This week, a guest blog from writer / script editor LILY SHAHMOON. Lily has been a script reader and shadow script editor on the Channel 4 screenwriting course and is also a very talented dramatic writer (she had an excellent play on at the Southwark Playhouse in 2020 – unfortunately for her just as the pandemic was reaching the UK). She has read for many of the industry’s top production companies (BBC Film, ITV Studios and more), and was recently accepted onto Eleven Film’s Duly Noted script editor traineeship, where she will earn her first broadcast credit.
I was speaking to Lily a little while ago about writer training in the UK. She had really interesting things to say about this so I invited her to write a guest blog –
‘I loved my first few weeks on my creative writing MA course. Meeting so many fabulous writers and launching straight into inspiring workshops, at first made me optimistic that the course might indeed be the launch-pad I was waiting for. But then I started to get my marks back.
There are many reasons people promote doing a creative writing masters. For me, a big part of it was spending time with other writers. Being a writer brings with it a specific set of anxieties and fears, and I was so excited to spend time with people who felt as absurd as I did, spending hours in their room fretting over made up people.
But aside from wanting to work with other writers, I did my degree at UEA, hoping that the school’s prestigious reputation and industry connections would help launch my writing career, as it had for many others.
For the sake of transparency, I graduated with a merit, which is a pretty good grade. But looking at the number on my final transcript, I felt the creative energy sap out of me. Writing is subjective: isn’t that what we’d all been agreeing in our workshops? So why was an objective value being stamped on my work, and why was it higher or lower in value than anyone else’s?
I was embarrassed to discuss this with my classmates. Grades seemed to motivate them, and they leapt into their tutors’ office hours to see what they could do to improve their next submission. In contrast, I felt paralysed by the experience of having my creative work graded.
I learned the wrong lesson from this and it was too late by the time I realised it. Rather than focusing on the projects that inspired me, I started new ones, trying to appeal to whichever tutor would be marking my work. I focused hard on being ‘literary’ and ‘inventive’, and abandoned my commercial voice.
While that change brought my grades up, when the course was over, I was left alone with the work I had done over the year. I had the beginning of a play, a few short stories, and a novel to finish. To my dismay, I realised I didn’t like any of them. The projects I had started were technically sound and formally ‘interesting’, but they didn’t feel like me, and my lack of confidence came through in the writing. I got zero interest from agents, and I was no closer to a writing career than I had been when I started.
With the perspective of hindsight, I know this is because I wasn’t writing for myself. I was writing to please the UEA institution, which ultimately didn’t really value my writing as much as they valued the more literary writers on my course. I had been eager to impress and competitive, but I left much less fulfilled than those writers who had lower grades and projects they were satisfied with.
In their defence, the faculty on my course were the first to say that the grades they give have no correlation with that writer’s success. In fact, in our orientation they admitted that writers who go on to do well after the course usually get 2:2s. It doesn’t matter, they assured us. But they still graded us.
And therein lies the contradiction of a Creative Writing MA. We all agree that writing is subjective, yet institutions still measure success by assigning a numerical value to your piece of work. In my case, this was the opposite of inspiring. It made me question my own taste, and lose my confidence. It took a long time to gain that confidence back and rediscover my own writing style.
If I could do it again, I probably wouldn’t have done an MA. If you’re considering doing one, that may still be the right choice for you, but make sure you avoid the make the mistakes I made, and to hold true to your voice.’
Thank you so much for this Lily. I think this raises so many interesting questions about writing training and about how you can make the best of the training opportunities available.
One big question seems to be whether you commit to a long-term course – a screenwriting / dramatic writing / creative writing MA or make the most of shorter courses (like the sort of courses I have run in the past!). I don’t think there is any easy, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. There are undoubtedly some excellent degree and post-graduate writing courses – but the connection between these courses and the reality of the industry can be a tenuous one. Two things you will only very rarely be asked in general writer meetings with production companies is where you trained and what grade you achieved.
Where these courses can be helpful is in enabling you to build up a portfolio of scripts, work at discovering your strengths and voice as a writer; and making those all-important industry and writer contacts.
But these courses usually demand a big outlay of both time and money – and you need to balance this against the potential benefits of shorter, one-off, more industry-facing courses – although I think (and speaking personally here) many of these courses are still struggling to return in the same form post-pandemic.
I think this is a debate that is worth continuing – please get back to me if you have opinions about any aspect of training for screenwriters and what has worked for you. Or any specific questions you have about screenwriter and script editor training in the UK. Thank you!
Speaking of which…
There are still a few spaces available for my SCRIPT READING & SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT Q&A on zoom on Sunday morning May 22nd 10-12.30. This is a for a maximum of 8 people – a chance to ask me and discuss any aspects of script reading and script development – whether you’re trying to break into the industry or move up to the next level. Being part of the session also enables you to join the closed facebook group that I’ve started, exclusively for people who have done these sessions, where I post opportunities that I hear about and where you can continue the conversation.
The next newsletter will be on Friday May 27th,
May 13th 2022