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Scriptwriting Degrees, pt 1: University

Whilst it’s a given that talent can’t be taught – you have it or you don’t – a scriptwriting degree seems to be the latest “must have” if you’re going to get *anywhere* in this biz. This of course is total pants – some of the most successful writers I know of or have met have no piece of paper that SAYS they’re “trained”, yet still people sign up in their droves:

I have a BA (Hons) Scriptwriting for Film and TV from Bournemouth University for example, as does Dom and Lianne. I believe Pillock is going for the MA version of the same course and plenty of other bloggers have MAs in Scriptwriting: Elinor originally went to Birbeck; David Bishop, MJ and Miss Read to Napier; Mr. Jon Peacey went to Leeds Met. You’ll find Bloggers teaching on University courses too: I can be found at London Met on its Metlab course, where Elinor, Chip and Martin are currently enrolled. Danny Stack used to work at Leeds Met. I’m sure there are loads of others I’ve forgotten too.

In short, university scriptwriting courses are big business. The question I have for you is should they be?

I enjoy working on Metlab for one reason: it’s all about the market, making that script as “saleable” as possible, not only in terms of story but commercial viability with a specific business model. Elinor, Chip and Martin had to compete to get on this course (as well as the blogless Grant btw) and they are creating a genre film they will actively pitch to some big industry players at the end of their course. It gives them a focus and thus there is a very tangible “point” (for want of a better word) to the course.

As a reader for private clients, I get MANY students and graduates of MAs through my doors. Almost all have something bad to say about their course if the subject comes up. Some say they get too many guest speakers, they don’t get enough time on the “basics” of story, structure, character, dialogue, arena. Some say all they do is the basics – when are they going to get some guest speakers? Others complain of power play between their lecturers or say their lecturers’ information is “out of date” – especially when it comes to stuff like format and how to write good scene description. Others say they devote too much time to features and not enough to television or vice versa.

Bournemouth was a good course I think in that it struck the right balance between the basics and other stuff (like guest speakers). It was also exactly what I needed at the time: a safe environment to practice and find stuff out. There were no blogs then and information was scarce. There was a few books, but most were American and I didn’t know script reading existed. I don’t think I even had an email account. This was only 1999. I wonder now how writers “back in the day” started with so little information, but I suppose they learned on the job, quite literally. A baptism of fire, if you like. Did it make them better at their jobs? It’s hard to tell. Just as there is crap TV now and brilliant TV twenty-thirty years ago, the same is true in reverse. Same goes for film.

So do you NEED a university course to become a successful writer? Especially nowadays, when there is such a plethora of information ready at your fingertips?

Certainly I’ve heard producers and agents say stuff along the lines of, “Well s/he must be serious, they’ve gone to ________” when looking at CVs. You definitely get the practice – but if they teach you the “wrong” stuff, is it useless? And most of all – if three billion other people sign up, pay the money and do the same course as you, are you REALLY differentiating yourself enough anyway?

I learned a lot about myself when I was at university and I learned a lot about script reading thanks to several work placements I garnered as a student. I learned that scripts are not the same as plays and that 22 espressos and 27 cigarettes with no food in the space of fourteen hours is a very, very BAD idea.

But what I did I learn about the reality of writing?

Not enough.

I came out of university with the same mistaken belief as hundreds of other scriptwriting stuidents every year, possibly even thousands: now I can sell a script! And it will be made! And it will make money! And everything’s great!

Five years after graduating, I’m still plugging away. I’ve had commissions so I’ve been paid to write, but on my tax return it reads SCRIPT READER, not writer (actually weirdly my accountant wrote “Reviewer and Critic” on my last one and I had to cross it out.) It feels good to be in a job I don’t hate, where I can set my own hours, do my own thing and get a certain amount of my own writing done too. I also love the people for the most part and I get to be nosy (always a bonus!) since I know or hear about what a decent proportion of writers are up to, since it’s funny how all the same names come up, even non-famous ones.

I’ve actually learned way more outside my university degree. That’s not to say I regret doing it, I’m very glad I did. But a piece of paper does not equal success, any more than getting an agent does as we covered last week.

What do you think?
For those wanting to see some opinions and a conversation thread on specific university courses, check out this post from the old blog.

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19 thoughts on “Scriptwriting Degrees, pt 1: University”

  1. I’m with you on the safe environment, Luce. My course at Birkbeck was academic with the practical option of screenwriting. I loved it! But it certainly wasn’t the same as Metlab. Being on that course, meeting others and of course your good self totally raised my game and made me less precious and self-conscious about my work.

  2. Hi Elinor. That’s the good thing about really focusing on EVERYTHING in Metlab, not just the creative side – and what attracted me to the idea of the course. But it’s not an entry level course, so it’s not surprising that all on Metlab have either been writing a good while or done another writing course already. there are degrees of degrees! ; )

  3. It can be galling to be told, “No -take this scene/character out you love because it doesn’t fit its comericial side” — but that of course is what happens to writers every day in film and TV show. I think you have to work your way up to this, you’ve got to have confidence in your ability first perhaps.

  4. Going to university was a great experience, but I didn’t do a screenwriting course (or any sort of writing for that matter; I did computer science). Given that I’m doing the Film Council’s “Introduction to Screenwriting” course, and then Adrian Mead’s Adaptation course off my own bat, I’d like to think that shows evidence I’m serious and that I’m committed to the task. Of course, it may be that I’m biased regarding that.

    Add to that the fact that I’ve lived in the “real world” for 10+ years and that I’ve run my own company in another creative sector (games), so the commercial side of things isn’t new to me. I’m well used to being told what to take out and put in (oo-er missus, and so on).


  5. I agree David, I think keeping your information up to date is crucial – as Adrian always says, in fact! Things are constantly changing in this business. To that end then, I will see you at the Adaptation course ‘cos I’m going too!

  6. Absolutely – I can’t imagine trying to do anything without keeping up to date, and I’d never be so foolish as to think I had nothing more to learn.

    Really looking forward to the course and to meeting you!


  7. Yes it will be great – my third Mead Kerr course in a year!

    As to meeting you David, do drop us an email since I have SO MANY DAVIDS in my life I may *think* I’ve met you when I haven’t otherwise ; )

  8. This is something I always wonder about – having almost applied for a degree course and deciding not to bother.

    The positives, the things I think I might have missed out on back in the day:

    1) Maybe I would have been more focussed earlier. The main impediment to the first 5 years of my career was calling myself a writer without ever actually writing anything. Once a month or so doesn’t count.

    2) Maybe I would have been around other like minded people who by now might have become good connections. Although maybe being a writer on a director’s course might have been better?

    3) Maybe I would be a better writer. I frequently feel I’m missing some knowledge somewhere, but I’m too busy to look for it.

    The things which make me glad I didn’t go:

    1) I read a script written by a lecturer, a (supposedly) low-budget rom-com which was 200 pages long with over a 100 characters. He’d disguised the length by not indenting anything and actually argued it was only 90 pages – the dialogue went all the way across the page.

    And it was unbelievably shit.

    2) I had to sack someone from a writing team who had a degree from one of the better universities – mostly because of the quality of her work; but it always struck me as odd that someone could go through three years of training and still not know the difference between active and passive tense, nor how to make a script look like a script.

    Maybe she finished bottom of the class?

    3) I keep meeting people with degrees who will not, under any circumstances, work with low-budget companies. They seem to have been primed to work for the BBC or Working Title or nothing. They have no interest in starting at the bottom and working their way up, no interest in gaining experience – they seem to genuinely believe three years of classroom work puts them at the top of the tree – next to people with 15+ years of experience.

    4) Of the writers I know – the ones who are doing well are the ones without any formal training; but I suspect that’s more likely an age thing. At 21, 22 and having spent your entire life surrounded with people of (more or less) the same age – what have you got to write about? And why would you want to lock yourself in a dark room as opposed to going down the pub and trying to get laid?

    Or at least make some pathetic failed attempts to make fun of in later life?

    Another part of this seems to be motivation – it’s all very well having coursework set for you, but as soon as the guys I know left Uni they stopped writing. Partly because there’s more interesting things to do, but they all say they find it hard to get motivated without someone standing over them.

    But then maybe those people aren’t cut out to be writers, or maybe they’ll suddenly find focus later when they find themselves approaching 30 and still working in McDonalds? I know I did.

    Not McDonalds, but you get the idea.

    Sorry, this is getting ridiculously long – I’ll just finish with – I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not. Probably depends on the individual.

  9. Don’t worry Phill! It’s a great addition to the comments, I find the notion that people with degrees consistently try and “cut out” working their way up especially interesting, since I’ve had similar conversations with other writers. I always try for everything as you know, but one guy says to me loftily: “I wouldn’t lower myself to corporate work.” Charming. Personally, given the crossover between internet and telly and movies etc with the whole downloading thing, I think it’s the future.

  10. I did a year of corporate work and it was great experience – I got to write a wide variety of different things, all of it was fun and all of it was paid. Plus, I learnt a hell of a lot about the difference between what works on a page and what works on screen.

    Suprisingly, they are different.

  11. I’ll jump in here, since that “short-cut to the top” thing is something I’ve been thinking about the last couple of days in particular.

    Right now, it’s unclear to me exactly what might be the best path to having something commissioned – should I be looking for a story editor job, or aiming for a writing job straight out? What kind of spec scripts should I have? What’s the best way to figure out my ultimate specialty? Should I even have a specialty? Should I try all different formats (eg stage, radio, TV, feature, shorts) or just try and focus on one from the outset?

    Things like that. I know there isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to that, but I’d be intrigued to hear how others have done it/continue to work at it/intent to do it.

  12. I don’t think there is anything you ‘should’ be doing, other than being a bloody good writer.

    I was toying with blogging about my vague plan. Maybe tomorrow.

  13. I was a complete arse when I did my BA (not writing related), as I suspect are a lot of people when they first go to University – ah the arrogance of youth. I’m in my last 6 months or so of an MA in Screenwriting, and don’t for a second imagine I’ll fall into any kind of related job BUT what it definitely has done is given me time to work on my writing. Doing the course has ‘given’ me permission to concentrate on the writing rather than worrying about all the other stuff that occurs in life. I’m with Elinor on the ‘safe’ environment – I wrote a pilot for a TV series last module – just to see if I could. It’s also been great for networking. Someone told me the other day that the short I sent was ‘too dark’. A few years ago I’d have kicked myself for not getting it ‘right’, but now, I just smiled proudly and figured I’d file it until it meets a darker producer. It’s good for confidence-building if you’ve been working in a vacuum, and if you like feeling old when you accidentally stumble into the Student Union to discover it’s ‘Hip-Hop night’ and everyone looks about 12.

  14. MJ – absolutely, it’s a confidence thing. I would feel so dejected when people didn’t like my work before, now I can see that it can’t be a universal thing: and thank F for that since else we’d have an even smaller market place than we do already!

    Phil, I’d second that though David I don’t think there’s anything for OR against what you’re proposing. For example, I decided ages ago that I would be into horror as my specialty a) because I liked it and b) because I thought it would mark me out, especially as laydeez don’t write horror generally. What happens? The two specs that are most popular in my portfolio are a supernatural thriller and a kids thing! Similarly people have sought me out because apparently I am good at comedy, WTF?

    A well-developed portfolio that covers many bases works wonders I think as samples: in mine I have a family drama, a horror-action-adventure extravaganza, a super low budget drama, an arty supernatural thriller and a traditional rom-com. Plus a bunch of treatments and one page pitches. Hope that helps.

  15. I’ve done a couple of courses (screen academy etc) and what i realise from doing them is that I’m very much a learning by doing chap.
    In a way these courses helped me to find what i dont do so well and allowed me to focus on what i DO do well.
    I think if i did a scriptwriting degree I would probably have ended up thinking the same thing.

    I would say that getting yourself along to courses and meeting people is definately the way forward.

    On that note. See you at the adaptation class.

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