Thursday, February 26, 2009

Writing by Committee: A Lesson from Top Chef

At many points throughout the creative process, a writer finds herself in the position of taking advice from friends, colleagues, editors, and higher-ups about her work. Watching Top Chef last night, I couldn't help but notice the parallels between the chef/sous chef dynamic, and the way a writer interacts with these well-intentioned advice givers.

First let's take a look at Carla. She took a lot of advice from her sous chef, and it ended up destroying her meal and costing her the game. What's truly sad is that she could have easily won it if she's stayed true to her own style of cooking, which the judges had praised again and again. Carla's personal unique stamp was what they loved -- her passion and soul shone through, and when she took too much of her sous' advice, it cost her everything. The moral? You're in charge, ultimately (unless you're being paid to write for someone, in which case you better do what they say). If you know your voice is strong and your writing is good, and everyone has told you so, then don't take advice from random people who may be ill-informed and also not really get what it is you're doing.

On the other hand, you have Stefan. He should have taken his sous chef's opinion to heart. His sous knew that freezing salmon to create carpaccio-thin slices was a bad idea and it was. It watered down the dish and completely ruined the intense pleasure of eating a fresh, raw piece of fish. It wasn't clear if the sous chef actually forewarned him or if he kept his mouth shut, but knowing Stefan's headstrong overconfidence, he wouldn't have listened anyway. But you have to know when to listen. Think about it: melting ice = water. It makes sense. If something makes sense logically, maybe you should pay attention to it.

Finally, we have Hosea, who did exactly right. He picked his teammate knowing his track record, and allowed him to contribute his strengths while maintaining control over the big picture and final product. This is exactly how to take advice when you're writing. Listen to people you trust, respect and admire and allow them to contribute in areas where you know they excel but always remember that it's your project and you're in charge. If, like poor Carla, you know your voice is the one people want to hear, don't let anyone else interfere. She was really the nicest person on the show as well as an excellent chef, and I wanted her to win.

Don't let writing by committee ruin a perfectly good thing.

(All the above advice is null and void if you're being paid to write something for someone. Then you're a hired hand and you better give them what they want. Spec scripts are all yours though, baby. Why bother obeying all the "rules" if you're not getting paid anyway? You won't sell something that sounds like everything everyone else ever wrote.)

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