WRITING: On Amateur ‘Writers Rooms’

As amateur writers, often the only support we have is ourselves. Oftentimes we don’t have writer friends, unless we take the initiative to find them, and few of us do. Eventually there are writing professors, doling out as uch time to use as either they have time for everyone else, or as much time as we can fight for. But, for many of us just starting out, we’ve never even had someone to look at our work, let alone had many chances to work within a staff. I have, and it’s really, really helpful, particularly for those entering television writing. Why?

There are a number of reasons that working within a writers room (TV terminology for the office where a writing staff all work together) environment is useful. Even in the amateur writers’ room, my work in virtual series gave me the chance to develop a lot of skills that those who work alone will have a harder time doing.

You have someone to bounce ideas off of: This is huge for a writer, oftentimes, because working alone there’s often nobody to tell us, ‘that’s great!’, or to warn us off of an idea that’s not going to turn out. It works from the micro level within scripts, like where an act break should fall, to the macro level when a series concept has a massive hole in it we just haven’t seen. In a writers’ room, when you’re all working on the same thing and have been for a while, there’s more benefits because you have access to a group who are also tapped into the creative mojo of the piece, which makes the idea-bouncing easier.

You can spread your wings: I’d never say that showing off in front of everyone else is a particularly attractive trait of a writer, taken too far, but it is a wonderful opportunity to show yourself that you’re capable of good-to-great things on a project. You can impress people in a room where before, you’d be alone grinning to yourself in your bedroom.

You learn how to work with others: Collaboration is important, even when writing novels or other ‘solo’ work. You have to be able to understand where another person is coming from creatively, whether its in the room or an editor giving you a fresh perspective.

You learn to take notes: Not like in class, but rather, taking notes on one of your scripts. We all tend to get defensive when something we’re proud of is criticised, and the more we’re faced to go through that process, the better we are at analysing the veracity of the critiques – or, at least, keeping our cool until we’re able to. Television knows that writing is rewriting, and having a showrunner critique every scene of your script is really helpful in letting you see how to improve it. That level of attention is hard to get elsewhere, especially if that showrunner is experienced.

You learn to give notes: Reading other people’s scripts gives you a sense of where they’re making mistakes, what lines don’t work, where characterization falls apart; all lessons applicable to your own. Not only that, but learning to give responsible notes with one eye on your own biases is a useful tool for editing others – and yourself.

You learn to shut up: Rather, you learn to evaluate your ideas before you put them forward. This is a fine line between thinking every idea you have is fried gold (it isn’t) and thinking every idea you have sucks (it doesn’t); it’s not about not speaking, but learning which ideas are your bad habits.

You get some practice seeing the shape of a bigger work: Seeing your script and your ideas in the context of a greater work, the series, is an interesting experience. Working alone, we get used to being the God to our own universes, rather than… the applicable metaphorical figure. Seeing why X recurring character is needed here, or why this character’s arc means doing Y over here will betray that, is good practice for working within a larger series.

I’d like to try running an amateur writers’ room with some of my classmates this summer, to see what it’s like in person, rather than over the net. It’d be a fun way for us all to get some practice at it before the real thing in (hopefully!) a few years, even though I hear the ‘room’ is rarer here than in the U.S.

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