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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Writing in Practice - Vol 1 > Interrogating Writing Practices: Perspectives from the Screenwriting Industry
Interrogating Writing Practices: Perspectives from the Screenwriting Industry
Author: Craig Batty and Stayci Taylor
Craig Batty and Stayci Taylor draw on interviews undertaken with screenwriters, script editors, script executives and script consultants, relating their perspectives not only to issues specific to screenwriting and screenwriting pedagogy, but also to the discipline of creative writing more broadly.


This article contributes to the developing body of research on screenwriting practice by outlining a set of perspectives from the screenwriting industry that speak of writers, their practices and their creative works. Drawn from interviews undertaken with screenwriters, script editors, script executives and script consultants, these perspectives relate not only to issues specific to screenwriting and screenwriting pedagogy, but also to the discipline of creative writing more broadly.

Taking as our approach the argument that some works "aimed at helping screenwriters with their screenplays [are seen as being] beneath academic value", whilst as the same time there is a need "not to theorize practice per se, but to interrogate and intellectualize practice in order to generate new knowledge and new ways to practice" (Batty 2014), our intention here is to speak directly to creative practice concerns by presenting viewpoints from the field.

We have themed these concerns into the following discussions, which we posit as useful for practitioners, educators and students alike: Screenwriting and Education; Screenwriting and the Human Condition; Becoming a Screenwriter; Being a Screenwriter; and Screenwriting and Collaboration.

Keywords: screenwriting, screenwriter, screenplay, creative practice, screenwriting pedagogy, script development, screenwriting industry, interviews


Screenwriting is an area often neglected within the broader discipline of creative writing, and to some extent media practice and screen production. There are a number of articles scattered throughout relevant writing- and creative practice-based journals, such as New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses and the Journal of Media Practice, but they are just that: scattered. In edited collections, screenwriting is often only represented by one or two chapters, if represented at all. Books focusing on the practice of screenwriting tend to come from America, though exceptions to this from a UK perspective include Moritz’s Scriptwriting for the Screen (2001), Batty and Waldeback’s Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches (2008) and Nelmes’ Writing the Screenplay: The Expert Guide (2012).

In 2010, the Screenwriting Research Network
established the Journal of Screenwriting in an attempt to remedy the lack of critical attention paid to this area. The journal has been successful, now publishing three issues a year and showcasing the work of authors from around the world. That said, even in this journal there is not so much work that focuses on screenwriting as a practice; on work that discusses creative and industrial processes from the point of view of intention; about the practitioner’s creation of new work. Many articles can be seen as having a more "film studies" type of approach, which, as Harper highlights in relation to creative writing and literary studies, is not writing-based research (2007: 19). The discipline of creative writing has in recent years taken considerable steps to address "authentic" creative practice research, with key authors including Graeme Harper, Jeri Kroll, Jen Webb, Nigel Krauth and Donna Lee Brien. Their works, which include authored and edited books, book chapters, journal articles and editorship of high-ranking journals such as New Writing and TEXT, have developed a critical mass of sorts for those interested in how research informs, shapes and is embodied by creative works.

With this context in mind, our article seeks to contribute to a developing body of research on screenwriting practice by outlining a set of perspectives drawn from the screenwriting industry that speak of writers, their practices and their creative works. Drawn from interviews undertaken with screenwriters, script editors, script executives and script consultants, these perspectives relate not only to issues specific to screenwriting and screenwriting pedagogy, but also, we suggest, to creative writing more broadly.

If some works "aimed at helping screenwriters with their screenplays [are seen as being] beneath academic value", whilst as the same time there is a need "not to theorize practice per se, but to interrogate and intellectualize practice in order to generate new knowledge and new ways to practice" (Batty 2014: 2), then what we offer here speaks directly to creative practice concerns by presenting viewpoints from the field. Furthermore, because, as we have highlighted, screenwriting is an emerging field in academic discourse, it feels fitting that this article should appear in the first issue of this new journal.

Interviewing as a Writerly Practice

Interviewing is a popular qualitative research method in the social sciences, and to some extent the humanities. In the area of screenwriting, interviewing has been a popular approach adopted by the mainstream market, where the growing curiosity around screenplays, filmmaking and television production has become much more common. As well as being useful for marketing purposes ("The making of …", for example), the interview approach can also influence how screenwriters themselves develop public profiles.

Examples of published collections of screenwriting interviews include Scott’s
Screenwriters’ Masterclass: Screenwriters Talk about Their Greatest Movies (2006) and Owen’s Story and Character: Interviews with British Screenwriters (2004). What these books do not do, however, is synthesize the interviews into common topics of discussion; nor do they use the interview as a method by which to connect ideas, themes and writers. Kallas’ Inside the Writers' Room: Conversations with American TV Writers (2014) is also structured as individual interviews, though she does provide a conclusion that reflects on the interviews and draws out some of their key themes, including gender, work ethic and the role of the show runner.

Harper’s Inside Creative Writing: Interviews with Contemporary Writers (2012) offers a more integrated approach, whereby the interviews are used as a basis for drawing out themes that are synthesized into a framing of each chapter, after which the interviews are transcribed. As such, this article similarly aims to weave together different voices, viewpoints and experiences from the screenwriting industry in an attempt to draw out key themes and highlight not only what is relevant to the area of screenwriting, but also what might contribute to creative writing discourse more broadly.

The interviews we use, undertaken between 2009 and 2010, are part of a project concerned with discovering the types of practice and process that take place in the world of screenwriting. Unlike the collections highlighted above, it was not enough to simply interview screenwriters, but also necessary to interview those working with screenwriters, such as script developers, script editors, script executives and script consultants. Fourteen interviews were conducted in total, together generating almost 25 hours of transcribed data. Focusing predominantly on those working in the UK and the US, though whose experiences span other parts of the world, interviewees were asked about the role they played in the industry, how they came to be in the industry, some of the projects they had worked and were working on and their views on how the industry operates, from the angle of their role within it.

By having a range of perspectives from the industry, it was hoped ideas would emerge about not only what screenwriters do and how they do it, but also the role and status they and their screenplays possess. This speaks to Macdonald’s notion of the Screen Idea Work Group (2010) – a group comprising professional workers who, together, are involved in the conceptualization and development of a screen idea (screenplay, treatment, TV bible, and so forth) – which thus functions as a way of understanding what happens when creative ideas and their writers/creators are placed in specific industrial contexts.

We draw on the interviews, then, as a way of investigating how screenwriters come to be in the industry, and when they operate within it, what their processes for negotiating it are. We hope that these discussions will be of interest to creative writers, educators and students more broadly. As such we take a holistic approach to interview analysis, drawing out concerns that speak to the broader notion of writers, their ideas and their practices. These concerns, in the order they are presented, are:
Screenwriting and Education; Screenwriting and the Human Condition; Becoming a Screenwriter; Being a Screenwriter; and Screenwriting and Collaboration.

Screenwriting and Education

A common question posed in any creative discipline, "Can the subject be taught?" often brings about various, sometimes fractious, responses. The perceived innateness of creativity means that for some, talent cannot be taught, merely facilitated. In screenwriting education and training, because aspects of craft and industry often take centre stage, responses can be different to those in creative writing.

At the time of interview, Head of Drama for BBC Northern Ireland, Patrick Spence, revealed that he is not a fan of scriptwriting courses. For him,

You can learn and learn and learn about things that work and things that don't by watching films and talking about them, and those are all important; but really you are not a writer unless you have written twenty scripts (2009).

He advocates that students should push beyond the curriculum, arguing that if within one year "you haven't in your spare time written at least one ninety-minute script, you are not a writer; I don't care what they say, you are just not" (2009). Spence went on to argue that according to most good literary agents, representation will be hard to find unless the writer already has a body of work to show. These works "can all be unpublished, but you have got to be someone who just churns it out; who just writes and writes and writes" (2009). He later clarified that writing courses can be useful, but only if they force you to write constantly, not merely speculate about writing for the duration.

This is a view shared by television executive Catherine Oldfield, who when questioned about the value of education for those stepping into the screenwriting industry said, "I don’t see [something like] Media Studies as essential. I think it is great for an overview but I don’t think it prepares you for working life. I would not rate it in terms of getting into the industry above any other degree because it is [academic]; it is not practical" (2009). There is, nowadays, much more emphasis on practical skills and, in the case of film, media and screenwriting courses, a desire for students to work on projects that they can submit to industry talent programmes and competitions. The same is true of creative writing, with a growing number of opportunities for student work to be published and performed, both in and out of the academy. Nevertheless, Oldfield’s opinion about a Media Studies education gives us a useful insight into the potential views of other prospective employers.

Script consultant and author Linda Seger talked about how her Doctorate, in the area of theology and storytelling, contributed greatly to the skills she required for her job; yet it became something she had to "hide" in order to get work:

I think [my Doctorate] hurt me at the beginning, and that’s why I took it off the résumé for a while. Hollywood particularly tended to be kind of anti-education; they felt that […] if you had an academic degree you were just in an ivory tower. But once I had shown I wasn’t in an ivory tower and I was very practical, then I started bringing it in; and my feeling was that people who work particularly in script consulting should know a lot about scripts, they should be very well educated about scripts. And so there is an advantage to recognizing that education is a real benefit. And even though it may not be perceived as a benefit, I think it’s a real benefit (2009).

Seger makes a valid point here: that for someone brought in to work on projects because of their knowledge and expertise (in this case, knowing how scripts are constructed), educational achievements might be used to their advantage. Furthermore, as Seger went on to explain, education is something a writer might go back to again and again, to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills that might be of value to their industry, potentially making them even more useful and highly regarded.

With a successful track record of international script consultancy behind her, Seger decided to study for her third Masters degree, graduating in Feminist Theology in 2000. She undertook this degree out of pure interest, and "what feminist theology did for [her] work was it made [her] think more of the social context that exists around all drama and all stories" (2009). She said, "You begin to realize that many times we do things which don’t seem very relevant to our work and [then] all of a sudden you think, my gosh, I think my work is much better and broader and more encompassing" (2009). For Seger this resulted in an even better understanding of screenplays, where she learned to assess stories in layers. This is an aspect that screenwriter Michael Loman also talked about, reminding us that as well as having the ability to write (craft), writers need things (concepts, culture, politics) to write about (2009).

On the topic of how screenwriting might be taught, there seemed to be a common feeling that educators can only do so much; that the rest is "innate" to the student-writer. For example, Oldfield believes some things can be taught – "structure, how to pace, all those things and the visual tricks" – but some things cannot: "I don’t think you can teach dialogue; you either have an ear for it or not" (2009). Screenwriter, composer and installation artist Dave Tolchinsky agrees, believing that "success" in screenwriting comes from a mixture of knowing the craft and good luck. He said, "I always teach from the perspective [of], here is what I would do, here is what I think, here is what I think is not working", but always acknowledges that "so many things [are] bought and sold and made that you would never expect and so […] I am [also] always teaching from the perspective of, craft teaches us this, but you might experience something different"(2009).

John Bernstein, a story editor, film consultant and academic, thinks that teachers of screenwriting are doing their job when the education they provide is intellectually stimulating, prepares students to develop their own voices, and helps them to become "a connoisseur, if you will, of human nature" (2009). This is an interesting point, one that positions education in a cultural, political and personal context, and that can either be complementary to or at odds with screenwriting education that adopts a more "how to" approach. It also speaks to Epps’ concern that too many screenwriting students want to "hit the jackpot […] instead of looking to examine themselves and the world through writing" (2010: 102). In a broader context, this call for "understanding and experiencing through writing" might be useful for all educators of creative writing, where content is privileged over form.

Story analyst and author Christopher Vogler, whose book
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Screenwriters and Storytellers (1992) is one of the most widely used texts in screenwriting courses around the world, is very aware of this so-called "division" between good ideas and good craft skills. Speaking of those who have been critical of his approach to educating future screenwriters, he said,

I understand that school of thought; that we ought not to overly express these [techniques] or think them out, even put them on paper. People would prefer them to be intuitive, but that's going to limit the number of people who can get into it and understand it and I am interested in consciousness: making people more conscious of those patterns; of the techniques; of the language (2009).

As with McKee’s notion of screenwriters becoming masters of the form by learning the rules first before they can break them (1999: 3), Vogler sees his work as something to be adapted and used merely as a platform on which to build: "Once you know what the patterns are then you can start challenging them and look for other ways to solve the pattern, to solve the problem, do the equation differently and still end up with happy answers" (2009).

On the subject of her doctorate, Seger very much saw studying as combining "the known" with "the experienced"; or, combining craft and technique with humanity and culture. She sees very clearly that, "drama carries themes dramatically, through emotions and action as opposed to through preaching", and so by studying humanity through the lens of drama, she discovered that themes are best expressed via characters and story, not oration (2009). This subsequently strengthened her ability of working with writers to tell their stories in powerful and effective ways.

Screenwriting and the Human Condition

The notion of storytelling in relation to the human condition emerged strongly from the interviews, as alluded to above. Vogler was one interviewee who spoke frequently of this concern. Re-telling the story of his involvement with the animated feature film The Lion King, he attributes much of the film’s success to its ability to speak to a variety of people from a variety of cultures:

I just think it was able to attack that universal thing that people like of a journey and a rite of passage: the development of a character through different levels of being a child and being a teenager, and then having to take on adult responsibilities (2009).

Speaking about stories more broadly, and acknowledging the influence that Joseph Campbell had on his work, Vogler believes they "give us something to compare to", and that the situation we see a character in "can be seen as a little like your situation, so you measure yourself: how am I doing? Is what I do better, or do I need to learn something from the behaviour of heroes from the story?" (2009). Through imagining and experiencing the thematic situation of a story, audiences process the meaning of their own lives in parallel, "plugging in values from their own life and storing up observations which they will then use later. We need all the help we can get, navigating a mysterious world" (2009).

Script coordinator and
CSI staff writer Chris Barbour spoke about crime screenwriting, and how this genre taps into the human condition. He said, "It’s very human to want to categorize [good guys and bad guys] because I think it’s just very animalistic. It’s like I want to know right away, are you friend or foe?" (2010). In his view, audiences love complex characters; characters who cross the boundary between good and bad, testing the audience’s morals and values. Crime screenwriters "are able to see […] common threads and common fears, [and know] that there really are no good guys and bad guys (2010). He went on to say about America specifically,

We love our heroes. We also love tearing them down. So that process is fascinating to me ’cause we have no ability to see grey areas and that’s, I think, [what] our job is. I think a lot of writers like to point out that things are not good or, you know, they’re not all one thing (2010).

James Graham, a playwright and screenwriter who likes to tell stories based on real people and real events, hopes that his optimism towards humanity shows in his work. He revealed, "I generally see hope in all my characters [because] there’s hope for us all", and unlike his perceived bleakness of many screenwriters, especially British ones, "I generally like to show those sides of life, especially where it’s often so miserable and you just think there’s no point in carrying on if there’s no salvation" (2009).

On the topic of using drama to inform and help evolve humanity, Loman salutes the work of American TV show creator Norman Lear. He said,

Of all the television we had seen before that was kind of silly and frivolous and light hearted, Norman really felt that the topics that really needed to be discussed in America were the topics that people did not speak about in public. They didn't talk about bigotry in public. They didn't talk a lot about abortion or subjects like that in public and he felt […] that the first way to begin dealing with important topics in America [was] to talk about them. And so he really shocked television. Norman's early show, All in the Family, was not like any show we had ever seen (2009).

This idea of a screenplay as a vessel for exploring the human condition can be nicely summarized by Spence, who draws screenwriting into the wider sphere of creative writing when he says, "That is what most writers do: they ask a lot of questions and they suck out of you the stuff of life which they then put down on the page" (2009).

Cultural differences and how they are reflected through screenwriting was something else interviewees talked about. Speaking again of
The Lion King, Vogler said, "It's just been amazing as I travel, everywhere I go, people say, well that's really a Chinese movie, or that’s really a Japanese movie, or that’s really an African movie, or that’s really an Israeli movie. Everybody claims it as reflecting something in their culture" (2009). From Seger’s experience of working with screenwriters from around the world, "The concepts of the craft remain the same, but the way they come out varies from culture to culture. I try to preserve those cultural elements, and you can sort of capitalize on them; pull them up" (2009). As internationally renowned script consultants, both Vogler and Seger said they were aware of the need to avoid Americanizing stories from cultures with different traditions and ideologies, even if their writers wanted to make films that would appeal to the Western market.

Loman spoke about his time as an Executive Producer on
Sesame Street, a children’s TV show that was re-formatted for various territories. He stressed the importance of being sensitive to the values of the country, not just in the show’s content but also in the ways that production teams worked together:

In China you want to make sure that you are working with the head writer and you have to make sure to save face, so if I were to criticize the scripts that the head writer came up with, I would have to be very sensitive to allow that particular writer to save face (2009).

He recalled an instance where the woman in charge of animation on the Chinese version of
Sesame Street brought to the table storyboards in which the characters all had Western faces. When asked about this, she told Loman that this was the way they do things in China; that Western faces are normal in animation. Loman recalled his conversation with her: "I said to her, well how are Chinese children going to feel positive about themselves if you are holding up the model of beauty and sophistication to be Western?" (2009). Fortunately for Loman, two days later the woman returned with revised storyboards using Chinese faces, which he felt was an accomplishment.

Becoming a Screenwriter

When asked about how they came to be in the screenwriting industry, interviewees gave a range of responses. Some of them always wanted to work in the world of film and television; others worked in similar areas of media and writing; and some found themselves there almost by accident. This is an interesting area to explore, not only because it tells us about pathways into the industry, but also because it allows us to reflect on what other disciplines, whether related or unrelated, can bring to the world of screenwriting; indeed, to the world of creative writing more broadly.

Something writers are often asked about in interviews is, when did they start to write, and when did they decide to pursue writing full time? Interestingly, in terms of their place in the wider creative writing community, many of our interviewees revealed that their early writing lives were preoccupied with forms other than scripts as they developed their storytelling skills. Spence strongly believes that "real" writers have always written, and will always write, no matter what:

If you are a writer, you are someone who just needs to write. Probably you have been writing since you were 12 years old; you have probably just been writing and writing and writing, you just don't quite know why. Whether you are keeping a diary or writing short stories or writing articles or whatever […] that is how you express yourself; and, you know, the really, really good writers have faced as much rejection and knock backs and difficulties as the less good writers, they have just kept going (2009).

Graham recalled his early memories of writing and, in hindsight, innocent practices that would later become his professional career:

I remember from about four or five wanting to write short stories, and I would force my mum to […] fold sheets of paper and staple them together and make a book. And then I would just write, write, write in the book, and just read them. And I remember getting my first typewriter when I was like six and writing short stories. Then an electric typewriter, that was amazing, and then a computer, but then I kind of forgot about it for a while (2009).

Growing up seemed to be an obstacle to writing for Graham, and it was only when he went to university that he started to write creatively again. He said, "I missed the creative process of creating stories" and so whilst studying, he began "using the facilities like studio spaces, stages, [and the] vast amount (sic) of actors who were willing to work for free, and just started writing plays" (2009). Graham’s first full-length play was based on his and his community’s experience of the coalminers’ strike in late 1984.

Tolchinsky started his career as a composer, during which time he developed an interest in dialogue, which he began to capture in his music. Once attracted to the notion of speech and voice, when he went to film school he became much more "interested in the musicality of the way people speak when they are structuring stories" (2009). As has been written about in regards to screenwriting structure and musical rhythm (see Batty and Waldeback 2008), Tolchinsky combines his music career with screenwriting to develop his interests in "not just how do you tell a story, but how does it feel like music […] If you took out the words and you put nonsense, would it still sound like that?" (2009).

James Macak Assistant Professor of Screenwriting at Emerson College (Boston, USA) began his career as a journalist. His love of words and stories led him to write plays in his free time, which he consolidated by studying for an MFA in Playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. He was later selected for an internship program with TV writer David Milch, which eventually led to him working on
Beverly Hills Buntz, a spin-off of Hill Street Blues (2009). As we will go on to discuss about collaboration and credit, issues unique to screenwriting, Macak revealed a steep learning curve in his screenwriting apprenticeship: "I wrote an episode and they re-wrote practically everything in it except maybe my name, but I learned a lot that way" (2009).

Story and script analyst Marc Weinberg talked about his role as a reader assessing screenplays, which for him was a very valuable way to learn about the art and craft of screenwriting. In his mind, most script analysts are also writers, and so reading up to 500 scripts a year is a useful education in what works and what does not (2009). Script consultants such as Seger and Vogler do not identify as writers themselves; rather, their skills are in assisting others. That said, both are highly regarded script consultants whose work with high profile writers, directors and producers has confirmed to them where their strengths lie in the screenwriting industry. But for script analysts such as Macak, this role seems more of a means to an end, where the ultimate goal is to have one’s own screenplays produced:

On average I would say [I read] 10 scripts a week, which [is] a terrific education for writing, because you don’t learn to write screenplays by watching movies. Certainly it helps you, but you’re really only going to learn by reading. You’ll find people whose work you admire and people you say, there’s no way I’m ever going to write like that (2009). 

In the broader context of creative writing, this reminds us that no matter what form one is writing in, it is always influenced by a variety of people (officially or unofficially related to the project), a variety of contexts (personal, cultural, political) and a variety of other disciplines. It is not necessarily obvious in screenwriting, but there is also a strong sense that writing is always connected to reading, which may be literal and involve other texts, or which may be the "reading" of a situation or phenomenon. As Pope reminds us when discussing how, in an educational context, critical reading informs creative writing, "evidence of critical understanding is as important as a demonstration of creative capacity" (2006: 130). In this regard, we suggest that "reading" applies outside of the academy, too.

Being a Screenwriter

According to Vogler, "There will always be a need for professional storytellers" (2009). Why people wish to tell stories as their profession is something interviewees were asked about. Barbour was honest about his need to tell stories, noting that, "being beholden to fans […] is probably apathetical to the artist, but we [screenwriters] are kind of entertainers in […] the traditional sense of that word", and need an audience (2010). For Tolchinsky, similarly, as a screenwriter "you want to affect people, you want them to have an emotional intellectual response, you want them to stay there" (2009).

For some screenwriters, the drive to tell stories and to entertain transcends discourses around "high" and "low" art that may pervade other forms of creative writing. Graham, for example, refuses to make this distinction in his writing. By this he means both form (theatre versus television, for example) and content. He said, "I don’t consider one to be cheap and one to be more substantial" (2009), and celebrated the fact that he is not shamed by the idea of entertaining an audience. As he highlighted, "I think too many [young] people, particularly in theatre, not TV […] focus too much on the intellectual, or the theme or their own craft, rather than actually thinking, God, someone’s paid to see this" (2009).

Having had the luxury of both free spaces and actors to perform his work, important to Graham was the realization that upon leaving university, it would be hard to sustain the momentum to write: "Suddenly you’re kicked out and you aren’t really a writer anymore because you haven’t got anything on. […] It was like a culture shock to know that it’s not going to happen quickly; [that] you’re going to have to work hard" (2009). As with many graduating student writers, Graham realized that "there were 1000 young writers out there doing the same as [him]", and that if he were to stand a chance of "making it", he "needed to work much harder at it; that writing a good play was hard and instead of just doing these things very quickly, [he] needed to take time to actually just hole [himself] into one play and spend time on it" (2009). This is precisely what he did, writing the play
Albert’s Boy, which was performed at the Finborough Theatre in London.

On the topic of writing and discipline, and the need to "keep going" in order to improve one’s practice, Graham admits that he "always thought the best play you’d probably ever write might have to be your first one, because you’re unknown [and] there’s a risk to put anything on", and that "it gets easier the more plays you write, to get more put on" (2009). Seger had a different view about this, believing that "if you really work hard you can achieve competency in 5 years; […] mastery takes 10 to 20 years" (2009). Various factors come into play here, such as form (screenwriting versus playwriting) and, we might interpret, acknowledgement that although a writer might find it "easier" to have their work produced as the years go on, perhaps the most raw and "risky" writing comes at an earlier stage in their career.

Seger also thinks that, "There’s a lot to be said for longevity", and that hard work over a number of years might result in "people who will support [your work] because they know how hard you’ve worked" (2009). Barbour shares this view, believing that successful writers are often hard workers who have professional attitudes and practices, not necessarily talent. Unlike those who do not "make it" because of a lack of discipline, "insanely successful [writers] are able to write on a schedule; they’re able to get their material out there; they’re able to be professional about it. You may write something great in ten years that they can do in ten minutes" (2010).

The writer’s schedule was something Graham was keen to discuss, possibly as a way of justifying how writing for him can be acknowledged as a full-time profession. For example, talking of his need to write all day, not just for a few hours, he said: "I guess it’s just about guilt as well; my mum’s doing a full-time job, my dad worked really hard, and all I have to do is write"(2009). As such, his routine "is to get up quite early, about six […] and start by half six, or even seven", his most productive time of the day (2009).

Spence said that he has "never met anyone who doesn't underestimate how hard it is to write; until you have actually tried it, no one has a clue how hard it is" (2009). Graham talked about this aspect from the point of view of facing a story head on, and working hard to put the work out there. Joking that writing "is not brain surgery, it’s not flying a plane; if it goes wrong, nobody will get hurt", he said that the difficulty often comes not from staring at the computer screen and thinking of ideas, but in transforming ideas into a script. He said that writers often think, "I just don’t want to tackle that", but that in fact they should, "just get it out [so then they’ve] got something" (2009).

Barbour also shared these sentiments, specifically that of writers being able to face their material through a thematic, "emotional" lens, not one that focuses merely on an entertaining plot. He believes that, "there are some artists who are very gifted and are able to detach themselves from the material and understand what they’re trying to do", unlike others who are merely "telling one level of the story" (2010).

In terms of generating ideas and laying them down on the page, as Graham reminds us, "You don’t necessarily generate ideas when you’re sat at the computer […] Maybe go out for a walk; just you in your head, but still writing […] thinking, and writing"; and that by thinking through ideas in a conducive space, the process of then putting the ideas on the page becomes "like transcribing your work" (2009). To some extent, this speaks to the notion of re-writing, something that practically all screenwriting manuals advocate. In this sense, thinking becomes writing, and as highlighted, transcribing these thoughts becomes a way of re-writing, which inevitably leads to many other re-writes, performed in layers (structure, character voice, theme, etc.).

For Macak, "good writing comes from re-writing" and acknowledging that "your first draft is going to be crap" (2009). Instead of re-writing scenes and dialogue over and over before moving on, "to the point of inertia", he believes that the only way is to generate a full first draft; only then can a writer see the sum of their creation and be able to understand its intentions, which can then be re-drafted accordingly. It thus seems that on being a screenwriter and all that this brings with it – processes, practices, fears, failures, successes – many of the sentiments shared can in fact apply to any type of writer. The form itself and the industry surrounding it may be different, but the working life of the writer is not so different. The more obvious departures emerge where the screenwriter has to collaborate with others.

Screenwriting and Collaboration

Of all the forms of creative writing, screenwriting is arguably the most collaborative. Not only does it rely on various people to develop a screenplay (see Bloore 2012), it requires even more people to produce a screenplay, during which time many changes will take place. It is therefore no surprise that collaboration and the idea of people working collectively to tell the same story was another theme that emerged from the interviews.

Loman talked about team writing, a common practice in television, and how there is often a need to generate "one voice". This has advantages and disadvantages. For example, writers may be hired to work on a show because they have a particular style and voice, yet "sometimes when a show is group-written you lose the original writers’ voices because everybody has contributed to it" (2009). For Barbour, who talked about his work on the show
CSI, collaboration can often lead to conflict, which for him is not necessarily a bad thing: "If we fight all the time, there’s just something about the nature of those conflicts that are constructive. If they’re constructive and there’s energy, [I’m] surprised at the number of people that I see continue to work together" (2010).

Collaborating on a project relies on feedback, and people working through ideas by asking questions about the project, and making informed decisions. Barbour reminds us how when reading someone else’s script, it is vitally important to understand their intentions and vision so that constructive feedback can be given: "You can’t just say, this story sucks, because that doesn’t help anything" (2010). As a new writer, Graham noted how he "relied on [the drama executive’s] experience of what she thought was necessary to tell the story and what wasn’t", and how he "had to be quite brave and not precious about it" (2009).

Tolchinsky is excited by the possibilities afforded by collaboration: "Everyone I have worked with, I have enjoyed the collaboration because it’s exciting to have people […] comment [on your work]" (2009). He pointed out an important aspect of collaboration, which is that others should not always be making suggestions for what will make a story work better, but should in fact be "detecting a problem and it’s up to the writer to come up with a different solution" (2009). He also raised the importance of screenwriters being willing to collaborate, and their ability to filter feedback in appropriate ways. Some writers might be "resistant to taking notes; they don’t enjoy the process of collaborating [and] working towards a great truth", yet those who cannot work with feedback and "who are unable to generate new material are [the] people who don’t do well" (2009).

Another important aspect of collaboration is the ability to manage the psychology that goes with it (see Andermatt 2003), in which power is heightened and the writer’s vulnerability open to exploitation. Spence reflected on this:

It's an old adage of the script editing world that you should start off every meeting by saying something nice to the writer, and I have, as a writer, experienced what it is like when someone just literally launches straight in with, "Right, here is what is wrong with your script". It's like being stripped naked and thrown out the window […] so if nothing else, the experience taught me to at least try and win the writer over by telling them what is good about their script before telling them what's bad (2009).

Workshopping is an area that has received critical attention in the broader sphere of creative writing (Donnelly 2010), with arguments both for (Vandermeulen 2011) and against (Wandor 2008) the workshop. In practical terms, writers and educators largely advocate for the workshop and its ability to move a writer and their project forward in supportive and meaningful ways. In the screenwriting industry, the workshop may be formal (the writer’s room or the story conference) or informal (writers’ groups or rehearsed readings).

Karen Lee Street, a former Head of Development and now freelance writer and script consultant, spoke about her experiences of managing writers’ workshops in both educational and industrial (funding) contexts. She was keen to point out that workshops are not only about generating feedback, but are also about managing feedback. The responsibility of this falls on the facilitator, who should be aware of the power dynamics in operation and of tactics for dealing with them (2009). As she said, a workshop "can’t just be a free-for-all of feedback, that just completely confuses the writer", and a key strategy here is to ensure that "the writer knows what they’re doing when they leave, not that they’re even more confused by the end of it" (2009).

One of the complexities in screenwriting is assigning credits to produced work. For example, there is no guarantee that the writer of the first draft script will be credited as the lead writer on the finished product; or in some cases, credited at all. The screenwriting industry is awash with complex battles for territory, and not only that, unlike with most other forms of writing screenplays can be worked on by a variety of people, including the co-writer, the re-writer, the script editor, the script consultant, the producer and the director.

In Vogler’s experience of working on The Lion King

[There was a] "cluster term" where there were maybe twenty names, [which] says "additional story material by" and then the twenty names. It reflects how collaborative it can be, especially in animation. They had "writer" and "story by" and various credits, but what they often have on animated films is a big card for all the people who give a joke or a scene, or give notes or something like that (2009).

Barbour noted that the collaborative writing process common in US television is "not really reflected by the credits that you see […] because every show runner could take a credit on a show; and where some do it a lot, the majority do not" (2010). The showrunner, who essentially functions as the head writer and story editor in long-running series, occupies an interesting space where collaboration and credit is concerned. As Barbour highlighted, there is often an "unwritten rule [that] the show runner will take their pass at [the script]" but because it is the individual writer’s episode, they are the one given credit (2010). This is usually despite a common understanding that from the perspective of the show runner, "I’m going to give you [the] writing credit, [but] I’m probably going to rewrite your episode" (2010).

On the notion of writers being credited for their work, Tolchinsky recalled a project he worked on where because the director also saw himself as a writer and produced a new draft of the script prior to production, both the writer (Tolchinsky) and the director submitted their drafts to the Writers’ Guild for arbitration, to see who should be given the credit (2009). In this case, the Writers’ Guild assessed which draft was most like the produced version; therefore, which writer had written the script that was closest to what was eventually made. This practice is particular to the screenwriting industry, though for the broader field of creative writing, it does raise interesting questions about ownership, authorship and the roles that individuals play in the making of a creative work. As script consultants, both Seger and Vogler said that they have received credits for their work, though as they both highlighted, the decision of clients to attribute them credit is always optional (2009).


Writing for the page and writing for production makes for a different reception, and also the experience of that reception. For example, a novelist cannot easily be on the shoulder of their reader to assess their response to their work, but as Graham said in regards to the production of his play, Coal Not Dole, and his drive to write for entertainment:

[It] was terrifying to be reviewed for the first time by national papers and to have paying members of the public coming in and folding their arms and saying, impress me, make me laugh, and make me feel things. But [it] somehow seemed to work, the response was great and [the] feeling of sitting at the back of an audience watching them either laugh or cry or just listen to a story I’m telling. [It] was like a drug, so I thought, "I’ve got to do this for a living" (2009).

But in writing this article, with its discussions of education, the human condition, industry, process and collaboration, we also discovered that screenwriters share a great deal with other creative writers when it comes to writing practice. With that in mind, and in relation to what screenwriting can tell us about creative writing more broadly, another question posed to interviewees was, is screenwriting creative writing?

Debates on screenwriting as both a creative and an industrial pursuit are beyond the scope of this paper, but we do want to end by sharing Weinberg’s views on the subject. This is because his response is simple yet, we feel, potent:

Let’s say you have to write Transformers 3. Probably not your favourite assignment, so how are you going to write that script and make it into something that you can at least believe in? Because if you have contempt for it, it’s going to come through in your writing, right? So how do you find a way to make it something that you care about? That’s why [screenwriting is] definitely [a creative] art; there’s no question. [Cynically,] if it’s well done, people will look at it and say, well that was better than it had any right to be (2009).

Making work that the writer, and by extension an eventual audience, cares about is a theme that runs throughout these interviews. From discussions of writers
needing to write, to discussions of screenwriting and the human condition, and now to this example of how even the most commercial writing commission might be approached, what is clear is that no matter what a writer is writing, they need to be emotionally invested in it. Whether a screenplay, a novel or a poem, according to the interviewees there is no substitute for genuine care and passion – for the story, its characters and its themes – to drive good writing.


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Dr Craig Batty is Associate Professor of Screenwriting in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, Australia. He is author, co-author and editor of eight books, including Screenwriters and Screenwriting: Putting Practice into Context (2014), The Creative Screenwriter: Exercises to Expand Your Craft (2012) and Movies That Move Us: Screenwriting and the Power of the Protagonist’s Journey (2011). He is also a screenwriter and script editor, with experiences across short film, feature film, television and online drama.

Stayci Taylor
is a practice-based PhD candidate in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, Australia. She is a playwright and screenwriter, having worked in most variations of the latter – including creator, storyliner and script editor – most recently in soap and sitcom for New Zealand television. She currently also teaches screenwriting to undergraduate students at RMIT.