What Does it Really Mean to Work “Collaboratively” on Writing Projects?

Back in London when I was a teenager, I knew a boy who was very tall, very handsome, and very shy. He always had a camera slung around his neck. I haven’t seen him in over 30 years.

Not surprisingly, Dean became a film director and fashion photographer, and travels the world shooting the likes of Bradley Cooper, David Beckham, Katie Perry… and so on. We reconnected through Facebook a few years ago. In looking through his portfolio, I caught sight of a series he shot called 1980’s youth, and yes, some of the pictures are of my little London crew. What a thrill.

Fast forward a few years and I get an urgent email from Dean asking me to help him write a pitch letter for an independent film he wants to shoot. He’s looking for funding on an art film about a young autistic man. Before contacting me, Dean had already spent good money on a TV writer in LA who’d delivered a flat, inaccurate, ineffective letter. (And that’s being polite.)

Could I help him?

My immediate instinct was to say no. I’m in the middle of time-sensitive edits on a book, and I know from experience that this kind of work takes time and a ton of mental energy. I always care a lot about my writing clients (to an obsessive extent), but I knew I’d care even more about working with an old friend.

But… I was intrigued. I wanted to help him out. I’m a collaborator at heart, a helper. I loved the sound of the project. I knew I would learn something. It was different from other work I’ve done, yet also similar in interesting ways. I understood what he was trying to achieve.

So I said yes.

It proved to be exactly what I thought it would be: time consuming, frustrating and fascinating. The ups and downs, and the extra pressure of trying to please a friend, reminded me of the core elements of working successfully with another person–whether a client (like Dean) or an editor (like an agent or publisher)—on a piece of writing. Here they are:

  • Be very clear about the goal/ purpose of the work. Whether you’re working with an editor on your manuscript (fiction or nonfiction), or you’re the hired writer working with a client, make sure you both understand exactly what the goal is. What are the problems you’re trying to get a handle on? What is the next step with this document—ie. who will be the next reader? What is it supposed to achieve?
  • Establish ground rules and set expectations. What is the approximate time parameter? (Always let your client/editor know if the time frame changes.) Is there money involved? Does the budget have a cap? Be sure to estimate costs before you start the work, and discuss what happens if the process is easier or harder than expected.
  • Figure out who’s the “boss.” This is tricky, but critical. Last year, I wrote a book for an organization and while the CEO’s vision was paramount, I was actually the boss. He needed me to make decisions, establish the calendar, determine and shape content. I led. But in another case, it worked the other way around: My client was in charge. She had a clear vision for the book both in terms of content and tone. I followed. These collaborations are successful when I figure out early on what the client really needs from me, and when I’m willing to be flexible. When your work is being edited by a professional, this power dynamic can be hard to figure out. Ultimately you’re the author, your name will be on the work, and so you’re the boss. But when working with an agent or publisher I don’t see it this way. I may technically be the boss, but I’ve partnered with these people because of their expertise. So I weigh their opinions and advice heavily. Bottom line: Be open, constantly re-evaluate the power dynamic, and make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by getting it wrong.
  • Don’t let emotions get in the way. Sometimes, collaborations can be really annoying. It’s not all that hard to get offended somewhere along the line. Someone insists on changing something, or repeating something, or having a structure that you think just doesn’t work. Instead of showing your emotions, take a moment to collect your thoughts. Then clearly explain your opinion. Then, depending on who’s “boss,” either make the changes or don’t.
  • Keep the market in mind, not your ego. This takes us back to my first point: the goal of the manuscript or document. The goal may be to get financing for a movie, to snag an agent, to get a book deal, to improve your draft. What is not important—and what usually only gets in the way—is your ego. Try not to be defensive, just productive. When you get too wrapped up in whether you’re right or wrong, the work ends up suffering.

After one day and night of intense work, I delivered the pitch to Dean. At first, he was ecstatic (“So much better than the first writer! You’re a superhero!”)… and then things got complicated. Tweaks became re-writes. It was hard understanding his vision and getting it down in a way that he felt did it justice. But I learned a lot. And after a lot of back and forth (during my vacation), I got it right. And now we’re both happy.

That’s working collaboratively.

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