A huge thank you to everyone who took the time and trouble to respond to LILY SHAHMOON’S newsletter 2 weeks ago about the tricky issues around creative writing university courses and about the pros and cons of various different forms of training for screenwriters.
Today, I have collated some of these responses (I don’t have room to include them all. But this excellent cross-section will, I hope, both inform and provoke further thought about this subject). Apologies that the newsletter is therefore longer than usual in an attempt to include so many fascinating and informative contributions; and thanks and apologies to those who also kindly responded but whose responses I haven’t included here –
‘Just read today’s newsletter – great as usual. I’ve often felt I missed out not doing an MA so that was a really interesting insight. I remember feeling really jealous when friends could afford to go off and do year long courses. When I had a toddler, my best mate went to London and did what sounded like an amazing 6 week course, which she paid a few thousand for, where you were tutored by big industry names and had intros and reads by a shiny list of companies. There was no way I could leave my son, my income and my life for 6 weeks – and I couldn’t afford to. Fast forward a few years later, I had the means to do a 2-day course and pay for accommodation for a night in London. A brilliant, industry-focused course with a small group of equally determined, pleased to be there people. I made some great connections, absorbed every minute of it because it was smaller and so precious, learnt a lot and just got loads from it in terms of confidence, ideas etc. Met someone I now call a mate – Philip Lawrence – who I am delighted to share an agent with and now get paid to write for TV. That was a Philip Shelley course (of course!). Can’t recommend more. I’m on the side of short courses. I couldn’t have afforded anything else and I’m so glad.’
‘I hope you’re well. I’m still enjoying and following your newsletter.
As I’ve spent 10 years now teaching on a variety of MA Scriptwriting and Screenwriting courses around London, I read with interest what Lily had to say.
I fully empathise on her frustration over grades. Even as a lecturer, I wish we didn’t have to grade students but I presume that is to justify the courses to the academic institutes we work within. I don’t think it incentivises students in the right way. I don’t want to be pleased by my students; I want to be excited and surprised by their creativity. I think for younger students that is hard to grasp because the education system they’ve grown up in is all about the grades.
The only aspect that I don’t see on all the MA courses I teach (4 of them) is that students have to write to please the tutors or university. Everywhere I teach, we emphasise that you need to use your authentic voice and not to write to please. They are writing to communicate, entertain and engage the reader with their ideas, characters and stories.
What I look for is an understanding of how screenplays work whilst maintaining a writer’s creative voice. It’s not easy. And for each student, their success depends on where they are at and if they are in a place to grow.
What I think is important about these courses is that they are a safe space to explore and build a portfolio of work. I often tell my students not to think about the grade but to focus on their work and skills. Then the grade will automatically come up. I wish I’d had a course like mine in order to build a body of work rather than trying and giving up in splendid isolation. But each writer is different. And for all those who are helped by these courses, there are those who aren’t.
I shall look out for Lily’s work with interest. Thanks for a thought provoking interview.’
‘Thanks for this Philip (and Lily) I found it so interesting. I’m just finishing the final essay of my degree (creative writing & English) which I’m overall glad I did, but the two years of creative writing were very different. One was similar to Lily’s experience where I found I was trying to write to please the tutor. The other I felt freer and got a distinction so that year was a far more positive one. I think it’s hit and miss, and given the outlay of an MA it feels a big gamble.
Personally so far I’ve found I’ve got more out of industry facing courses – in my case I did a 6 month course at the drama studio where we wrote scenes weekly for the acting students to perform, which was brilliant ‘hands on’ experience. Am hoping to come to another of your courses, as I really enjoyed that.
There’s a lot to think about (and I haven’t ruled out a screenwriting MA) especially with things like the masterclasses online now as well (I did the Aaron Sorkin one which I enjoyed.)
Thanks for this, and thanks for the blogs in general, I have been really enjoying reading the newsletter! I have a few thoughts on this particular aspect that Lily brings up regarding the benefits of MA/MFAs. I completed my MFA in Writing For Stage and Broadcast Media at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and I think it’s definitely up in the top three best decisions of my life so far. However, this isn’t because the teaching curriculum at Central was particularly good – if anything, as an educator and someone who enjoys reflecting critically upon writing practice, I was itching to rewrite the curriculum by the time I finished. However, there was a huge focus on preparing us for the realities of life as a writer, which I believe distinguishes it from many other institutions offering creative writing courses.
As suggested by the long-winded title of the degree, Central’s was the only course that offered teaching in all four major dramatic media (at the time anyway), which was the main attraction for me. The teaching structure was split between a core curriculum, half of which was taught by in-house lecturers, the other half by established writers who taught as a side gig. Despite being the ‘core’ element, I would say this curriculum took up maybe 50% of the total teaching, and the other 50% consisted of regular day-, half-day or week-long lectures/lecture series by visiting professional writers.
Had I only received the ‘core’ teaching, I would have said the degree was a huge waste of money, as there was a huge range in quality (in some cases, the material was seriously out of date).
However, the visiting lecturers gave us a real insight into the practicalities and craft of actually working as a professional writer, with the most up-to-date insights into the industry, current practice, etc etc. These, together with the fact that I had the good luck to join an excellent cohort of fellow writers, meant that I left the MFA feeling really prepared to make a career as a writer, having entered with no connections, no writing community and very little idea of how to unlock the next stages of my development.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the worst parts of the course were generated partly from the requirements of institutional learning – universities work increasingly by ticking boxes and treat students largely as clients. I could write plenty more as I find the whole subject of creativity and education really fascinating, but I’ll leave it at that!’
Thanks very much for this newsletter and please thank Lily for such an honest appraisal of her MA in Creative Writing. It was very interesting.
I’m one deadline away from completing my BA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck and my experience has been very different. It’s where I discovered scriptwriting EXISTED and where I started to understand the craft and industry of creative writing. But while several classmates are preparing to move into postgraduate, I won’t be doing this. I plan to apply what I’ve learnt so far, to keep writing and to continue seeking opportunities.
Lily gives excellent advice about not writing for tutors and staying true to your voice. But I think the confidence to do this comes with experience – both writing and life experience. For me, I think being a mature student and experienced journalist helped.
Thanks for your generous newsletters. They always give me lots to think about.
I’m more than happy for you to include this but would like to credit my scriptwriting tutors: Daragh Carville, playwright & writer of The Bay; David Stafford and Amy Rosenthal.
What an insightful and truthful blog post, and I found it echoed my experience so much. Lily’s articulated what I felt after completing my MA – that I was so stopped in my tracks by fear of getting things ‘wrong’ (a technical impossibility, and yet) that I scrapped ideas I loved but were marmite in favour of plunging into brand new do-you-like-this-one?? projects.
Conversely though, I didn’t find it was my tutors that swayed my momentum or confidence as much as other writers. We were encouraged to do a lot of group feedback work, but without much guidance on how to feedback, combined with the usual mix of people who either put hours into their notes or phoned it in the morning of the session over breakfast. This resulted in my brain rather melting down as I tried to process every note, every differing opinion, everything I’d done ‘wrong.’ I suddenly felt like I didn’t know up from down, my own taste and certainly not my own elusive ‘voice.’
A fortnight before we had to hand in our final project (the Big Script we’d spent most of the year working on and workshopping) I took the feedback from one other student that they thought a side character should actually be the main character… and I pulped my entire script and re-wrote it in a frenzied week. I changed the MC, the genre, most of the plot. I felt alive and focused and in control again… but when I told my tutor his face dropped. What the heck did you do that for? he asked.
And suddenly I wasn’t so sure, and to this day I’m still not sure what I was thinking.
I also got a merit, like Lily, and I’m ashamed to admit that I was so disappointed that I’ve never gone to pick up my certificate.
In answer to whether, given a second chance, I would do an MA again, I still think I would. I made some lovely friends and my tutor recommended me to my agent, which was a huge step. But my words of advice would be: don’t always presume other people are right. Listen to those who know better than you, but be savvy that others are also just starting out and finding their way. Be honest with yourself and others, but do cherry-pick notes and feedback. Stop being a perfectionist and let things breathe. And for goodness sake, don’t be such a baby and go and collect your certificate!
Thank you – and Lily – for such an honest and relatable read’
‘Very interesting and I would have to agree with Lily!
I did journalism as it was back in the day when there were no creative writing courses here in Ireland. It knocked every creative bone out of my body and it took me a long time to get back to the writer I once was. I’ve done numerous industry / short courses since and found them invaluable. I did long ago consider a masters, but now at this point it would only be to improve my reading and for education sake I think, not to try and progress my career.
Thank you for these very interesting newsletters,’
‘So interesting – I did an MA in Creative Writing at Queens in Belfast 2 years ago. I felt it helped me greatly. I got a distinction – just! And was very proud of that. Some of the screenplays I started I’ve worked further on – one is a short film which is looking likely to get made this Autumn. The other is a feature which I am still working on. I’m now working as a script editor for a TV company on a TV drama series.
Although I will say – I didn’t write anything that I wasn’t interested in. One tutor marked one of my short stories down after the other tutor saying it was brilliant! His comment was, “This story is too much like a story,” which made me laugh! I loved every minute of the MA.’
Just read the interesting guest post from the UEA screenwriting alumni. I feel compelled to put my hand up here as besides doing a lot of courses, I’ve done two MAs. The Phil Parker Screenwriting MA which was invaluable and paid for itself countless times and more recently an MA at UEA in Crime Fiction. I won the UEA/Little Brown prize, got a distinction and my novel was published but I have to say, there were issues at UEA some of which she addressed, not least those about results and grades.
Having taught on MAs and BAs and guest-lectured and even consulted on a BA screenwriting course I would say to anyone considering a course, do your research and pick your course carefully. Decide what you want to get out of it. The course at UEA enabled me to write my novel in a completely new genre for me, gave me a ton of help understanding the requirements of the crime genre and also getting to grips with authorial voice. I couldn’t have got that information and guidance out of a ‘how to book’. Ask to see a timetable. See how much writing time there is and also thinking time. Make sure there is enough thinking/writing time. On one MA course where I tutored by the end of the period when the students were doing final submissions many were unnecessarily stressed to the point of nervous exhaustion because of a badly designed schedule. Ask to talk to a current student and a former student. It’s no good if students come out of a course with half-finished work and they don’t have the skills to fix it.
And, finally a note on marking – it’s a pain in the neck for tutors. There’s a list criteria and boxes to tick and masses of reading to do. However, there are always external examiners doing a second read which is probably about as good as it gets in terms of quality control. The Phil Parker course was, originally, just a pass or a fail and I always thought that worked best.
Thank you so much to everyone who replied to Lily’s excellent newsletter. It’s hard to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions from these responses. But the main conclusions I would draw would be –
Everyone’s situation and needs are different. For some, a degree or MA course are the perfect fit, for others, less so.
Whatever course you are thinking of doing – but particularly so for the longer, more expensive and time-consuming university courses, first, be absolutely clear when you go in, what you’re looking to get of it; and make sure your expectations of what you want from the course are realistic. (ie generally speaking, these university courses certainly don’t guarantee that you’re going to find work as a professional dramatist at the end of them, however high your grade is!)
AND do your research. I have heard so much about so many different university courses over the years – negative and positive; and have drawn my own conclusions from the many university courses I have taught or guest-lectured on. If you’re going to invest so much time and money in training and in particular in certification that means so little within the actual industries in which you are hoping to get hired ((TV, Film, theatre, radio etc), then you need to be as sure as possible about what you are likely to get out of the course; and that the teaching is going to be of a suitably high standard.
As you’ll see, I kept in the kind things people have said about this newsletter in general – and I would like to reiterate how grateful I am for your responses, for making the effort to get in touch with feedback and your responses to particular issues raised in the newsletters – it’s greatly appreciated – and helps maintain my motivation for continuing to churn out these newsletters! THANK YOU!
Friday May 27th 2022