The Born Freelancer on the Art of Collaboration, Pt 3

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


Several months ago I wrote about the art of collaborative partnerships (Part One is here; Part Two is here). It seems to be a topic of continuing interest especially for freelancers who have yet to have had a successful creative partnership. Perhaps part of its fascination is due to its hidden secrets. How and why the best collaborations actually work is a bit of a mystery. Despite extensive deconstruction many of its most successful participants prefer to keep it that way for fear of destroying it.

Collaborating has often been compared to marriage. And like marriage, the vast majority of its success is secret, behind the scenes, and known only to its two participants. (There is also the joke that long term collaboration is like an old marriage. There’s no sex and lots of fighting). Trying to observe collaboration first hand by sitting in with two working partners can be disappointing. Under such laboratory scrutiny many collaborations will simply cease to function normally or at best be put in a kind of “show” mode and fail to deliver efficiently.

Today I thought I would try to cast aside the veil of secrecy and reveal some of the inner workings of the two main forms of successful collaborating. The nitty-gritty is not always pretty but it might help you forge future partnerships. Of course, no two collaborations are ever going to be identical and here I can only relate experiences that I myself have survived! Your experiences may be similar but will never be exactly the same.


Basic techniques

The question most frequently asked is, “But how do you actually do it?” The solo writer/creator is so focused on forging something from nothing that the idea of yielding that process up to a second party can be pretty much unthinkable. And so with many collaborators, the creative process itself must be transformed. This means breaking down the process into its smallest components and beginning together there.

Technique number 1: line by line

Exactly what it says. You sit in a room or remotely via the internet and work on a story, a script, or a document together line by line, building up the project together from scratch. You don’t proceed to the next line until you have agreed upon the current one and input it into your computer.

This is a system that comes naturally to some and never to others. Most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes and gradually learn how to do it. As I have written, you must have chosen well and trust your collaborator. That means you must be willing to creatively try out ideas in front of each other without worrying about how they may appear in their unfinished shape. An ideal collaborator will encourage such riffs and build upon them to see what results. A commonly used expression in such cases is, “I don’t know the exact line yet but the shape of it is…” If your collaborator looks at you like you are crazy having uttered such a phrase, move on to another partner. Immediately.

Such collaborations are very much like an improv session. An ideal partner will never shoot down a tentative suggestion or idea out of hand (there are exceptions of course) without giving it a chance. When the idea has been fully thrown around it is only then either given life by writing it down or rejected as unsuitable. Frequently even unsuitable ideas are noted down and saved for future use in another context. You learn very early in this collaboration game never to throw any good ideas away but to file them for later consideration.


* It is perhaps the truest form of collaboration.

* Both of you have an equal say in the process.

* Both of you are focused on the same point in the process resulting in maximum attention to the immediate problem at hand.


* If you are not in sync with your thoughts, or if you do not work at the same speed, this process will be difficult.

* This can be extra time consuming given that both of you are working on the same problem at the same time.

* If you are not temperamentally suited to each other you are in for a very rough ride as this requires the maximum amount of interpersonal contact of any kind of collaboration.

Additional thoughts

* Who inputs? If you are both working in the same room, chances are you will have only one keyboard. If one of you is a better typist the problem may solve itself. If you are both reluctant typists it is best to rotate the task, perhaps hour by hour, so no one feels resentful. Many successful partnerships seem to settle into a routine pretty quickly wherein one partner inputs and the other paces or uses a chalkboard or some other visual device to help keep track of specific points to be incorporated into the work.

TIP: If you are working together in an office, get a second screen so your partner is not always staring over your shoulder. Most computers allow for a secondary screen to be plugged in. They can be picked up cheaply second hand online or at computer supply outlets.

* Some writers may prefer to write in long hand. Others may need to print out keyboarded material and then do a manual editing job with pen in hand. Not everyone is at the same place in their relationship to the computer screen and keyboard. Collaborators must respect these seeming quirks. The creative process is a complicated one and the relationship with mind and hand can be uniquely idiosyncratic. I know of some partnerships that used a stenographer to record their spoken-aloud partnership; they never actually wrote down a word as such activity would hinder their creative output. Today there is software that will take dictation for you. The point is that there is no one way to do it. If it works between you, if there is a creative frisson that sparks off ideas and delivers an output greater in quality and volume than working solo you are indeed a collaborator.


Technique number 2: joint/component collaboration

By nature of personality or the distinctive nature of the type of work you are involved in the line by line form of partnership may not be right. And so many collaborators still manage to work together but by working apart. It is a hybrid kind of collaboration but one that manages to preserve the best of many solo writers while giving them the opportunity of working with an equally talented partner.

The so called joint or component collaboration is when you must both agree on the bigger picture ahead of time then go away and write/work on separate segments of a story/script/document then return to put them together and edit the whole piece together. It could be as easy as “I’ll write Part One and you write Part Two” or “I’ll do half of the interviews, you do the other half”, etc.


* This can be greatly time saving, assuming you are equally matched in energy, talent and approach.

* This enables you to devote your particular talents to a more specific part of the project potentially resulting in a more focused approach.

* You maintain a greater degree of independence and yet are still engaged in an active collaboration.


* If you aren’t equally matched as partners, this can lead to lopsided work that creates an imbalance in the relationship.

* If you are not very good at communicating, the separate elements may not merge easily together and you may need to spend much more time afterwards editing them together.

* For some freelancers this is neither fish nor fowl, you are neither fully independent nor fully collaborating. For others, it is just enough of both to keep them happy.

Additional thoughts

The joint or component collaborative technique requires exceptionally good communication skills and forward planning. You both need to know going into the work what expectations you have of each other coming out the other side. Then, when you sit down together (or remotely compare notes) you need to be able to quickly edit each other to make the two halves merge seamlessly together and create an organic whole. If you have communicated successfully at the beginning and throughout the separate work phase this should not be a big issue.


Another kind of joint collaboration: complementary

By this I mean you are both working on a project together but have assigned each other distinctive and different aspects of the project based on your skill sets. A freelance writer may prefer to write a script and partner with a freelance producer who can deal with the production side of a radio documentary, for example. In this way your responsibilities are much more clearly defined and separated than if you were two writers both writing the script together and then struggling to produce it yourselves. By partnering with an expert with related but complementary abilities/experience the project can usually move forward much more quickly. This kind of collaboration is exactly like all other kinds in that it requires a common sense of values, humour, work ethics and excellent communication skills. Given all that, it can be highly effective in allowing the solo writer/creator to maintain the highest degree of autonomy and yet still reap the rewards of a successful collaboration.


Final thoughts

In most partnerships one partner usually has slightly different skill sets than the other. This can be a great advantage if partner A’s skill sets complement or offset partner B’s skill sets. Perhaps A is a better super editor and B is better at getting that first draft down on a virgin page or screen. In many ways this can be the most productive kind of partnership because one partner’s strengths compensates for the other’s weaknesses. How do you determine this? If you already know your strengths and weaknesses going in to a collaboration it is best to confess them at the beginning. It will help determine the partnership’s fate. But like most of us (as a solo writer) you may not even be aware of how your strengths and weaknesses will play out within a partnership until you are in one. So most partnerships will find themselves struggling at a certain point as they readjust their internal creative dynamics. If you have chosen well, such a readjustment will only strengthen a collaboration. If you have chosen hastily or poorly, such adjustments may mean the end. It will play out differently for different individuals.

But what if two partners are equally and identically matched in absolutely all strengths and weaknesses? It can still work. But it could become highly problematic. Your weaknesses will be twice as bad and your strengths will seem redundant. IMHO you would probably (but not necessarily) be better off working solo or with a different partner.

So there you have it, some of the nitty-gritty of collaborating as seen from the inside. I hope these additional insights will give you a more detailed road map on how to proceed successfully within your own future collaborations. But the true challenge and indeed most of the fun is finding out on your own. All I can say is good luck and let us know how you get on.


Posted on June 28, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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