There are still a couple of places left on my STORY, CHARACTERS & IDEAS 1 day masterclass at the Indie Training Fund in London this coming Thursday March 15th.
I spent last weekend running my 2 day screenwriting course and it was a lot of fun. I always feel like I learn as much as the writers from these courses – it’s great spending two days with so many sparky, creative people.
Not through any grand plan, one of the recurring themes of the weekend was the debate about how / if you train as a screenwriter / dramatic writer – and specifically whether it’s a good idea to commit to a one or two year screenwriting / dramatic writing MA; or instead go to many different events and do a succession of shorter courses (like mine!).
So many writers have responded to this – it really seems to have struck a nerve amongst the writers I know. And I’ve included some of their responses below. The result is that this newsletter is a fair bit longer than normal but I hope you’ll understand why, and that this will help inform your decision if this is an issue that you’ve been grappling with.
‘I had been desperate to make some kind of leap into changing my working life and committing more time to writing and I decided that somehow an MA “justified” making that change. It was something tangible, that would lead to a qualification (always handy) and undoubtedly provide opportunities that I might struggle to carve out for myself around meeting other people and developing industry contacts. I applied for some funding and inevitably didn’t get it as all arts funding is so limited: I resolved to just raise the money anyway. Then I stopped and thought again. How much was it? How much teaching time did you actually receive? Suddenly busting a gut to raise £10,000 for what amounted to 24 days teaching time looked like very poor value for money and I decided against it. But strangely the mental space to make this change had already been created in my head. I felt like I didn’t need to do an MA and for half the cost I could spend a year living on far less money and take full advantage of the many talks, short courses, networking opportunities and events that take place in the UK. Since September I have attended 3 short courses, a couple of festivals, talks all over the country, connected with lots of other writers, started to develop some good professional relationships with a couple of directors and one development executive, got through to a later stage of the commissioning process for “Moving On”, received some useful feedback, collaborated with both a writing partner and a group, and, of course, completed loads of projects. I’m just about half way through this first year of The New Life and it’s great! Now I can see the pace at which things can happen, I feel positive and determined to keep moving things forward…hopefully success will follow! I feel I made the right decision and avoided financial ruin…for now.’
‘On the MA question; I saved for a good few years, whilst working in a very [time] demanding profession, in order to invest in my writing practice. When the time came I had enough to either do an MA course & keep working part time or to take a sabbatical & teach myself through books, workshops, short courses & just actually writing. I choose the latter because I felt it would be more akin to learning on the job & it would mean I could focus myself purely on the kind of work I wanted to write. In hindsight I’m really glad I did & would make the same decision again. It’s such a personal decision though. I was in my thirties, I already had an arts degree, a decade of experience in the industry & I’m naturally a self-starter, so it was right for me but I can absolutely see why it may not be for others.’
‘I have been ‘flirting’ with screenwriting for the last ten years. We went on many dates together. (I was reading the relevant books, trying to write, listened to endless webinars, etc.)
Yet no serious commitment was mentioned on either side. But, like in any relationship, there comes the time when you need to take it up a notch. So, me and my date – we decided to move together (I decided to do the MA). We needed to figure out whether this relationship had any future. The questions I was asking at the time: Is this (writing) something I would enjoy doing full time? Am I even good enough to do it? (to write)? And let’s not forget the financial commitment that ‘moving together’ represented. Yes, it was a big step. But what if this was THE ONE? The one true love you would not want to miss? Two years on and I am happy to report that our love is as strong as ever and the relationship works. I have achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve: I gained clarity (yes, this is something I want to do full time), I got confidence (yes, I can write) and most importantly, I got into a discipline of regular, every day writing. In a nutshell, more than anything, doing the MA was an act of commitment on my side and that was all I needed to stop ‘messing about’ and ‘get serious’. Some people may not need the push but I did. As in any marriage, only time will tell if we are strong enough to sustain it but since I am a sucker for happy endings, I certainly hope so!’
‘Sat in CSM (Central St Martins / University of London MA Dramatic Writing) and thinking why I’m here. I have to come down on the side of the MA, although a course can’t be perfect and I’ve experienced many flaws and an expectation gap. In my case there was no doubt it was the best route – I had looked at some writers I admired and saw they had done an MA plus I fancied a degree (which I didn’t have). One thing I’d say, as with any course, it can’t be all things to all people. For me it’s the regularity, discipline and schedule. I see the cost as a positive – many would disagree. The government loan which is available for most can actually work out cheaper – you can’t get a loan for other courses (?). I’m meeting my own same group every week (luckily we work well together!) and meeting course tutors with (at least) one foot in the industry and hence contacts. I see now the number of great courses – weirdly enough I didn’t know much about them till I got here! Although being proactive is the key – harder on outside courses. At least at uni there is recording equipment and a huge library. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been on some great courses (yours,especially) but also some which were a waste of time and money. It’s essential to do the homework when choosing one and think exactly what you’ll get out of it. I would say have a limit on the number of courses you do – you could be at it forever. The best things I’ve learnt craft wise is read film scripts and watch good stuff – i.e. what you can’t do in class. HOWEVER a good course can be priceless!’
‘I too have found shorter courses really helpful, I think the Arvon Foundation are brilliant if you want a block of time to focus on your writing. And I’ve also found that a (well facilitated) script group has kept me on track, given me vital feedback and found me a community of writers. I’d highly recommend Scriptwriting North if you are based up there. I think it does depend where you are at, and it’s worth spending time considering what you personally need to keep you writing, to focus on your strengths and weaknesses, and to fuel your confidence – we’re all different. I know some writers that have found the structure of an MA very helpful. However I totally agree with Philip and Ian that the actual qualification is immaterial with regards to progressing as a screenwriter. It’s about the scripts. The many, many scripts that you need to write in order to develop your craft. And about learning to deal with feedback on those. Which, in my opinion, is a skill in itself.’
‘Personally, I went for shorter courses and events like The London Screenwriters Festival. An MA or BA just seemed too expensive, too long and too regimented for me especially since I’d already been writing for a while. LSF introduced me instantly to a network of peers full of advice about work and the industry. I’ve been having some success and have never once been asked what my qualifications are beyond a script sample.’
‘Second what Philip Lawrence says, the cost of the MA was beyond my budget (and time constraints) so chose short courses (e.g. NFTS & 2 Phils for starters) LSF, FB groups, books, self-education and ‘learning by doing’ as well as networking whenever I could online and in person route instead, until I felt I had reached a point where I could justify paying for pro feedback. However, if I had been younger (and richer) I would have loved to go on to an NFTS full time course to grow and develop within a supportive environment and along with a peer group of filmmakers as well as writers.’
‘I think specific feedback on your work is critical and worth its weight in gold be it professional feedback, feedback from competition entries or courses. I have just done a 7 week course (comedy crowd 2nd draft sitcom course with Dan Page as the tutor so pretty specific but I thought it was incredible value for money and a game changer for me) where we had online exercises and rewrites to do throughout and the feedback has been invaluable and I feel I have turned a corner. But the main thing is to write and keep rewriting. Every time I start a new project I notice how much my writing has improved.’
‘I echo Philip thoughts. Learning the skills of your trade is important and finding fellow writers and, if possible, mentors along the way to discuss your thoughts and guide your writing and career choices is far more valuable than any letters after your name. I have been lucky enough to meet some amazing people, both at my career level and on varying degrees above me. The camaraderie of a tribe is far more valuable than any expensive, curriculum based training. Short courses and peer review all the way!’
Victoria Taylor Roberts
‘Arvon Foundation for me. Because it’s run by writers (not teachers) so a different perspective -particularly what it’s like to work in the industry. And you get a week to immerse in writing. They read your stuff pretty much daily and give you feedback. And if they like your writing they will champion you to other people – which means other people will read your work – and then you start getting work. That’s what happened for me. Of course, they have to like your work. And realistically, out of a group of 12, there may be two or three people there that they’d think about championing. So it’s not a given. And I’d say use that week to write, write, write. Don’t use that week to drink, drink, drink, and talk, talk, talk…not if it means your pages stay blank. I would also ask the question to anyone thinking about doing an MA, or a short course, or reading a screenwriting book… why are you doing it? What are you hoping to get out of it? Because the two things that will get you work are 1) having a voice that is different (distinctive in the same way as a singer or an artist is distinctive and we instantly recognise them and are attracted to them/moved by them) and 2) having something to say about the world we live in (or what it’s like to be human) with your work. Will you learn that on a course, or from a book? Is that even on the syllabus or in the contents? I’d say (because it’s an individual choice) weigh up what you’ll be doing on the course, and how many hours you’ll spend doing that, versus all the hours you could be writing. If a course is mainly about mechanics, and structure, and analysis, and building from the outside in, I’d think about whether that will make you a good writer, or whether it will make you a good analyst of why other scripts do or don’t work. Would that time be better spent simply writing, and developing your voice, and working with a good script editor. Or doing something like the Arvon, where you’re getting feedback and straight away going back to the page, and making it better. Explore all the options and choose what’s right for you – but have a clearly defined goal. At the end of doing that course, where do you want to be? What will you have?’
‘Traveling for work right now with no time to comment properly. But as someone with an MA and PhD in Screenwriting, I kind of have a lot to say… The short version is, I agree with Jane Eden. Though I would say that it is not a choice between ‘study’ and ‘writing’. If you are doing an MA in Screenwriting, then you ARE writing. A lot. It will make you a better script consultant, a better historian, AND a better writer. However, your time and money could be spent more productively elsewhere, depending on your own context and ambitions.’
‘Yes to all this! Craft can be learnt but what producers and audiences respond to is your own voice. I’ve noticed they even approach English like this in primary school which is very depressing, to kids as young as 6, it’s about ‘getting all your ingredients’ and putting them all together and that will create a good piece of writing. No attempt (or rather time) to let their imaginations soar or hook them into the joy of reading.
I turned down a place on an MA (once I did the sums I just couldn’t justify it) but have no regrets. I think if you have the time and money to do an MA, then great. But, echo-ing what everyone else here says, you can definitely create that same experience for yourself through doing short courses and immersing yourself in groups like this and other groups that meet IRL and exchange work etc. Arvon I’ve heard great things about. Phil’s courses were the best ones I’ve ever done, and I recommend them to everyone who asks. There’s so many courses on offer though that you can end up spending as much on these as an MA, and I know some ‘course junkies’ who spend more time on courses than writing. Also other stuff – watching great drama, watching bad drama and working out what you’d do to make it better, reading great scripts, reading bad scripts. I did a script reading course years ago and worked as a reader for a while, and that was great training – reading script after script that had the same mistakes. I guess investing in an MA means you are taking yourself seriously as a screenwriter. But you can do that for yourself. I think it was Phil Gladwin who said he’d watched and taken notes on the first ten minutes of dozens of pilot episodes – I think this kind of critical approach is probably just as helpful as anything you learn on an MA (and you can do it in your pyjamas).’
‘Maybe the common thread in what we’re all saying is that if you have talent, anything that gives you time to write and learn your craft and develop your voice can work. I imagine when someone’s asking which is best to do – MA or other course – they probably aren’t imagining having a qualification will help them get work. Probably what they really want to know is the best courses that have produced working writers. But like I say, if a writer has talent, they may have found their way to work whether they’d done an MA or a short course or nothing. So if someone is choosing any course, they need to research the curriculum and the reputation of the teachers. Learn your craft, develop your voice, find your champions. That’s what I say.’
Jane Eden (An excellent conclusion!)
A lot to process, I know – but I’d like to say a huge thank you to all these writers – Jen Smith, Natalie Ekberg, Rachel Smith, Jo Richards, Philip Lawrence, Victoria Taylor Roberts, Cowal Pen, Dee Chilton, Sonya Desai and Jane Eden – for their generosity in sharing and for their excellent insights.
I don’t think there is a right / easy answer to this question. The balance here seems to have come down against doing an MA. BUT I think this route (MA) can still be extremely useful if you use it in the right way. Just remember before you shell out and commit to going to uni for a year or two that in any meeting / job interview in the industry no producer / script editor / literary agent will ever be swayed by which writing course you did or what your final mark was. If you’ve written a good script, they couldn’t care less how you have achieved it.
The next newsletter will be on Friday March 23rd,
All the best
March 9th 2018