The Born Freelancer on the Art of Collaboration, Part Two

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.


My recent post On The Art of Collaboration seems to have received a fair amount of interest, so I thought I would explore a few more thoughts on the topic. It is an important one that every freelancer will need to deal with sooner or later.

Some of you may not yet have worked in collaboration with a partner. So, today I thought I’d take you inside the collaborative trenches to look at just a few of the nitty gritty details that I have experienced firsthand.

Working Through Roadblocks in Any Collaboration

There will be times that any creative partnership – no matter how smooth sailing it may usually be – will hit the rocks. Both of you will be convinced that they are right and the other is wrong. How do you get past such a formidable roadblock?

* First, both of you need to step back and cool off. Take a break, a walk around the block, get some food in you and generally try to get some perspective. Even if you are on a tight deadline, ten minutes now could save a wasted evening later on if you handle the situation badly.

* You must not take differences of opinion personally. You must try to step back from the edge and look at what you are both trying to achieve. You should both be trying to achieve the same goal, but perhaps through a different route. Try to talk it out. Why do you think your way is better. It’s not enough just to dig in your heels and say “Because”. This is not a schoolyard. This is a business. You are both there to serve the best interests of your client by creating the best possible version of the project you have promised. So, which route serves that goal best? The art of compromise and give and take in a partnership is as critical to its ongoing success as sheer talent and ambition.

Which is not to say you should not argue and fight for your point of view. It’s just important not to make it personal and to recognize after a certain point that the roadblock is counterproductive to your goal (the successful completion of your project) and that – one way or another – you must both choose to move forward. The clock is ticking.

* Pick your battles. If you always insist upon getting your way (or if your partner does) then you will always be wasting valuable time and energy by digging in your heels. There is usually more than one good way of handling any given situation creatively, is it so important to do it your way this time? Frankly, if there are two equally good ideas, view them both as communal property. There is no “mine” and “yours” in a creative partnership, it is “ours”. Which one is the better fit? Use it but never forget the other option. Your client may later want changes involving the exact same “bridge” you came to and your other choice of route may ultimately be a time saving solution.

As I wrote in my previous post on this topic, when you are engaged in an ideal partnership, that partnership itself becomes a kind of third person. All your efforts and energies must be directed towards the successful output of that entity for your client. If your ego is not strong enough to withstand that requirement, you may not be cut out for such rigorous collaboration in the first place.

* Worst case scenario, if you can’t get past the roadblock – table it. Move forward onto the next scene or paragraph or chapter. Agree to disagree and come back to the roadblock after some time has passed, preferably the next day. You will be amazed how a bitter disagreement has mellowed into a willingness to see the other’s point of view after the elapse of a suitable amount of time.


So What If Your Collaborator is Also Your Boss?

I was reminded by a friend who has a background in television and film drama that script editors and directors/producers in that genre are also very active collaborators. In fact, many directors develop very intensive working relationships with their writers and in effect become a writing partner (although they may not be credited as such). This may be necessary to the genre in many cases although it can be a tricky situation for the freelancer.

If you are comfortable and simpatico with your director, all is usually well and good. But you are not there to automatically “yes” all of their suggestions; in fact, it would demean your status and reputation if you did. So how do you politically object to poor choices made by a collaborator who is also your boss?

If you have a competent director, with a secure ego and an eye on getting the best results possible, you essentially handle it as you would with a writing partner of equal status.


Working Within an Unequal Collaboration

If your partner is not a creative equal but is in effect your boss (either a director or script editor or producer) and all else has failed, then what?

Then you must put your case forward as strongly and as fearlessly as you can. Having done so you must maturely accept whatever their decision is at that time and move on immediately. Arguing the point further or sulking will not enhance your reputation nor facilitate the ongoing creative process!

* Remember – you will live to write/fight another day – and on some of those days you will win the argument.

* Keep it professional, keep it dignified, keep your sense of humour.

* Don’t be afraid of expressing your point of view – no matter how at odds with the director’s vision it may be – you never know, it could be an exciting new hitherto unexpected creative development – but at the end of the discussion, accept their decision and move on.

What we may fail to see (and I know this first hand having on occasion been on the other side of the equation) is that a director usually has a greater overview of the project than you, the freelancer. They may be thinking of budgets or shooting schedules or client requests or actor requirements that you know nothing about. Result: They may want to go with the creatively inferior choice but one that they know will cause less trouble later. If they are good at their job they will tell you these things. But even if they are very good they may not always have the time or energy to do so.

I can recall once working on a script segment for a television show with my then collaborator who was also my immediate boss (script editor). We wrote it together but it was mostly my idea. He had the decency to let me run with it as far as I could. When we finished it, I was then calmly told by my “collaborator” that it wasn’t right for what was required and so we went off in a totally different direction – his direction. I was disappointed but felt at least I had had the chance to express myself fully and so I was able to move on and immediately commit to facilitating his vision as well. After it was submitted, the producer (his boss) came into the writing room and said he hated our new direction. (Note that I had to take the rap for it too!) My collaborator immediately brought out our scrapped earlier version as an option we had both been exploring as well – which was much more to the producer’s liking. Moral of the story: Never throw anything away. Always respect each other’s opinions and (if there’s time) try fleshing out different ideas. You never know which one may end up saving your bacon. In this case, we had two perfectly good options ready to present if either failed to win approval. It ultimately validated the whole concept of our collaboration in my mind even with a partner of unequal rank.

At the end of the day if you are going to be in any kind of successful partnership, there must be mutual trust and respect. Each must believe the other is putting forth their best and that it is in the best interest of the partnership as well as the project. If this is the basis of your relationship, all differences can be worked through, no matter what your collaborator’s title or position. If at the heart of your ongoing disagreements there is a fundamental lack of respect or trust then there is deeper trouble and the partnership itself is in need of an immediate reappraisal.

Collaboration in its many forms is an important topic for any freelancer to consider who is serious about working in the creative arena. I will share more thoughts about it another time.


Have you had experiences, good or bad, with creative collaboration? What did you learn from the experience? Share your advice in the comments section below.

Posted on January 11, 2013 at 9:15 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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