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No, You’re Not A Writer

writerYou know what makes a good writer? Learning to write really, really good.

Nowadays, it seems like everybody’s a writer. Seriously. The guy who opened my bank account is writing a film script and I’m not even living in LA (I imagine it’s a hard-hitting drama about why I should get overdraft protection). The old joke that in Los Angeles everyone has a screenplay is now globally true — with the freedom of the Internet, anyone can do anything. And do it badly.

When did writing a script become as easy as scrambling eggs? When did crafting a story become the least important aspect of crafting a story?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve raved about the low-quality of online entertainment. Well, I’m going to point a quivering, judgmental finger at writing as one of the core problems.

Quick story:

For two years I worked as a screenplay reader. I must have read over 200 scripts — I can name 4 that were good. I believe it was two sci-fi films, one horror and one comedy (written by Simona Antonova — at 16, she out-wrote the hundreds of scripts I’ve read over the years. That, ladies and gentlemen, is talent). 4 scripts. Out of 200.

What’s my point? My point is that just because we have the freedom to create, doesn’t mean we get a pass on learning how to actually do it. It’s how San Francisco thinks that good theater is transsexuals talking about transexuality and good art is bad art because expression is expression and who are you to hate my expression, despite its significant inexpressiveness?

It’s an insult to people who dedicate their lives perfecting a craft. To people who, at the sake of just about everything, go into a career where, potentially, they will never, ever succeed. It’s an insult to artists.

So, here’s what I suggest. If you’re starting a new project, be it a film, a TV show, a web series, whatever — you have to do one of the three things below:

Thing 1 — figure out if you’re a writer and if you’re worth a damn.

I’ve published three plays that have been performed all over the world, I’ve written for a small network, I’ve created a fairly successful web series that has had amazing reviews in huge publications and I’ve survived (barely) as a freelance writer for a few years now. And yet, when people ask me what I do, I hesitate before I tell them. Why? Because Sorkin is a writer, because Woody Allen is a writer, because Shakespeare was a writer, and that’s not a club I necessarily see myself drinking tea with.

What I’m saying is, you know you’re a writer when you realize what it takes to be one. You know you’re a writer when after the 17th draft of something, you love it, and then a week later you hate it and start rewrites again. You know you’re a writer when you spend way too much time making sure a sentence has the exact amount of words to achieve maximum poignancy/comedy and then, a month later, re-read it and hate not just the sentence but the whole script.

Okay, maybe it’s a sign of being a neurotic writer — but you get my point. You’re a writer when your everything — your focus, your drive, your desire — is to write.

And even then — it’s a long path to being able to nod your head resolutely and say, “Yep, I’m a writer.”

Thing 2 — if you’re not a writer, find a writer.

If you realized you’re the only one who enjoys your scripts — find someone who’s better. Judge them from their scripts, their resume, their drive and then judge them again. As much as I dislike the impenetrable wall that is the agent’s office, I get it — there are so many awful writers who talk loudly and carry a tiny stick that you have to protect yourself from the countless amount of awful that throws itself your way.

So, find a good writer, hammer out a good script and you’re halfway there.

Thing 3 – if you’re not a writer, and can’t find someone to write for you, learn to do it.

It’s not easy, but it’s something — if you have a knack for it — you can learn. Read as many screenwriting books as you can. Don’t take it all verbatim, but learn structure, learn how stories are put together and for the love of God, learn how to properly format a script.

Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger is one of my favorite books on the matter, it’s an easy read and explains everything very simply.

Read other screenplays — professional ones — and see how they do things. You can read many of these for free online.

Watch TV shows, movies — anything that you love. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t know it yet but he’s my mentor. So is Woody Allen, and Neil Simon, and David Ives, and countless, countless others.

Write, write, write, write, write, write, write and when you’re done, keep writing, writing, writing, writing. If you want to truly be good at something, it has to become your life.

And that’s about it.

Every film, every show, every video has its own world and while the director, actor, cinematographer and editor help craft it, its God is the writer and the absolute last thing anyone wants to be is a lousy God.

Now go write something.

…and feel free to ask me any questions right here on my blog.

Written by

I am a writer, director, producer and co-founder of HLG Studios.

10 thoughts on “No, You’re Not A Writer

  1. My Dearest Yuri,

    I find that in any type of artistic expression a person tends to feel that they have no type of barrier what-so-ever, that as long as they write down a few words on a piece of paper, throw a few colors on a canvas, or kill a puppy… they have a masterpiece. The problem with Art is it’s whole enticement is “Do what you want!”, “Be Free!”, “Express Yourself” and THUS people do just that, without any form of structure.

    It intrigues me in the fashion world when all of these aspiring designers create their new “it” lines, and yet not a single piece can actually be worn by the average human being, as it usually is made by some type of tree-bark trimmed with cupcake frosting. I imagine that this is comparable to your banker writing a screenplay.

    Yet, at the same time of being frustrated I can’t help but think isn’t that the beauty of art?

    Freedom?

    Artistic expression is one of the very few aspects in our lives where no type of order needs to be maintained.

    And if everyone stuck to the rules, and conformed, it would no longer be creative. It would be….

    Something not creative?

    And besides, if everyone stuck to rules and didn’t follow their inner creative spirit, we wouldn’t all be reading your blog now, would we? 😉

    Mi Manchi

  2. Well, there goes my transexuals talking about transexuals film…

    But it’s true, anyone can write, but not everyone can be a “writer”.

    Just as anyone can paint, draw, sculpt, play, or other number of things, but not everyone can be an “artist”.

    There are at any given moment an insurmountable number of people in this world trying to make it as an artist. The cold reality is of course that most of them won’t, very few do, and hell, even out of the ones that do the good majority of them are spurning out recycled garbage.

    Being an artist is about passion and self expression and meaning and beauty and tragedy and so on and so forth.

    Being an entertainer is about taking what’s been done a million times before. Taking the same things that have made us laugh, cry, gasp, and shout and doing them again, maybe this time with a slight twist. Just enough to make it feel new, but not different enough to make us uncomfortable.

    The true artists are the ones that can fuse the two. It’s an extremely difficult thing to do and is very rare to find.

    It takes an extraordinary amount of work and an innate ability to see, feel and express the elements of life that move us. Something that cannot ever be truly taught.

    Any monkey with a typewriter can write, but it takes a mass of monkeys and the odds of Scarlett Johansson ringing my doorbell naked to produce something resembling something that might be called art.

    If you’re trying to make it, whether you’re a writer, a painter, or whatever path you choose, the odds are against you. This doesn’t mean you give up. It means you take a step back, see how small you are in this world, keep moving forward despite it and hope that the stars align to make that team of monkeys in your brain produce something intelligible.

    And then maybe Scarlett Johansson will show up at my door.

    She doesn’t have to be naked.

    But it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

  3. I feel the same way about actors. the problem with acting is that the criteria are even fewer than those for writers. I mean, writers at least have to be able to write. Sometimes all an actor needs to do is show up (though I’m always amazed at how difficult even THIS seems to be for some).

    I DO think there is a persistent attitude out there that popularity = aptitude. And I’m not sure that it’s completely incorrect. After all, what does it take to be called an artist? Dedication? I’m sure there are a lot of lazy, famous artists out there in the world.

    The overriding criteria seems to be consensus. If enough people think you’re a writer, you are one. Of course, it always helps to have something written somewhere.

    I’ve put a lot of time and money into getting an education, not only in acting, but writing as well, only to come out the other side still unsure about my own credentials. I don’t call myself a writer per se. But I DO write.

    Perhaps if I actually SELL something? Will that legitimize me? I saw Transformers 2. Somebody got paid to write that. Are THEY a writer? Is the answer “yes, just not a very good one?” If so, why? Money?

    Does the fact that my comment seems to be disconnected, rambling and grammatically dubious disqualify me for “writer” status?

    Would it help if I said how much I also like David Ives? Though I’d like to kick him in the head simply for the fact that he’s spawned so many god-awful imitators.

  4. WTF, Dashers? Why do you have to steal my thunder? And Robb. But I don’t know him, so I can’t cuss at him. So, Broka, you remember how I uttered the fabulous and ridiculous and dramatic, “I’m a dancer. It’s what I DO!” the last time I was home? This post is so relevant…So I just started teaching dance classes, and now people are like, “Oh, you’re a dancer?” and I’m like, “…I dance.” Because I don’t feel like a DANCER. DANCERS have awesome technique and auditions and barres. And I just dance. I mean, I dance certain styles fairly well, but I’m not winning any spots on Broadway here. But on the other hand, why am I NOT a dancer? I love to dance. If I love to do something, does it matter how good I am? Does it matter what other people think if I am having fun? Like when it comes to acting. Do I enjoy acting? God no. It’s too subjective. Too much criticism and trying to make other people “feel” you. I love performing. If you feel me, great. If you don’t, I wasn’t performing for your approval anyway. Is it your own approval or someone else’s that makes you an artist? I am going to end my disjointed, one-paragraphed, and poorly grammarfied post with another cheesy quote, courtesy of “Center Stage”: “I’m not dancing for them anymore, I’m dancing for me.” (AND IF YOU EVER WANT TO MAKE ME CRY, WRITE “WRITE REALLY, REALLY GOOD” AGAIN!)

  5. Wow–this got alot of people writing, on your blog anyway…

    I just erased my joke…I need to work on my wordsmitthing…

    What are you gonna attack next Yuri? Jesus? HuH!—yeah–I’m late, I’ll stick with that..

    Don’t edit me!

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  7. Yuri-

    Thanks for posting this. I’m a graduate student in fiction writing, but I certainly don’t consider myself a writer. Nevertheless, a week doesn’t go by when I don’t meet someone who says something along the lines of “Oh, gonna, be a writer, huh? You know, I’m a writer.” Then they usually follow it up with telling me all about their more (romance) or less (fanfic) creative writing.

    I don’t consider myself a writer, but I do write, and I know a fair amount about technique, and sometimes can even pull together a pretty rockin’ story, but every time I’m told that some hack who reads to many TV show message boards is a “writer” I consider going into banking.

    So thanks.

    -Anselm

    P.S.
    This is also why I stopped calling myself a musician- even though I was paying rent playing music and got hit up for lessons on a regular basis. Too many damn hacks.

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