Wednesday, 24 September 2008

How to write? The Guardian tells us all

Okay so despite my somewhat flippant title, the supplement in The Guardian all week, featuring all aspects of writing from novels, poetry and screenplays, has been pretty cool. If you missed any of the newspapers, don't worry, you can read it all online here. One article did make me giggle though, when it declared you can't teach writing, pretty much undermining the whole supplement. But that is a pretty big debate. My own theory is that the initial desire to write, that nagging, irrepressible need to do it, can't be falsely injected into someone. You either have it or you don't. But once the desire is there, and once you are going to do it anyway, then you can certainly be taught how to do it better. Having buried myself under screenwriting books and short and long courses years ago, the articles in The Guardian haven't really thrown up anything new for me. But there must be plenty of people reading this week who now think, hmm, I'll have a go at that. And what's wrong with that?

Consider this story. I met a producer and we got on well. We spoke about scripts of course but in the meantime I wanted to read for him. He asked me to send him some script samples - not script reading report samples, but script samples - so he could basically gage if I could walk the walk myself as well as talking the script reading talk. It was a bit odd to be honest, but I'm professional and wanted the gig, so I sent some samples of my work. He read them and liked them. For other reasons I didn't read for him but we're still in contact and you never know what the future may hold. But he explained to me that he asked for the script samples because he gets sent so much rubbish from people calling themselves 'screenwriters' that it gets to be a joke. (He actually apologised to me which I took to be a good sign!) But he went on to say that there should be some rule that people have to have earned money from their writing to be able to legally call themselves screenwriters! He was only half joking. In fact to be fair I don't think he was joking at all. And although I qualify now under these terms, not that long ago I didn't. But I was working bloody hard to earn my stripes. And I know plenty of talented writers who, under those rules, wouldn't be able to call themselves screenwriters. So where does that leave us?

But - on the other hand I could understand where he was coming from too. As a reader I know only too well just how horrendous the slush pile can be. And there is a uniqueness to writing that is obvious but people don't often talk about. Put simply, anyone can do it. Anyone can't, for example, call themselves a doctor, or lawyer or even a builder. You can call yourself a footballer but a kickabout in the park is not going to convince anyone. But have your manuscript or screenplay ready, properly formatted, professionally binded, and you can call yourself a writer - and who's to say you're not.

There is no solution to this situation and I certainly can't offer one. But I do know one thing. Hordes and hordes of rubbish scripts, falling off the desks of agents, producers and production companies, damages the industry we all wish to work in. So I think whilst anyone of course has the right to call themselves a writer, there's a responsibility that goes with that. Don't just send out any old bollocks. We've all written crap. But we're not going to con anyone with it. We all know deep down whether it's rubbish or not. And if we don't, we need a second and third opinion for that matter. We learn from the rubbish ones, and we do better next time, but these scripts don't need to clog up the system anymore than it is already. There's a notion that if we only get the script in front of a producer, that even though it's really bad, they will think wow, crap script but blinding idea. Let's buy it anyway. Not. Going. To. Happen. And as ideas can't be copyrighted as such, you might be doing yourself more harm than good. Let's say for arguments sake you truly do have a fantastic idea. They will take this idea, commission a better writer to work it up, and that will be the end of it as far as you are concerned. So let's do everyone a favour, including ourselves. Let's make sure that if we call ourselves writers, the work we send out does justice to that name. In the long run, it will be better for everyone.


laurence timms said...

Weirdly, I'd actually like to read one of those utterly bad scripts. Just to see what bad looks like on paper.

I'm new to scriptwriting so I seldom (if ever) use the term 'writer' to refer to myself. That's a moniker I'm going to have to earn the hard way.

Jez Freedman said...

ah well there's the rub. cos of course it is very useful as a learning tool to read really bad scripts, maybe even more so than good ones!

All Mod Cons said...

Just stumbled upon your blog, and a great first post to read.

How about this for an idea. In the world of sport they use the terms "Professional" and "Amateur" to distinguish between those that are paid and those that aren't respectively. Why not the same for writers? By the very fact that I put pen to paper or punch the keys in front of me makes me a writer. I would definitely consider myself an Amateur Writer.

Doesn't saying that you're a "Professional" in any field also associate you with experience in that area? In scriptwriting (something I know nothing about, being a Professional Decorator ;) ), wouldn't that then help the Producers to decide what they wanted to look at in the first place?

Just an idea.

Jez Freedman said...

haha welcome. It's an interesting idea. Similar comments were made over at and as I said there, if we all maintain our amateur status we'll qualify for the screenwriting olympics!