The Right Treatment

There’s a specific kind of student writer that always gives me a chuckle when they show up in my classes. Regardless of whether they are an English major or a Journalism major, somewhere in their high school years they were told, “You are such an exceptional writer! You are gifted! You are talented!” And they believe what they are told.

Believing this leads them to become infatuated with their own writing, which usually causes three problems. First, they have a hard time accepting criticism, which is critical to anyone’s future as a writer. Second, they get clever with their prose (“save me from clever and cute,” I always say), and the story often gets lost in the verbiage. Finally, they forget my basic premise: the serious writer never stops being a student.

I had a crash course in this as I have been reading the text for my Drama Writing class that I teach this fall. I have written scripts before, but it has been quite a few years, so I felt like I have lot to brush up on. Reading our textbook Story by Robert McKee has taught me a lot, not only about scriptwriting, but about writing in general.

And yes, I know I have been blogging about this all week, but bear with me. I have one more lesson to share.

Those who are familiar with scriptwriting, specifically screenwriting, are familiar with the concept of treatments. The idea is to write out the story summary in abbreviated form, usually several pages, to submit for approval from a studio or someone who might be interested in the script. What’s interesting is the McKee tells us that back in the 1920s the treatments were usually longer than the final script. What would have resulted in a 120 page script usually started with a 200 to 300 page treatment. The point that he makes here is that if 90 percent of a writer’s work is less than his best, that means that he or she needs to go through many more ideas than he ends up with before he or she comes up with the final product.

Carry this over to novel writing. Consistently I read of authors who struggle through a rough draft, then turn around and cut an average of 20 percent from the rough draft before they present it as finished. There needs to be more of this, both from my students and from their teacher. As I learned a few years ago, playing in the big leagues means bringing your A game, every time.

Well, that’s enough harping about what we are doing wrong with our writing. Often I get asked for advice for beginning writers. And my standard answer is, Just keep writing! I have been told that it takes a million words before you can consider yourself a serious writer. After hitting that plateau, I am here to tell you that I am still learning.

But until you write, you won’t learn anything.