a script) and I would work with that person again if an opportunity arose.

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