A massive ugly face sits on a long neck, attached to a mess of tentacles for arms and the skinny legs of a flamingo. You might see a drawing like this on the walls of an art classroom: an exquisite corpse. Most of us remember this activity from our childhood. You begin by folding a piece of paper into three pieces. First, you draw the head, then fold it over and pass it to the next person to draw the body. It’s passed again and the last person draws the legs. Until the paper is unfolded, no one sees what the ‘exquisite corpse’ will be. This collaborative art game teaches children about creative thinking. What can it teach us about writing? 

Writing is a collaborative process. It’s cooperative not only in how we learn to write from others, but in how we create feedback, workshop our work, and read and understand literature. Collaborative writing exercises can teach us creative thinking and help us flex our writing muscles because it forces us to think outside ourselves about how our writing looks to others. 

When you adapt the exquisite corpse for writing, the exercise can work in a few different ways. You might start a story and pass it to the next person to finish. You could continue passing a story amongst a group of people, allowing each to add a page. Or, you can try to write a single narrative amongst a group, with each person given only the last section of writing to work with.  

These collaborative exercises can look like a party game or a serious exercise, but either way, they have more value than social entertainment. They may have basic practical value, such as the challenge to write to time and length constraints. Focusing on writing games could be methods to break out of routine and help conquer writer’s block. Collaborative writing forces people to write out of their comfort zones and develop essential skills.  

First, collaborative writing teaches us to look at our writing through another’s eyes and understand how our audience reads and interprets our work. When writing for another writer, you’re under a different kind of pressure from your audience. You have to read through the eyes of your audience and the writer who follows you. You have to consider what information is necessary and what is significant: What does the next person need to know to continue writing?  

You must also be adaptable. When responding to another’s writing, you are met with the creative challenge to match their style. Their tone, style, and the rhythm of their writing voice may not match your own. To continue other authors’ narratives, you have to be flexible. You might try to replicate their voice or find a way to explain the shift. By examining your own style in comparison to others’, you learn more about your own work. 

Collaborative writing also makes us incredibly vulnerable. The actual writing of writing can be the least collaborative part of the process, often practiced alone in the safety of your own space and mind. When you give part of that process to someone else, you are opening yourself up to possibilities and being vulnerable.  

We may be beyond our childhood art’s exquisite corpses, but we aren’t done learning how to be creative thinkers. It’s important to remember why collaboration is key in writing: it helps us to grow.  

— Sarah Urbank, Mid-American Review