Collaborative writing is a bruising business. Knowing how to deliver useful notes that move a project forward, rather than paralyzing the writer (or making enemies) is a vital part of the process. It's the difference between evaluation and criticism.
I’ve learned these rules (which are not inviolable, but let's call them rules) through collaboration on all kinds of writing projects -- both as a contributor and as the director of the process. I've been guilty of all of the transgressions described, and I've been the recipient of them.
The most collaborative form in the United States is television writing, but the concepts set out here are applicable to theme park writing, advertising, motion picture screenplays, even novels and journalism. These rules work in any situation in which writers must critique other writers -- and are especially germane for the person in charge, who will set the tone for everyone else. Speaking of tone, this list reads like a series of admonitions -- don't do this, don't do that. I suspect I'm guilty of violating at least two of them even as I write them down, in fact. Rather than tinker with them until they sound like inspirational poster messages, however, I present them in their stern original form, and beg your forgiveness if I could have made 'em friendlier.
-- Most of all, keep it professional. Don’t try to air personal differences, insecurities, or grievances within the context of delivering notes. When you do that, you’re revealing your opinion of the writer, not the writing. Both will suffer.
-- Respect different voices and approaches to the craft. Writers should not be expected to act as stenographers. If you want to write everything yourself, do so.
Pursuant to which:
-- Don’t instruct professional, working writers in the basic craft of writing. This isn’t a question of giving your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. It’s a question of respecting their professional experience. *
–– Be consistent and stick to the story outline. Asking writers to come up with a bunch of different versions until you happen to find one you like is guaranteed to create a train wreck. It’s bad for morale. It’s bad for the project. It undermines the authority of the work that precedes it.
At the same time, it’s important to:
-- Allow writers to follow the material where it leads. If someone finds a new or different way to do something, it shouldn’t be shot down simply because it’s not precisely what was outlined; there will always, always be a better way to do a thing. Ask them why they think it is better.
-- You can’t read the minds of the writers. There are a million micro-decisions that go into any piece of storytelling. In your notes, always enquire why a particular choice was made rather than simply dismissing it out of hand. There may be a good reason something is the way it is.
The reverse is also true:
-- Writers cannot read your mind. Don’t expect them to come up with exactly what you had in your head. Rather, decide whether the desired intent has been conveyed. If the mood, theme, and story move forward in the direction desired, it’s successful writing. If there is a reason why some some specific element must be written in a particular way, it should be noted in the outline beforehand.
And do think about your reasons:
-- Know the difference between mandate, opinion, and whim. A mandate is something that must be a certain way, in order to meet the needs of the project. An opinion is how you personally react to something. A whim is whatever pops into your head. The first is a basis for criticism, the second is a basis for discussion, and the third has no authority whatsoever.
-- If you hate something, say so. Don’t try to sugar-coat it by making the writer work ten times as hard to guess what you’re talking about.
-- If you love something, support it. Make sure any changes you wish to make don’t undermine that good material.
-- Relax. It will all change again anyway.
* Sometimes, as in any endeavor, someone will prove to be unqualified for the task. That is a separate problem which should be addressed outside the writing process.