My Two Cents: Paying to Learn to Write

There’s a lot of people grumbling, griping, ranting, and raving right now about a couple things but it all boils down to this: should you pay somebody to teach you to write or should you just start writing?

Most of the arguments online seem to be that you shouldn’t pay for a screenwriting book, consultant, or seminar because you can just write and that’s free!  Isn’t it wonderful!

Yeah, that would be wonderful.  If you were a good writer when you were born and all you had to do wave your hands across a computer and brilliance leapt from your fingers in waves, then sure, you can just start writing.  Go for it!

If you’re not that guy?  Then don’t feel bad if you look other places to learn to perfect your craft.  Because writing is a craft and a skill.  It’s not like solving a Rubik’s Cube where you just need to memorize the patterns and steps, then practice a lot until you’re speedy at it.

And before anybody gets mad, yes, I did do that once.  I went from unable to solve a Rubik’s Cube to be downright masterful at it within a couple weeks after my Pre-Calc teacher showed us that it was all just patterns.  There is a specific A to B to C method to it.  I’m not saying it’s easy, and I certainly didn’t retain the information after I wasn’t using it routinely.  But I think you get my point.

But you might be thinking, “You just said it’s not like a Rubik’s Cube, where somebody just taught you how to do it and you could do it, so you’re AGAINST paying for screenwriting classes!”

No, sorry.  That means I’m against anybody that says if you follow steps A, B, and C you will write a great screenplay.  But I’m not against classes or books, because it’s more complex than that.  That’s why you can’t discount any tool that you might be able to put into your toolbox.

As a screenwriter, I believe that yes, writing and practicing is one of the best ways to learn.  Though I actually think that reading is a better teacher.  Reading a lot of scripts is probably the best teacher you will find.

That said, I think discounting all screenwriting books, seminars, consultants, and contests is just stupid.  Making the assumption that they are all failed screenwriters, and well, what do they know?  Also stupid.

Like every other thing in life that you want to use to become better, you can’t just rush in.  You’re supposed to do your research about a company before you go to an interview with them, right?

So do your research about your book/seminar/contest.  There are a lot of them out there that you can use properly to not only get better as a writer but also to further your career.

Why do I say that?  Because I’ve had a lot of great experiences in this area.  Sure, there are some terrible screenwriting books that I’ve come across.  But I also have had a lot of luck with books that have helped to inform my ever changing opinion about structure, form, and craft.  Do I take everything that every book says to heart?  No.  I read, I analyze, and I consider.  Then I decide how it fits into my worldview, my work, my own style and voice, and I adopt what works and ditch what doesn’t.

Obviously, since I’m a grad student, I believe in the value of paying for an education.  At least, I will until my student loan bills start rolling in (ouch).  What have two film degrees taught me?  In undergrad, not really that much about screenwriting, to be honest.  But I learned a lot about writing and how to properly critique.  I learned how to help another writer become better at what they want to do, not how to make them do what I want them to do.  That’s a valuable skill to have, and one that has helped me immensely in the last few years.

In grad school, I have been taught by working screenwriters who have shown me so much about my writing.  I owe them more than I could ever repay.  And no, if you look at their IMDB page you won’t necessarily see the “real” credits that people are talking about.  But my screenwriting teachers at American University have been amazing.  My writing skills have increased a hundredfold since I started in 2008.  I know more about myself, more about my own writing, more about how to craft a script that others will want to read.  But I didn’t just learn from those working writers, I learned from my classmates and friends as well.  Again, I also learned a lot from critiquing.

In short, taking these screenwriting classes taught me things I never would have learned by just writing on my own.  What I could have picked up from just writing I learned from in a semester instead of a decade of work.

As for contests, I have no idea why suddenly everybody is anti-contests.  Yes, there are a lot of crappy contests out there.  There are plenty that aren’t worth your time.  But again, do your research.  What do you want to get out of the contest?  What do they offer?  How much do you have to pay to submit?  Is your script really at the level where you think it could win, or are you submitting just to submit?

That last thing is dumb.  Don’t enter a contest just to enter a contest unless it’s free.  Look at what the contest can offer you, who the judges might be, etc.  And it’s probably not worth it to enter anything that just promises that your script will be seen by industry insiders.  If there is not a prize of either cash, (worthwhile) goods, or an actual production contract, then it probably isn’t worth the entry fee.

But don’t discount contests entirely, because that is just removing a tool from your toolbox.

Again, I have had a lot of success with contests.  The script for Catching Up won the Will Interactive Dramatic Short Screenplay Award in early 2009.  The money that came with that prize not only was the first seed money of our budget, but it also has provided me with a lot of nice buzz for the project itself.  It was the first in a long line of good things that have happened for this script, and it’s absolutely a snowball effect.  Because I won that first award, I was able to secure other grants and nominations.  I was able to get more fellow students involved in the project. Becoming a finalist at the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition was a huge boost as well.

There was no more direct place to witness how this has helped me than at the auditions last night.  We had an outstanding amount of response to our casting call, and the fact that we could advertise as an “award winning” script brought out a high level of talent.

There was something I was told once that always made an impact on me.  They said that practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.  That’s an oversimplification things, sure.  But the point stands: if you’re sloppy and practicing bad habits without anything to correct them, then you’re just running yourself into a ditch over and over again.  Being a prolific writer does not make you a good one, and magically writing an awful lot does not cure you of bad habits unless there is something or someone telling you that they are bad.

Books, seminars, classes, and contests are all tools a screenwriter can use to improve themselves.  You must use them properly, research the ones you are interested in, and make sure you know what you want to get out of them.  But by using them wisely, you will become a better writer, and be better at your craft.  If that’s not your goal and you just want to sell a screenplay, well then, I have no advice for you.

But I don’t care who you are or what kind of success you’ve had because you sat down and “just wrote.”  If you aren’t constantly trying to get better at what you do, and doing that by whatever means it takes, then I don’t really trust your advice any more than you trust those books.

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