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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Can You Teach Screenwriting?

Craig Mazin has done it again. Over at The Artful Writer a discussion has been raging about whether screenwriting can be taught, and who if anyone is qualified to teach it. The discussion has even spilled over into some of the other screenwriting blogs out there. Last night I posted a longish response in the comments at Artful Writer, but then I hit an error (prob from my end) and the comment never posted. So I decided to just post my response here. It's probably worth reading through the comments over there first, however, since I won't be reiterating much of what the others have said.

Craig wrote:

I simply do not understand what most of these people do. Here’s why: I believe that screenwriting is a vocational craft, and therefore ought to be taught like a vocational craft.

I believe the majority of books that exist are academic in their very nature (they are texts), and screenwriting is not a liberal art....

How can someone who hasn’t done the job teach the job? Remember, I define the “job” as “writing a movie”, NOT “writing a screenplay”.
I think that this comment and some of the responses to it overlook a specific point. We've all heard the famous adage, "Those who can do; those who can't teach." I believe there is, in fact, some truth to this comment. But I see this as both a good and bad thing. While there are certainly many teachers who are not well-qualified (and you absolutely must check them out before you spend your money on them), the lack of credits does not preclude one from being a good teacher.

I have taught (in other fields) previously, and I recognize that being a good teacher is a skill in itself. There are plenty of people out there who probably had a better handle on the material that I taught than I did. But I happen to be good at teaching. I know how to communicate material, transmitting it differently to different students, finding new ways to help them understand and incorporate the material.

Similarly, many excellent screenwriters will be horrible teachers. Just because they may be highly talented does not mean they will be able to teach the skill. And yes, I do believe that some major elements of screenwriting can be taught. This does not mean that a good teacher can make anyone into a good screenwriter. Talent is a necessary component. But a good screenwriting teacher can help someone develop their skills if they already have the talent.

Mazin wrote:

Do not take screenwriting advice from uncredited self-anointed experts who simply haven’t earned the right to teach you. There isn’t a screenwriting teacher on the planet who makes more money being a great screenwriting teacher than he would being a great screenwriter.

Hell, mediocre screenwriters probably do better.
This argument simply doesn't float with me. Look at most of the talented musicians in the world. The vast majority learned from people earlier on in their professional developments (I'm not counting those few self-taught prodigies). And in most cases, those music teachers that were able to nurture the talent of a developing musician were not highly successful musicians in their own rights. Those people are too busy working as successful professional musicians.

In my opinion, teaching screenwriting -- be it in a class, via a book, through giving feedback on screenplays, in seminars, or in any other format -- requires certain skills. You have to be able to examine and evaluate what makes for a good screenplay and be able to transmit that information to the developing screenwriter. Usually, this does require some experience in the industry, but I do not believe that because I have not yet sold a screenplay that I am completely unqualified to teach. I've worked professionally and made my living from evaluating screenplays. I recognize that I still have a lot to learn myself, and therefore I do not try to teach areas with which I am unfamiliar or unqualified to teach. But at the same time, I believe that I do have some wisdom (for lack of a better word) to impart, and that I can help novice screenwriters become better at their craft.

Nonetheless, I still agree that all of the other things Craig and the others mentioned are also important learning tools. Definitely read as many screenplays as possible, both good and bad. Seek out feedback from as many people as possible, in as many contexts as possible. Get out and experience life, and observe how others interact. And without a doubt, the best way to develop your skills is simply to keep writing, and evaluating your own work with a critical eye.

Before you take a seminar or class, or hire a script consultant to give you notes, check him or her out. Ask around for other people who have used them. Read their websites or books to try to get a feel for whether you believe in their talent and knowledge. There are plenty of charlatans out there, but there are also plenty of people who can help.

And lastly, on the subject of books, my opinion is similar. I've read some pretty crappy screenwriting books, and some that don't quite suck but also offer very little of original value. But at the same time, many of them are excellent, and others may at least offer a few new ideas that you can incorporate into your arsenal of screenwriting tools. I still read screenwriting books, and explore the tools that resonate with me. Certainly the weaker screenwriters out there will end up turning out the "facsimile screenplays" that Craig mentioned in his post. But the better writers out there will be able to find elements in some of the better screenwriting books that will help them along their path, and help them develop into better screenwriters. And they'll be able to do so while remaining true to their own voice and style.

Of course, that's just my opinion!


Update: My comments from last night showed up there after all. Heh heh. Sorry for the confusion!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read a lot of my screenwriting books from the library, just see if I can learn even one iota of a tip to use. I'd hate to be paying $15-30 for every one when most of them go over what is common sense to the majority of us. Or a new twist on an old idea. So I guess I don't read the books to learn anymore, but rather just be reminded and refreshed on certain points

6:47 AM  
Blogger lad said...

One could say that if these guys really knew screenwriting they'd be doing it and not teaching it, but there are two sides to most coins at least. I believe that some of these self-proclaimed experts are complete frauds, but I believe others could actually benefit an aspiring screenwriter who knows nothing of the art. I believe that some of the teachers know the nuts and bolts of screenwriting but might not be able to churn out ideas. They're better at taking other's ideas and formatting them, and there is not anything wrong with that. The problem occurs when someone is taken advantage of because they don't know who's ligit. Many of these teachers will charge gobs of money for something that could be aquired for free, but some can truly give feedback that is priceless. Through much research and agony, I have found that the best way to learn screenwriting is to read produced screenplays. You pick up instinctive traits that carry over to your own.


9:57 AM  

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