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What`s The Right Number Of Writers?
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October 13, 2010, 05:10 PM
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The question of Who Really Wrote Shakespeare`s Plays? got me thinking about the optimal number of writers for different types of writing.

For example, the recent scientific paper asserting that modern humans had some Neanderthal genes had 56 authors. In other genres, however, one or two people (a writer and an editor, say) does most of the work. In the more show-bizzy types of writing (e.g., movies and musical comedies), writing teams are fairly common, and everybody and his brother chips in bits of business.

For example, my wife was in a dinner theatre production of a Neil Simon play once, so I made up a half dozen new jokes for her, which got just as big laughs as Simon`s did. (But this can change over time in a genre: for example, New York playwrights won a lot of legal control away from producers and directors in a 1919 strike. Contractually, I`m not positive we were allowed to alter lines, but I can`t imagine an old showman like Neil Simon objecting.)

Thus, it`s plausible that quite a few lines in the Shakespearean canon weren`t envisioned solely by Shakespeare or Oxford or Bacon or whomever, but were made up by various actors, investors, script doctors, and miscellaneous hangers-on. (We`re pretty sure that various minor Shakespearean plays were co-written, but I would guess that even the masterpieces have material invented by others during rehearsals and performances.)

There`s some quantitative data available for comparisons across different genres of the amount of teamwork. The Pulitzer Prizes are a good source for comparisons. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, first awarded in 1918, has always been won by a lone individual. In contrast, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama has been won by teams of more than one individual 13 times, typically for musicals or comedies (e.g., George S. Kaufman won twice with varying partners). So, Pulitzers for Drama go mostly to individuals, but there are enough exceptions to notice the difference between Drama and Fiction Pulitzer Prizes won by teams: Letters and Drama: Fiction: 0 Drama: 13 Poetry: 0 General Nonfiction: 2 History: 5 (or 6, if you count one book finished posthumously by another historian) Biography / Autobiography: 4 (all biographies, I presume)

Journalism: Commentary: 0 Criticism: 0 Feature Writing: 0 Investigative Reporting: 31 (with the award switching from mostly individuals to mostly teams around 1972, the year of Woodward and Bernstein)

Oscars: Best Original Screenplay: 23 Best Adapted Screenplay: 21

Emmys Comedy: From 1955 to 1978, the award was for an entire series: 19 of 24 times it was won by teams (Carl Reiner won twice as an individual for the Dick Van Dyke Show). In the last 31 years, the award has been for a single episode, with 13 of 31 going to teams.

Drama: 16 of the last 31 (for single episodes) have gone to teams.

A few observations:

- Who knows who really contributed what behind the scenes? For example, it recently emerged that the stripped-down style of the hugely influential short story writer Raymond Carver was more or less invented by his editor Gordon Lish by crossing out most of the sentences in his manuscripts. For the Oscars, the Writers Guild offers a credit-dispute resolution process, in which they`ll go through different drafts line-by-line to figure out who gets a statue. Of course, nonwriters can have a huge impact on screenplays. For example, Annie Hall (which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Woodie Allen and Marshall Brickman) was filmed as a murder mystery. Allen`s film editor eventually convinced him to cut out most of the plot and patch with voiceover to turn it into the romantic comedy we know today.

- Dialogue-dominated genres seem to tend toward teams more than prose-dominated genres

- Older genres (e.g., poetry) seem more individualistic than newer genres (e.g., TV writing)