Writing is learning

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

It always surprises people when I tell them that I didn’t know anything about radar when I wrote a 10-part animated video that trains military radar techs how to run airborne radar systems. I learned the fundamentals of radar by writing (and reading and talking) about them.

It was the same with a children’s series about astronomy. And with a museum piece about the Orient. And another video about childcare.

You don’t write about something (usually) because you know all about it. You write about it to learn. And so it is with fiction and with nonfiction writers everywhere. You take an interest in something, and then you learn about it by writing.

Why writing is learning

And part of that process involves not knowing exactly where you’re heading when you begin writing. Most of the time I’m dimly aware of a beginning, middle, and an end, but I just don’t know what they’ll each consist of.

Flannery O’Connor once said that she never knew how her stories would end when she began them. The endings developed as she wrote. Sometimes she surprised herself.

And so it is with scriptwriting, or writing web copy, or any kind of worthwhile writing. If I knew how everything would end, perhaps I’d never begin. It’s the process of putting things down on paper (or screen), the time it takes for words to leave my mind and my fingertips, the time it takes to remember details and stitch them together. All of these things contribute to how a piece develops and ends. And you can’t know that at the very beginning. It’s the process that stimulates my interest in completing it.

In fact, if I knew how every one of my videos would look when I began writing them, I’d probably lose interest. For me, it’s the telling of the story, weaving it with picture and sound, and then the eventual collaboration with camerapeople and editors that make the whole more than it was to begin with. But that’s another story.

In short, everyone can write. And yet, just because people watch more videos, more commercials, more media in general than ever before does not qualify them to create it.

Clients continually tell me that they write, and sometimes that a writer won’t be necessary on their project. And then I try as fast as I can to disengage from the project, because I know it won’t be successful.

If I ask, how many scripts have you written? “How hard can it be?” is their response. “I’ve watched a lot of videos!” Sigh.

You don’t send someone who wants to jog out on a marathon on her first day, do you? Even though she’s seen a lot of marathons? That would be silly, and perhaps painful.

Similarly, you don’t try your hand at specialty writing just because you have an ego-driven need or because you want to save money. The writing of your script is the essence of the video or print ad or web site that will be. Don’t leave this to a rookie, unless your audience is also composed of rookies. Your writer will need to be eyeball-to-eyeball, if you will, with your audience. On its level, whatever that may be. A good writer learns how to speak to any audience.

To be a successful scriptwriter (among other things), you need to learn how to read scripts. All kinds of scripts. Dramatic scripts. Documentary scripts. Training scripts. Educational scripts. Do you think that any Hollywood screenwriter ever succeeded on his or her first try, without getting to know the medium? Same with scriptwriting for an educational or a corporate audience.

Next, practice writing. Practice synthesizing ideas for others. Practice generating and maintaining excitement about a topic. Practice writing the way that people talk to each other. Above all, practice learning. Because that’s what writing is about. If you don’t reach a revelation, or a series of them, you won’t be able to communicate a topic to your audience.

Only then will you be able to call yourself a writer. And it won’t be because you know how to write one sentence following on another. It will be because you know how to learn well enough to create a meaningful story for your audience.

What is scriptwriting?

Film-style script


What is screenwriting?

Scriptwriting and screenwriting are not the same thing. Sure, in Hollywood they are. But not for the rest of the United States.

Screenwriting is writing done for the Big Screen. It makes beaucoup bucks, at least ideally.

Also, screenwriters write screenplays.

What is scriptwriting?

Scriptwriting is writing done for just about any venue other than the Big Screen — television, radio, web, corporate, educational, museum, training, industrial. You name it. And there’s a lot of it.

What’s the big deal? Most people aren’t even aware there are scripts for other presentations. They think an editor just makes them.

However, there are far more dollars spent every year on non-broadcast videos than there are dollars spent for Hollywood films. I’d like to give a citation here, but I can’t find it right now. Check back.

And so, for those of us who don’t write a lot of drama, we’d like a place in history! “I am a scriptwriter, and my name is Susan …..”

But when have writers ever been celebrated in their day? And when have behind-the-scenes writers (and I don’t mean the Hollywood kind) ever been singled out at all? It’s a rare trade competition that even recognizes scriptwriters (or writers of any kind for that matter) on a par with producers, directors, and print designers. Even though, without a scriptwriter (and a GOOD scriptwriter) there would be no story to tell.

So today, when you’re out there being bombarded by the 129 audio and video messages you’ll receive from commercials, YouTube videos, and Discovery programming, think of the writer. The person who makes it all make sense, who takes (or thinks up) all of the visuals and words that will make you buy, feel, know, or do something.

Thank a scriptwriter today!

The lost documentary

Gaylord_Hotel_National_HaborEvery year I have the chance to review dramatic films, documentaries, nonfiction videos, and commercials. Yesterday was one of my big days. (I want to mention that the judging is at the Gaylord National Harbor this year, brand new and amazing.)

One of the most promising documentaries began with credits over a blue sky, with a calm, tranquil landscape beneath. The picture nearly perfectly followed the “golden rule” of thirds as it pertains to filmmaking – the landscape took up about a third of the frame. (This theory of pleasing composition probably goes back to Da Vinci, and is much more complex than I’m describing it.)

Suddenly, an oil tanker screams out of the sky and explodes on the ground before us. We all sat up. Certainly something New and Different is a great way to attract and keep attention.

But what happened next? A convoluted and one-sided political attack on those who have squandered our nation’s resources. Only there were no facts. Maybe they were saved for later in the 2-hour doc?

I must disclaim that I am not allowed to name this film until the competition is over and results announced, sometime in November. So I will not give away any identifying characteristics. And I do want to say that there were those who disagreed with me. For a while.

One thing I’ve noticed about documentaries. Over time, it actually has become more likely that a scriptwriter isn’t actively involved in the production, unless that production is done by National Geographic or another proven documentary machine. Why does this happen? Because most people believe they can write. Whether they’ve ever written or even read a script for any kind of production, people generally believe that their choice of words and sentences will work. Increasingly, directors believe they can write. But, as talented as they may be, generally they don’t understand the turning points of a successful story. Maybe it’s because they’re so concerned about the topic that they can’t be that objective observer that’s required in a writer in order to give an audience what IT needs.

I can say, practically without reservation, that non-writers writing is never successful. It’s like someone who wants to run a marathon. You’re not going to do that on the first day out, or perhaps even in the first year. It takes a lot of practice and discipline. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.) In the case of scriptwriting, it also takes a lot of watching – all kinds of things: television, movies, nonfiction, documentaries, museum shorts, and so forth. I don’t want to discourage any fledgling writers, or those who keep journals, from working on their writing. But if you haven’t written professionally, likely it will take you a while to become superlative at your craft.

Naturally, scriptwriting, like any other writing, takes a lot of, well, writing. You must keep up with the culture and speak its language. Not stiff, formal language. Colloquial language. Scriptwriting may not be rocket science, but it is the careful distillation of complex information, and the magical gelling of a constellation of idea, picture, word, and audio that makes a moving picture a success.

So, the story I watched yesterday cost at least $300,000-$500,000 to produce. The person who submitted this piece did not reveal the budget, but based on the lush aerial shooting and the number of locations … not to mention narration by A Famous Actor whom most of us cannot afford … this was not a cheap story to make. Plus, it involved a famous senator’s son.

What happened? We all agreed that something funky had happened with the script. The scriptwriter went away, or there wasn’t one. Or there wasn’t a trained scriptwriter. The story just wasn’t there. We disagreed on how good the result was, but I stuck to my guns and eventually prevailed.

The film was a cut above that abomination by Al Gore that was called a documentary, but was really a glorified PowerPoint. But a cut above in visual only. It tried to be a successful Michael Moore film (and I do not think that most MM films are successful), but fell on its face, like the oil tanker that blew up within the first minute (we never did find out what the point of that was).

After watching 10 minutes of the piece, none of us had any idea where the story was going. Sure, we knew it was about the environment. And quite possibly a steppingstone for the famous senator’s son (as Al Gore’s “film,” An Inconvenient Truth, was for that politcian). But there were no building blocks leading to a greater truth, inconvenient or not.

I did some digging and discovered that I may be one of a handful of people who have even seen this film, because it’s caught up in a maelstrom of egos and personalities. And the costly piece may forever escape the Big Screen.

Turns out the personalities involve, as mentioned, a famous senator’s son, the filmmaker who grew up with him (and who is also the stepson of a household name of a TV journalist), a newspaper heiress, and a wealthy Republican producer who bankrolled most of the picture. Some or all of them are not getting along.

The problem? The filmmaker took the heiress’s script and threw it out, coming up with his own. The producer and the senator’s son don’t like the result. The heiress hasn’t seen it, but she also coughed up a lot of the money to make the picture.

The filmmaker says he owns the film, even though he didn’t put up any of the money to make it. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Was there a contract? Hello?

But, again, my point (and I do have one) is this: a really good script is necessary to make a successful story. A good script must be done by a good or even a great writer. All of the fancy shooting and editing in the world can’t create Story. And every successful feature film and documentary, not to mention corporate and museum videos, has a Successful Story.

NOTE: Apparently you can download this lost documentary now. Your thoughts?

Read on:


Sneak Preview of “Crimes Against Nature” at Aspen Film Fest


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