A problem with crafting stories

Why would someone hire a team of writers to form a writers room when they don’t already have a show in production?

For an experiment in storytelling.

We devour stories and we consume more every year, thanks in part to the growth of online video through the likes of Netflix or Amazon Video, audiobooks with Audible, and the increase in book and comic sales.

Being “ story telling animals” it’s no big surprise. And technology is helping us get more stories.

I’m a great believer that technology is a tool that enables people to fulfil desires. And we desire stories.

The growth over the past decade of decent internet access and things such as cheap ereaders and cheap, high quality internet subscriptions, and free user generated content on YouTube, blogs, podcasts and story sites means that we can get an unimaginably large amount of stories cheaply and quickly.

This boom is not just related to fiction. There has been growth in factual stories — TED talks and even better PowerPoint presentations, along with ‘scripted reality’ shows such as Love Island.

New technology, same methods

Yet with all this technological change, there has been little innovation in how books and screenplays are produced since the development in the USA of writers rooms in the mid-20th century.

I’m generalising massively but stories are still either created by:

  1. A solo writer or a pair of writers (rarely more) who write an original idea or is commissioned to do so by others, such as a production company
  2. A writers room of a group of writers who’ll discuss ideas and then go off and write an script by themselves, almost always for a TV or radio show rather than a film

Even with the input of and editors and showrunners, the bulk of the writing and fleshing out is done by one or at most two people, often working in a waterfall method.

That is, writers go away and write a couple of drafts, get some feedback and it’s either adjusted or shelved. This feedback can be from an editor, agent, producer or a creative writing group.

For professionals and amateurs this process broadly the same — the writer acts in isolation from feedback for much of the time.

The problem with waterfall

This means that for both professional or amateur, feedback on writing is usually at the final stage. That’s fair enough, for it takes time and effort to help someone and go through their writing and they want to see something finished.

So feedback is often given towards the end, once the bulk of the story has been completed.

When a lot of feedback is given at once you have to pick and choose the most important feedback to give. It could be about the character, the structure, the writing, the plot, the ending or a key scene. And if there are a lot of things to fix you risk being overly negative doing it all at once.

Even getting quality criticism can be tricky, which is why there are many services offering script and novel feedback for writers. But there’s no guarantee they can fix all problems and for new writers selling a story, agents and producers want something ready to go, pret a vendre, not something that they have to work on.

This means that unknown writers with a story that has a core of a great idea but too many flaws, no matter how fixable, have little chance of a sale.

Better writing through better processes

One innovation brought in when the Government Digital Service was launched was that teams would use Agile project methodology for all projects.

Including writing content for webpages. It was a revelation.

Joining an Agile writing team helped in several ways. First the focus was on the audience, what each page needed to tell them. breaking each page down into its structure, reviewing with colleagues and subject matter experts, writing it, reviewing and writing cycle.

While a single writer could have got something live quicker than the team, the page that did go live had consistency, quality meant it would stand longer and serve more users.

So if it works for web content why not creative work?

Agile creative writing

My first step was to test as a concept. I created the Agile Storytellers Meetup in London to test the concepts while teaching writers about Agile.

My key learning from this was holding a retrospective at the end of each to iterate on what works (or doesn’t).

Combining my learnings from this along with user research and conversations with those in the industry I developed some principles:

  • Quality sells — contacts can get you in to an interview but without quality there’s no point
  • Make it a page turner — if you don’t make it interesting no one will want to read it
  • Work with others and their feedback, but have a clear vision of what you want — feedback is useful but must be in the context of your lodestar, your vision of what you’re aiming to achieve

So I set out advertising for writers to join me while we aim to put this into practice. And that’s how we’re working on a screenplay and a book as a writers room.

Next time — the problems with team writing and ways to fix them.

Originally published at

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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