The Best and Worst Writing Career Advice I Ever Got

by Kathryn Graham

The best and worst advice I ever got was that if I wrote an amazing script, the world would sit up and take notice. All I have to do is perfect my craft et voila! Success! My genius script will get me in the door based on the quality of the writing alone.

It’s the best advice because it focused my attention where it needed to be: on my work.

It’s the worst advice because it’s not true.

It’s dangerous to believe that ‘if you build it, they will come’. It’s dangerous to believe that if your script is ‘undeniably good’ that you’ll be rewarded (and by the way, someone will deny it’s worth anything). Because inevitably, then, when you have not won thousands in script writing contest swag, have not landed an agent, and are not enjoying a rocket ship ride to fame and fortune, you begin to think that your work is not worthwhile.

This. Is. Not. True.

The value of your work does not change depending on whether or not other people appreciate it.

Do you love Game of Thrones? Most people I know do. I don’t. I haven’t been able to get into it. Does this mean that 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, or 90% of my friggin’ facebook feed, or shelves of Emmys are right? No. Does it mean I’m right because I’m not a ‘sheeple’ and I ‘know what good art is’?

Yes. Wait, I mean, no.

Others like it, and I don’t. That’s it.

Let’s try another one. Twilight. I never read it. If you’re rolling your eyes and groaning right now, I’m going to bet you didn’t either. You just know it’s fashionable to hate it. But it had a huge audience. You know what it is, don’t you? Does that mean it’s more valuable or viable or even ‘well-written’ story than a self-published book laboring in obscurity?

More than that, is your opinion so important that you can dictate what is and isn’t an important work?  You get the idea.

Applying this to your own work will prevent you from taking rejection as an indictment of your work or worse: of you as a person.

The truth is there are probably a lot of reasons why someone else’s work was chosen for a contest or a fellowship or to get produced and yours wasn’t. Maybe you do have some growing to do. Maybe not. There are too many factors that go into choosing these things.

For Hollywood in particular, your writing is secondary to who you know (more on that at another time).

Let’s say, though, in the fantasy we all want to live in, that you enter a script-writing contest that’s completely blind. That no one’s looking for a ‘basically established’ writer. No one’s counting how many times you’ve entered. No one’s got a connection to a person who’s judging.

It is still literally impossible for Hollywood to be a meritocracy because art, by its nature, is subjective.

I entered a contest recently and someone gave me feedback that sounded like they were making checkmarks on a “Save the Cat” worksheet. I’m not going to place in that contest (whether I agree or not) but they revealed something important: their criteria.

Now I know that what they’re looking for boils down to: “Well, there’s no cat in this script, so… Good start. Needs a cat, though. kthx!”

Does having a cat in my script make it exponentially better? Eh. Only I – and people whose opinions I respect – can decide that.

The kicker? People are more comfortable with what they know ‘works’. What’s ‘must have!’ in scripts today won’t be a few years from now. So not only can their criteria be arbitrary, they can also change over time.

Then suddenly your story that’s about space-traveling dogs is the next best thing — even without a single cat!

But when it comes to this contest, I either bite my tongue and put a damn cat in the script or I throw the cat through the ceiling and take my brilliance elsewhere.

Because not hitting the mark for a contest or a producer or an agent does not mean you don’t have the chops. Conversely, it’s not always true that if you made it in, you’re better than people who haven’t.

Remember that all of the major publishing houses passed on Harry Potter. Some are probably kicking themselves while others are shrugging and saying: It wasn’t the right fit for us. Harry Potter hasn’t changed. Only the response has.


Kathryn Graham is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor and munchman’s secret fav. Learn more about Kate HERE