A better way of writing? Part 1: current problems

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There is a problem with creative writing, and it’s an old one. It takes a lot of talent and energy to write a novel or screenplay, yet only a very few individuals have that combination of great story, great writing and a little luck to see it published or produced to widespread acclaim.

There are many reasons why so few people make a career as a writer. It takes time and commitment to a gripping idea and then the skill to write it in an engaging way. Even writing a great book or script is no guarantee a publisher, agent or studio will pick it up, due to market forces, personality clashes, bad luck or events.

Most writers write alone, they review alone, and beyond a small group of friends and family, and most fail alone. But what if they could have had help for others of equal talent to make their good story a great one?

Writing quality and quantity

Very few people like to criticise others (although a few people do make a living from this kind of writing). Other than, usually effervescent, friends and family, the unpublished writer will get their criticism from writing groups.

I’ve been to multiple writing groups and the standard has been pretty good but not great (my own work included). That’s not to say there aren’t many clever people, with very good work, but it’s not been with that quality that is needed to make it to sales.

Writing groups can help with feedback to improve quality, and a good writing group will offer more feedback than “I really liked this line” and zero in on problems with the dialogue, pace, story and writing. Unfortunately, while the group is generally good at spotting the problem it’s bad at offering the right solution.

Writers may not take on board much feedback, dismissing it as the comments of amateurs. To act on feedback you generally need to hear it from others you regard as your peers or superiors.

Writers’ rooms

I recently went on a training session where we split into teams to complete tasks. Our team ‘won’ in that we completed the most tasks, but the secret was we should have worked with the other teams to complete all tasks because in the exercise we shared a ‘boss’. In writing our boss is the reader and as writers many of us are working solitary to complete a pretty good story rather than coming together for a completely satisfying story.

There are exceptions. In the US writers’ rooms, groups of writers working on a screenplay, are common for TV shows such as The Simpsons, Narcos and other top programmes. A writers’ room can lead to consistency over a series, draws together ideas, improves standards and enables a script to make it to read through and production fairly quickly.

So why aren’t they more common beyond US TV shows, why not in film or for novels, and why are they rare in the UK? Doctors on Radio 4 and Doctor Who are pretty much the only British writers’ rooms (the BBC Writers Room is the corporation’s submission site).

One reason is that UK TV series are shorter, typically 6 episodes, so one or two people can write it. US shows can be a run of 20 episodes in a season. Yet there are other places in the UK where writing is produced by a team to tight deadlines.

Just not in creative writing.

Content teams and writers’ rooms

I’ve written and led content teams to produce content for GOV.UK. Unlike a writing team, the content team’s output isn’t creative but the process to get there is: taking bureaucratic, legalistic documents and translating them into a language an audience not just understands but needs to understand (such as they need to get a passport or pay a fine) requires a lot of creative thinking.

So what makes a ‘content team’ different to a “writers’ room”? The secret sauce here is that a content team is multidisciplinary and Agile.

Using Agile delivery – breaking down projects into tasks assigned to individuals and agreed by a team as a whole to be delivered in a set time – and writing to a clear style (both for English and approach to work) focuses content designers.

Why content designers rather than writers? One reason is that writers were seen as rather servile, black boxes where someone sent a document to have its spelling and worst sentences corrected. Content designers do that too but have more power to shape the content; its structure, language (particularly that it meets the style guide), and can even reject the proposal.

Good writers do this too, but content designers probably work in a system more akin to that for software delivery rather than creative writing – in my experience in the media and publishing writing was not delivered this Agile way.

But is this process suitable for creative writing and can it help this push to greatness, or is the problem too great to solve with just one tool?

The writing problem – and a solution?

The problem with writing then is that writers aren’t being pushed enough. Some are of the calibre to push themselves, but for the majority the discipline and effort needed for the final push from good into great is too much.

Next time: how Agile methods can be used to achieve this push.