There's a forum going on over at TwelvePoint.com about what screenwriting books and manuals we read. Instigated by Craig Batty, who has written excellent articles for Scriptwriter magazine and now TwelvePoint, I believe it's research for a book he's writing. But it got me thinking about the role of the screenwriting guru and the cynicism that can accompany what they do. In the forum, the usual suspects were mentioned, McKee, Field, Seger, Vogel, Truby etc etc. A long time ago, when I was first starting out, another writer I knew asked me what was the point of reading these books by people who don't exactly have an army of screenwriting Oscars on their mantle pieces. It kind of stumped me at the time. It's a fair question. What weight would you give a law book not by a top lawyer, or, erm, a plumbing book but someone who doesn't do all that much plumbing? Yes I am struggling with examples here but I think you get my point.
And you sometimes get the same reaction with any source of feedback and screenwriting analysis. Basically what the hell do they know, what have they ever written?
This carte blanche attitude is a big mistake.
The fact of the matter is, analysing a screenplay and writing one are two different skills. Take this football analogy (any excuse.) The three most successful Premiership managers are Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. Not a notable playing career between them. By the same token, some of the great players, like Bobby Moore or Kevin Keegan, have made for decidedly average managers. The two roles are from the same industry, but clearly require very different skills.
I can never remember which one is which in the whole right brain left brain theory. But it's clear that some people are more creative and some are more analytical. Of course there are plenty who are both (the lucky sods), but what is absolutely true is that it's easier to analyse someone else's work than your own.
So when reading screenwriting books, or taking feedback about your work, my general rule is to take what helps, and ignore the rest. The danger is swamping yourself with too much. Knowing what to do with feedback and screenwriting manuals is a skill in itself. There can be a tendency to accept everything you read or are told, chuck out your script, and almost write a whole other story each rewrite. This way madness lies! A more consistent approach to rewriting, where you hold onto the core of the story but address specific problems in the script, is a much more effective way of developing work.
No one is ever 100% right, even the gurus. And there is always more than one way to skin a screenplay. But equally, dismissing techniques and feedback from people, just because they aren't multi award winning writers themselves, is often self-destructive. It's a balancing act that if you get right, will infinitely improve your work.