BEYOND WORDS – Advice From Writers Guild Award-Nominated Writers

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by Kelly Jo Brick

Writers Guild Award-nominated screenwriters attended the annual Beyond Words panel discussion presented by The Writers Guild of America, West and The Writers Guild Foundation to speak about the process of writing their nominated screenplays, their inspirations and challenges in telling their stories.

These Writers Guild Award-nominated writers also shared with TVWriter.com some of the best advice they received as they were building and growing their entertainment careers.

  • ANDREA BERLOFF (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON)  –  Don’t write what you know, because young writers tend to write what they know and they don’t know anything when they’re 22. Go outside your experience and make something up. Find a good story and tell that, don’t tell your story.
  • JONATHAN HERMAN (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON)  –  Don’t wait for inspiration to write. Just sit down and do it every day. Don’t waste any day, because you’re probably gonna get a lot of rejections and probably not get any attention until like your fourth or fifth script anyway so you just gotta keep plugging away at it and get your ass into the chair.
  • PHYLLIS NAGY (CAROL)  –  I think the best advice I ever received, which is the advice I give out now, is learn to say no. Learn not to be afraid of never getting a job. Figure out what you’re good at and do it. Don’t get greedy.
  • MATT CHARMAN (BRIDGE OF SPIES)  –  A big part of the advice I got was to take my time. To not be in a rush. To kind of learn my craft. Watch a lot of plays. Read a lot of plays. Watch movies. Read movies. And to not be in a hurry, because I think there’s so much pressure on younger writers to be this kind of overnight success and it takes time to learn the craft.   Another one was really simple which was carry a notebook around with you. Generally just write stuff down and don’t be afraid to just write the worst idea down because I think the difference between writers and people who want to be writers is writers, they write stuff down. They generate ideas. They have little notebooks they go back to. They don’t lose anything, they treasure it.
  • CHARLES RANDOLPH (THE BIG SHORT)  –  I didn’t get a lot of advice because I started in isolation. I had another profession. I lived in Europe and I didn’t really know anyone in the business. The best advice I could give is not to be precious about your work in terms of distributing it, letting people see it, giving people access to it. You don’t hire someone for an idea, you hire someone for the ability to generate new ideas. That’s the thing I would say. Don’t be precious. Distribute it wide and if you’re talented, you will work.
  • TOM McCARTHY (SPOTLIGHT)  –  Just keep writing no matter what happens. Good or bad, highs or lows. Just keep writing. That’s really the only solution.
  • JOSH SINGER (SPOTLIGHT)  –  I broke in working for television because I didn’t know a thing about screenwriting and it was a great place to start and to learn. I worked for some great people there, John Wells, former President of the Guild. He was a terrific mentor. John Sacret Young, a lot of other folks. And for me, actually moving out to LA was pretty crucial because I spent a lot of time in the Writers Guild Library, which is a tremendous resource. Let me say that again, a tremendous resource. One of the great things about the library is it has all the scripts, not only for your favorite movies, but also your favorite television shows. And in fact I had to write two spec scripts. The West Wing I had already know pretty well, but I learned Six Feet Under by reading the first season of Six Feet Under in the Writers Guild Library and then I wrote a Six Feet Under spec. So it’s just a great place to read and learn. So that was a pretty good experience and whoever told me to go there, thank you.
  • ADAM McKAY (THE BIG SHORT)  –  Don’t wait for opportunities. Write, write, write. Even if you’re alone in your parents’ basement. Write, write, write. But then once you write, write, write, get your friends together, get your grandparents to read your scripts out loud. You need to hear them out loud.  So I always tell everyone, it’s not about who know, it’s about how much you write and then once you do write, you need to hear your stuff in action. So even if it’s like a read through in your living room, whatever it is, you have to hear your stuff out loud and just keep attacking your material and try to get back as far as you can, like a film fan or a TV fan, and really see how it plays. Always pretend you’re someone spending 12 bucks to go see a movie. Always pretend that you’re flipping through the channels and just keep going after it.
  • JOHN McNAMARA (TRUMBO) –  Just don’t give up. Keep writing. You’re going to get a lot of nos and it only takes one yes.

Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.