Teresa Warner was destined for the movie business before she could walk. Jury’s still out on whether the movie business is destined for her. Her pilot has placed at the Austin Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. Most recently it was in the Top 100 of the Launch Pad Pilot Competition. After receiving her MFA in screenwriting from The University of Texas, she made the dreaded leap to Los Angeles. Spoiler alert: It’s actually pretty great. Her writing focuses on coming-of-age stories with strong female characters, where the stakes are low and the emotions are high. Twitter: @TheTeeeeeeLife
When it comes to graduate school there are hundreds of different programs offering a hundred different ways to make you the best version of your screenwriter self. So that’s great! You have options. You also have the option to say, “Screw you, graduate school. I’m going out to L.A. and diving in.” But are you missing out on anything if you do that?
If you’re like me, then graduate school wasn’t a choice, it’s a way of life. I knew I was going to graduate school when I was thirteen, though for what I couldn’t tell you. I was a bit of a “Hermione Granger” with no direction. Apart from my unrelenting need to achieve great heights academically, my main reason for getting my Masters in Screenwriting was my lack of screenwriting and filmmaking experience. I literally knew nothing and had no contacts in the industry. With my luck, there was no way I could just dive into Los Angeles and create a career. Best to hedge my bets, so graduate school it was. I was accepted into the University of Texas and never looked back. It’s important to note I didn’t just learn about the industry at Texas. It was a two-year crash course in screenwriting, myself, and life.
First thing you’ll learn in graduate school is how to write. That’s what you’re paying for anyway. But what does that mean? You’ll learn screenwriting structure, formatting, and outlining. You’ll learn feature structure and television structure. These are all things you could learn from any screenwriting how-to book, however, those books can’t teach you how and what you write.
The most important thing you’ll learn in graduate school is your writing voice, which you’ll learn in a safe space. The “safe space” phrase has become more of a joke recently, but that is exactly what graduate school is for screenwriters. It’s a place to try things without huge consequences. The worst that may happen: you’re professor might give you a bad grade. In Hollywood, trying something crazy might stall your fledgling career. Not trying something could put you in a box. In my two years at The University of Texas, I finished with three wildly different scripts, a small family drama, a CW style dramdey, and a period piece. I was able to figure out what I enjoyed writing and I was encouraged to try new things.
On top of discovering your voice, you’ll discover your writing process, meaning how you write. Trust me, this is important. Spending every day of the next two years writing will teach you the circumstances you need to write at your best. Some people can write twenty pages a day. Some of us tap out at seven. Some people need to outline, some do not. Some need character bios with complex backstories while others need a few sentences and an actress. You may figure out you write everything by hand then type it up. Again you’re learning how you write best in an encouraging environment. You’ll also learn different ways to begin a story. Each professor has their own way of doing things. Pick and pull from them to find your process. Me? I prefer thirteen-page outlines with in-depth character bios, that can be considered a bit much, and I write everything by hand (hello arthritis). Two years of trial and error taught me that.
In learning how to write you’ll also learn discipline. You’re going to work in a creative field with strict deadlines. Here’s an opportunity to learn discipline without getting fired.
So you’ve figured out your voice, your process, and you’re disciplined like nobody else. You’re set right? No…hell no. Now you have to get the bad writing out. That’s my biggest argument for graduate school. Get the bad writing out before you turn pro.
There’s the old saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. While that idea seems ridiculous, especially in a creative field, there’s merit to it. It takes practice and time to become a great writer. If the opportunity is there, why not spend some of that time in graduate school? Take out the first script you wrote and compare it to the most recent one? There’s a difference. Your voice is more defined. The dialogue isn’t on the nose and your action description actually adds value. The writing got better. So what would happen with some mentorship and peer review? I’d argue you could cut those 10,000 hours down by a large margin.
A few months after I left graduate school I pulled out the script that got me in. It was bad, and I seriously question what the head of the department was thinking. Then I was reminded, someone saw something in my bad writing. Potential. A professor or department head saw something worth developing. That’s exactly what they did. I got a mentor and I got the bad writing out.
Part of becoming a great writer is learning how to give and take notes. Even if you’re used to them, critiques aren’t fun. No one likes to hear how bad their stuff is. However, hearing it from people who are on the same level as you is a nice way to dip your toe into the writing group pool.
Like writing, notes are another skill that is only mastered through time. A screenwriter has to get into the habit of nodding when they get a note, and not arguing. Controversial idea, I know, but this is a habit you’re going to need in the industry. At some point, a crazy studio note is going to come down, and if you argue it, you may be costing yourself a job (season three of Roswell is a great example of this). This is a skill set you need, and it’s a lot easier to learn with a peer. There’s also the “note behind the note.” I didn’t know this phrase until graduate school, and I didn’t understand it until my second semester. In my first script everyone hated my protagonist, which I couldn’t understand. It wasn’t until someone said the main character was rude to her mother that I got it. I was reading the Mother as a horrible person, my classmates weren’t. The note wasn’t about my protagonist; it was about a character relationship. That note behind the note completely changed my script and made it better.
Another opportunity in graduate school that will teach you how to give notes and become a better writer, is teaching. It will also teach you how to run a group of writers. You are literally teaching another person how to write. It reinforces all the skills you’ve been learning and gives you confidence. If you can teach it, you can do it. My writing went to another level after I started teaching. So did my ability to give notes.
One thing to remember about graduate school, you instantly have a film community. After two years together, you’re in a group of people who get you better than anyone else because of a shared struggle. Trust me, graduate school is a struggle and it bonds people. Now this may all depend on the size of the program but you will leave the program with insanely strong connections – some on a more personal level but the bulk on a writing level.
Think about it: these people have been reading your work for two years. They’ve seen you grow and know your voice just as well as they know you. Writing bonds people in a way you can’t imagine because we put ourselves into our writing. Furthermore, it’s a lot easier to put someone up for a job when they know your voice and what you write. Networking is a big aspect of the film industry. You can’t escape that. In a graduate program, you’ve spent two plus years networking. You just may not have realized it.
I’m not being hyperbolic or nostalgic when I say I found myself in graduate school. Before my time at The University of Texas I was a shy bookworm who never said a word in class. At the end of my time at The University of Texas I was leading a writers group. Sure they were all undergrads who knew far less then I did, but that didn’t matter. The point is, before graduate school, you couldn’t get me in front of a class. After graduate school you couldn’t get me to shut up.
That confidence wasn’t created in a vacuum. I didn’t wake up one morning thinking I was an amazing writer and was suddenly comfortable in my skin. It took the encouragement of my classmates. They pushed me to try new things both in my work and my personal life. They didn’t sugarcoat their critiques of my work because they knew I could take it, and they trusted my ability as a writer before I did.
Towards the middle of my second year, a classmate pulled me aside. I had just pitched an WWII based Superhero movie. Something that was far and away out of my comfort zone and I was sure didn’t go over well in my class. My classmate proved me wrong. She sat me down and told me I can do so much more than the small family dramas she had been reading for the last year. She believed I could write big-budget action movies and suddenly I believed I could too. I never thought I could dream that big as a screenwriter. That’s what graduate school gave me, the confidence to dream bigger. My writing became more confident and that confidence bled over into my personal life.
All of the reasons to go to graduate school can be nullified really easy with one thing: money. Graduate school, college in general, is not cheap. It also makes it really easy to say no. The vast majority of us don’t have 60,000 dollars to spend on college. So what do you do? Well, if you’re like me and determined to go to graduate school, look for programs that offer funding. Search out scholarships and fellowships. There could also be teaching opportunities. Yeah, it’s extra work on top of the work you already have to do, but you get paid for this work. Most importantly when you get accepted, don’t be afraid to ask for money. No one is just going to hand you a check out of the goodness of their heart. Keep in mind they accepted you; they want you. Doesn’t hurt to make ’em work for it.
If graduate school is still unobtainable then look for other educational outlets. Go to film festivals with screenwriting panels. Austin Film Festival is catered to screenwriters. Look for labs like Sundance, Stowe, and ScreenCraft. There are smaller ones just waiting for you to enter them. In those settings you get the best of both worlds. You learn from the panels and can network in your down time. My film family has doubled in size just from film festivals.
There are services like The Black List that can give you feedback on scripts and most screenwriting competitions offer forms of coverage as well. You might not like what they have to say but feedback is feedback and you don’t have to take it. Enter contests that offer fellowship opportunities, like the Warner Bros, Nickelodeon, Disney, and CBS fellowships. HBO offers one every other year. The best thing about those is they are beginning to look for diversity.
Read books, articles, and scripts. Especially scripts. There are online classes and certificate programs. Just keep writing and putting your work out there. Look for opportunities to learn more and never shy away from education, no matter how you get it.
When it comes to graduate school, I’m biased as hell. For me, it was the two more important years of my life. I realized and accepted I am a Young Adult writer, and I don’t shy away from things outside my comfort zone. I know my process like the back of my hand. Most importantly however, I discovered who I was as a person and found my “people” (side note: if anyone has found the antidote to sentimentality please contact me on Twitter). My graduate program completely prepared me for Hollywood. I took advantage of every opportunity given to me and worked my butt off.
Hollywood is not an easy place to survive, but graduate school is a good way to prepare yourself. It isn’t for everyone, and if you’re itching to get your career started, then go for the big move to Los Angeles. But what’s the harm in applying? Who knows what you’ll discover.