Partner Up: Advice on Writing Partnerships

Handshake Partner Up

Article originally written June 2nd, 2020

I’m not naturally a ‘partnership’ kind of writer. Like most writers, I’m a stubborn, fly-solo type, the type who always hated group projects in school and has lots of opinions about the title pages on my scripts. And yet, my writing partner and I recently celebrated ten years of working together. For someone who never saw himself working with a partner at all, ever, it was a surprising (and surprisingly rewarding) milestone.

The past decade of our partnership contains most of the best moments of my career, and even more of the worst. In that decade we sold our first project to a studio, joined the WGA, got our first few movies made, and successfully navigated the jump from features to TV. We also watched dream projects fall apart, got dropped by our own reps, lost credit on those movies we got made, and burned months and years of time we’ll never get back by writing the wrong projects, for the wrong people, in the wrong way.

Still, after all those moments, all those drafts, and all those dreams (both crushed and realized), we’re both much better writers for it. None of our success would’ve been possible, and none of our failure remotely as manageable, without the other. 

Here are a few lessons learned along the way (other than the most important one: that maybe with the right partner, I actually am a partnership kind of writer after all). 

1) Partner “up”. ^

A creative partner is not (just) your friend. 

They are half of your current and future business. They are the face of your company, inextricably linked to your own. When someone in Hollywood thinks of your name, they will say it in the same breath as your partner’s. 

Because when you have a partner, you are no longer your own person, professionally speaking. You are half of a whole in compensation, reputation, and career ceiling. When someone hires you, they hire both of you. Your partner’s strengths and assets become your own, along with their failings and liabilities. 

In lieu of all that? Partner “up”, or don’t partner at all. 

Only wed your professional life and future to someone who offers measurable advantages in areas you lack them. Only work with someone whose work you admire, someone you feel truly lucky to share a title page with. Partner with someone whose character you trust to weather entire seasons of severe challenge and powerful instants of dizzying opportunity, all without losing their nerve, their gut, or their identity. 

A writing partnership is a long-term arrangement. Approach it accordingly: with long-term criteria in mind.

2) The right partner will absolutely make you a better writer, faster.

One of the simplest reasons anyone’s writing sucks is self-deception. 

This self-deception, the kind particular to writers, wears two faces. 

The first happens when we lie to ourselves about how good our stuff is in order to protect our egos. We tell ourselves it’s ‘good enough,’ that our first ideas are brilliant, that our structure isn’t sloppy, whatever.  

The second face is the opposite, and happens when we tinker. We tell ourselves it’s never good enough. It just needs a little more time. And then no one ever sees a draft because we’re just, ya know… tweaking. And tweaking turns into nipping and tucking all the beautiful messy parts out, and you’ve ended up with an overbaked cake of a script. 

Becoming a better writer means learning how to navigate the knife’s-edge between those two faces. And it only happens by finishing a lot of stuff. Shipping a lot of ideas. Shepherding a lot of stories through their entire cradle-to-grave lifecycle.

This is where writing with a partner has a massive advantage. Why? Because writing with a partner is twice as much work. You’re forced to ship twice as many ideas. Suddenly you’re not only responsible for everything you write, you’re responsible for everything they write, too. Every word on the page has to pass muster with them first. Every sentence you pitch gets notes from them before an exec ever hears it. 

Yes, that sounds exhausting (it is). But yes, it’s worth it. Why? Because that exponential increase in workload directly corresponds to an equally-exponential increase in progress. Becoming a better writer requires solving more problems, faster. And there is no better hack for that process than working with a capable partner.

3) Partnership keeps you honest. 

To some degree, all writers are bullshit artists. We make a living blending fiction into truth, and truth into fiction. It’s no surprise then, that (as mentioned above) the habitual primary client of our own B.S. is very often ourselves. 

Writing with the right partner helps insulate you from this, by forcing you to constantly confront the habit. Which is great, but painful. All those little lies you tell yourself about how great that line is, or how awesome that scene is, the pat on the back you want to give yourself for getting five pages done today… that doesn’t fly when you know there’s someone else counting on you. Someone, by the way, who might have just written ten pages. Someone whose name is also going on the front page of the script, who shares equal ownership of this story with you.

The right partner is someone whose work you admire. And when you work with someone whose work you admire, you naturally step up your game. What’s good enough for you, may not be good enough for them. The lies you tell yourself carry less water. You are forced to be more honest, to hide less and show your work more. 

Of course, that’s not easy for most of us. Handing over the FDX file to someone else, it feels a little like getting naked. It’s also totally necessary if you ever want to make anything worthwhile.

Hiding is for cowards, and cowards never make great stuff. 

4) Share the same appetite.

When asked to describe the type of person he looked for when hiring a creative director, legendary ad man David Ogilvy responded that,

“they must have a colossal appetite for midnight oil.”

And when I think about why my own partnership has worked this well for this long, nothing rings truer than that sentence. The first script we sold to a studio required twelve separate drafts (tear-it-up-and-start-over rewrites) over eighteen months, during which we received two paychecks. I’ve never worked harder for less in my entire life. But as hard as I worked, my partner worked just as hard or harder. Reaching the finish line would’ve been impossible if we didn’t both share the aforementioned colossal appetite for midnight oil. 

Sustained success in this profession requires an exceptional capacity for mental labor. By definition, most just don’t have it (otherwise it wouldn’t be exceptional). Working with a partner who shares that capacity enables the level of output and quality that, while it’s no guarantee of sustained success, certainly helps your chances. 

5) Bend, don’t break.

The following things might happen in a partnership…

You might learn the hard way that working with a partner means learning how to share your whole brain, for half the credit. You also might learn that this phenomenon isn’t nearly as awesome as it’s portrayed to be in the global box office smash Pacific Rim.

  • You might think you’re doing all the hard work. 
  • You might think something they write sucks, and you might fight them about this opinion. 
  • You might also fight them about big important things like the direction of your career or which rep to sign with, and tiny unimportant things like ellipses or title page fonts.  
  • You might resent when they write a better version of your own scene, or have a better alt on your own joke or line of dialogue. 
  • You might have to play good cop when they say something stupid to a producer, or bad cop when a producer makes you angry and they (wisely) don’t respond so then it’s your turn to say something stupid. 
  • During certain periods, you might spend more time with them than your own spouse (unless they also are your spouse, in which case that’s a whole other ballgame and also best of luck you brave, beautiful, very courageous soul). 
  • They might be in your head more than another human being has any rational right to be, and it might drive you crazy.
  • You might have to bail them out of jail.
  • You might share a phone call with them where the studio tells you they’re moving in a different direction, and then you both might stare the demise of your collective career honestly in the face, drink heavily, and then have to wake up the next morning and get back to work on the next thing. 

But after all of this, if you want the partnership to work, you will learn something important…

How to bend, but not break. 

You will recognize that your own ego is the greatest enemy of your collective success, and you will keep working. Because maybe your ideas suck sometimes too, and maybe sometimes you aren’t such a hot sell to spend 8-14 hours a day with either. But mostly, you will do this because it’s just what good partners do.

6) Drink from the same well.

Perhaps the most effective productivity hack as a writing team is also a core element to consider when choosing a partner in the first place: shared vocabulary. Basically, your cinematic and literary wells of inspiration should overlap, at least a little bit. 

This might seem incredibly obvious since much of a writing partnership involves talking about film and television for hours on end and that isn’t something you can really do if you don’t both like some of the same things. But it’s worth considering why this obvious truth is also such a massive asset, professionally. 

Shepherding a story from that initial, ‘okay, but what if…?’ flash of inspiration through its metamorphosis to ‘finished product’ is a tricky process that’s made considerably easier if you’re both aiming at the same target. Having shared references for characters, worlds, scenes, and even lines of dialogue narrows your collective aim, giving both partners the same compass by which to navigate the territory between inspiration and finished product. Sharing that compass helps you avoid wrong turns, saving weeks or months during a process that’s stubbornly resistant to efficiency.  

7) Celebrate your wins.

This business is way too tough and life is far too short to not throw on something nice and spend too much on steak or sushi and a killer bottle of wine or sake. Or who knows, maybe your ‘win’ meal is In N Out, I’m not judging.  

But whatever that celebration looks like, just be sure to do it. Even in a slow year. Heck, especially in a slow year. Because wins in this job can be few and far between, and celebrating them well helps fuel you both until the next one. Years later, you’ll never regret drinking too hard and laughing too much after a bit of good news. 

About the Author


Jacob Roman and his partner Kenny Ryan began their career working exclusively in features, writing films for Sony, Dreamworks, Universal/Blumhouse. They recently served as head writers on THE WINGFEATHER SAGA for Angel Studios, after spending three seasons as writer/producers on SEAL TEAM at CBS. They recently wrapped shooting on their post-apocalyptic thriller ELEVATION starring Anthony Mackie and their action thriller SLEEPING BEAUTY is currently set up at Scott Free and packaging.