When I started performing in my local improv community, I was terrified. The idea of sharing my creative ideas in the moment, practically unfiltered, almost petrified me. I was more concerned about whether my fellow improvisers would accept my contributions than I was about what the audience would think.
In improv, you are one in a group of people striving to meld together seamlessly. You are expected to present characters, relationships, and plot points on the spot – all in the hopes that they stick, that other people vibe with your spontaneous ideas. When done well, it feels like a beautifully choreographed dance. When done poorly, it feels like a prolonged scraping of a fork across a plate.
That same terrifying feeling can be found when writing collaboratively.
You both want things to gel, and you both want your ideas to be validated. You hope to walk away from the experience feeling satisfied and inspired. You probably both also want to create something that is compelling. That is the whole purpose of storytelling, is it not?
However, to get anywhere near achieving this kind of healthy co-writing experience, you’ll need to establish a structure: an agreement between both partners in order to accomplish the same goal. A healthy structure involves elements you both bring to the table equally and individually.
Notice, I don’t say “good” because good is subjective and I don’t say “successful” because that too is subjective. Success can mean different things at different times. I say healthy to imply the organic nature of collaboration; a process that grows, bends, and breaks all to heal itself again.
So let’s build that healthy structure right now!
Habit #1: Leave the Ego by the Door
Putting your words and your thoughts onto a page is exhilarating. It can also make you feel very vulnerable.
Because those words and thoughts are an extension of ourselves, we inherently create a bond with our creative work and link our idea of self to the words that we craft on the page. Any attack on our words can feel like an attack on us.
Always remember: in the sacred space of co-writing, you are not your words, and your words are not you. They are ideas that can be morphed and molded into new ones. Changes to your words on the page do not change who you are. Allow yourself to let them go. Find that amount of separation between you and your writing to leave room for collaboration. Trust me. You’ll feel a lot better when you do.
Habit #2: Define (and Re-Define) Your End Goal
Perhaps you’re in the co-writing experience because after years of talking about it, you and your dear friend finally have the opportunity to work together! Or maybe, you’re meeting a whole new human being for the first time and are tasked with punching up an already greenlit script together.
Whatever the reason for this collaboration, you have to remember the end goal: write the best thing possible, together.
You will need to define what this “best thing” is for each of you. Have a discussion with your co-writer about what you hope to accomplish in the end. Even discuss what it will not be. Lay it all out on the table from the beginning, so that it’s clear where you are headed together.
As you craft your work, keep returning to that end goal you set in the beginning. Ask yourself, “Are we still headed in that direction? Is that the direction we still want to go in?”
Depending on your writing situation, this definition of the end goal can be tinkered with and morphed many times over. Make sure it only morphs to best service the shared idea of what you want the work to be in the end.
Habit #3: Bring All of You
Yes, I did say to leave your ego by the door. I still stand by that.
This is different.
This isn’t about competitiveness or defending your work. This is about being honest about what you bring to the table.
Before entering the sacred space of co-writing, take a moment to assess what kind of writer you are. Where do your strengths lie? What about your weaknesses?
Acknowledge the kind of writing that lights you up and the writing that feels like you’re dragging your feet through mud. What are the moments you feel your voice is at its strongest?
Bring these discoveries to your co-writer. Be honest with yourself and them. A healthy co-writing experience will allow space for both writers’ weaknesses and strengths. It’s a metaphorical marriage of skills.
Habit #4: Divide & Conquer!
You literally cannot write the same thing at the same time – and that’s a good thing! Two humans means twice the writing and half the time (sometimes). Split the workload in a way that suits both of your strengths and interest in the story.
Some co-writers find that splitting up the writing workload between types of content is useful. Have one of you focus on the characters and their dialogue while the other takes on the action and plot progression.
Perhaps, you divide by scenes or sequences. After you’ve drafted an outline, divvy out scenes for each of you to write. If you quarrel over who gets what scenes, approach it like picking players for a game at recess. You each take a turn selecting what you want.
Perhaps, you’re more suited to editing, while your co-writer is great at the first draft. Maybe you’re both great at editing each other. The Coen Brothers are a great example for this, as they take a more competitive approach to dividing their work by trying to one-up each other with each pass they take on a scene. For them, this heightens the conflict and characters until they have extraordinary work that’s proven to wow audiences.
Whatever your workflow is, make sure that it compliments both of you. Find something that brings you closer and closer to that end goal.
Habit #5: Trust Fall into Each Other
That competitive approach of the Coen brothers, of course, specifically works for them because of their relationship and what I’m sure is a long history of conflict resolution that all boils down to trust.
Improvisers come to learn that the only way for things to work is through this trust, as well as respect. Before each show, everyone takes a second to look each other in the eye, place a hand on each other’s back and say with sincerity, “I’ve got your back.” In that moment, we all promise to each other to give our best and support each other in our worst.
When an improv scene is going sideways, a good improviser knows when to wipe the scene. The story being presented worked for a time, but it’s run its course and things must move on for the sake of the show and the improvisers. After watching from the sidelines, someone will “wipe” the stage clean with a swift gesture; clean the slate, as it were.
This relationship contains an inherent element of trust-falling. You can’t always see the way out when you’re at the center of it. Trust that your co-writer does. Put everything you have out there and know that they will help you make it work.
“I’ve got your back,” doesn’t mean, “I won’t disagree with you.” It means that when you disagree, you will share it in a respectful manner. These healthy discussions of disagreements can lead to incredible discoveries and prevent possible resentment. You will share your concerns while also validating your co-writer’s work. Think, “I want to help us move the work forward.”
Trusting your co-writer means that you acknowledge the imperfect nature of collaboration and embrace its ups and downs. Allow each other the opportunity to trust-fall with your writing.
The more we write, the better our writing will be. Every co-writing experience may not result in that perfect masterpiece, but you can both come out on the other side of it having learned something about yourself as a writer and grown in your skills. The more we write together, the better our writing will be.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of what could be an incredible writing experience and partnership. Be honest with what can be achieved and how you can contribute. Most importantly? Have faith that your co-writer is in the same place you are. Lean on each other all the way through to the end.
It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be all rainbows and butterflies. But it can be exhilarating, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, and even cathartic. Isn’t that what we do it for? We’re creating worlds and dreams. We’re satisfying deep internal desires. We’re meeting people where they are and taking them beyond what they ever thought could be.