Writing is Not a Team Sport

Collaboration is great, but getting words on paper is a solo activity

Woodcut showing Cicero writing his letters all by himself. This image is a detail from page 329 of Cicero, Epistulae ad familiares (“Letters to his friends”), from an early edition printed by Hieronymus Scotus (alias Girolamo Scoto) in 1547 at Venice (Venezia, Italy).

When I was in school, I hated group projects.

No, not because I hate people. (Some of them are all right.) But because there always seemed to be confusion about how actual work gets done.

My fellow students often equated “talking” with “doing” and, inevitably, the writing of the report — you know, the thing we were going to turn in and get evaluated on — was left to a last-minute scramble.

So you can imagine how THRILLED I am that every “modern” and “innovative” company in the world thinks that “work” is one giant open-work-space-let’s-all-collaborate group project.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I know everything. I do believe that most ideas are improved by collaboration. And, thankfully, most coworkers are a hell of a lot more responsible than the ragtag group of misfits that were, alas, responsible for one-third of my PSYCH 101 grade.

But some work must be done alone. Like writing.

When Writing Doesn’t Mean Writing

I recently had an assignment where the client said, “Why don’t you come on in and we can write it together.”

Huh? How the heck are we going to do that?

I have yet to see the benefit of multiple hands putting a single pen to paper. And keyboards get rather crowded with a third or fourth set of fingers.

Some of this is semantics. People often use “writing” when they really mean the full range of activities necessary to get something good on the page. Yes, there are parts of the process that require the involvement of others, but “writing” is not one of them.

Get a big group together and brainstorm your hearts out. Scribble stuff up on that whiteboard. Cover that wall with Post-It notes.

But at some point an individual needs to do the lonely work of sitting down to turn all those ideas into writing.

Take the writer’s room on your favorite TV show, for example. They may contain some of the most talented writers in the world. But the room itself is more of a focus group for ideas and story arcs and characters and jokes: a place where stuff can be explored and debated.

But at the end of the week, the show’s creator (or whomever is tasked with writing that week’s episode) takes all that input and goes into his or her office, closes the door, sits down at the laptop, and writes the next installment of insert-your-favorite-show-here.

Improvisation as a Spark

But what about those hilarious comedies where they make up the dialogue on the set?

Apples and oranges.

Good improvisation is magic — collaborative storytelling in real time. The results are often more surprising and authentic than any scripted piece.

But it’s not writing. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.

For scripted work, improvisation can provide a spark of inspiration — but it’s really just one more input from the writer’s room that can be used as fodder for the words on the page.

Re-Writing is Another Story

None of this is to suggest that editing and rewriting aren’t critically important.

A great editor will help a writer tell a better story. She or he will prune the unnecessary and elevate the beauty. And I guarantee that your favorite movie is the result of numerous rewrites based on feedback from a number of collaborators.

But again, at some point, an individual had to put pen to paper.

The act of integrating feedback into a cohesive piece is not a team sport. It may not even be a task for the original writer, as an editor or new writer may be brought in to pull it together in a new way.

I’m talking about GOOD writing, of course. We’ve all seen something or read something that feels like it was Frankenstein-ed together: too many disparate ideas or styles stitched together with the seams showing.

Clarity Counts

So, what’s your point, John? Is this just one writer’s bitter rant?

I don’t think so.

Good writing is a cornerstone of how we communicate with one another. It’s how we share stories. It’s how we sell our wares. It’s how we inspire one another.

To lump the act of writing into some mushy, ill-defined cliché that we’re-all-equal-contributors, it undermines the hard work that’s necessary to create something worthy of attention.

So let’s be clear. Let’s appreciate the different roles that go into the creative process, but let’s respect writing as the solo act that it is.


About the Author

John Kovacevich is a (shocker of shockers!) freelance WRITER based in San Francisco. He enjoys helping creative companies solve problems.

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