How to diversify your writing

 13 July 2012

In a world where nothing seems certain, diversification is necessary for survival. And in the creative industries, ‘slashers’ are rife: actor/writer, producer/director, teacher/playwright.

'Diversification is necessary for survival'
'Diversification is necessary for survival'

Diversification can build writing skills that will feed into other disciplines. Writing a 90 minute theatre play is often a good indicator that you can sustain a story for a full-length feature film.

Of course, a TV writer might find themselves on a writing team for a successful show and stay there for years. But more commonly now, a writer will start in one area and move on to others, working across a variety of media in order to pay the rent, and most likely keep themselves sane through the pre-requisite commissioning and development processes.

There’s no fixed route necessarily from one thing to another. There are instances where a radio series transfers to TV (Little Britain, Dead Ringers) or your play gets taken from stage to screen (Closer, History Boys). Though often TV or film commissioners feel appeased if you have a track record in another area like theatre.

But I’d say, largely, it’s all up for grabs. If you have a great idea/script/screenplay, you should get it out there and see what happens. One thing’s for sure... nothing’s going to happen if you leave it sitting in the drawer.

So here’s a little – and by no means comprehensive – guide to writing for different media.

Writing for radio

BBC radio networks commission several hundred hours of new comedy and drama every year. Radio used to be the training ground for many a TV and film writer, but I know plenty of TV writers who consistently return to radio because it’s much more writer-friendly in terms of getting stuff commissioned. It’s also extremely fun.

"Writing a 90-minute theatre play is a good indicator that you can sustain a full-length feature film."

With radio drama the world is your oyster: you can take listeners across rooftops, back in time, to Paris or London through a simple change of soundscapes. You can create a whole world in 45 minutes (or longer if it’s for Radio 3, or slots like The Wire).

Radio comedy is run by a separate ‘Light Ents’ department, but adheres to a similar commissioning process. The team in this department often attend stand-up and sketch shows and go to the Edinburgh Festival every year to keep their fingers on the comedy pulse – so if you have a show on, invite them!

If you have a script, or an idea you would like to submit for radio drama or comedy, it’s best to get in touch with a producer (either in-house at the BBC or an independent) directly.

One way of choosing a producer is to pick the productions that you particularly like, or a producer whose body of work you admire or think is most similar to your own. The BBC websites or Radio Times will list the production team for each programme.

It is worth sending them a script if you have one, or an idea along with a sample piece of writing. If your idea is more fleshed out, you can send them a treatment.

Don’t forget that there are a whole host of independent production companies who pitch plays and series in the commissioning rounds (a comprehensive list of companies eligible is on the BBC Radio 4 website).

The drama and comedy departments hold regular departmental meetings to discuss new ideas they have on their slates,. Some ideas will not go past this stage, some may be commissioned to pilot script or treatment, others may make it through to the commissioning rounds of which there are two each year.

Then it’s up to the Gods (aka commissioning editors) as to whether it gets commissioned and makes it on to the airwaves.

Writing treatments

Before I get to TV, I think it’s important to talk about treatments.

Seasoned writers will know that treatments are a necessary (some might say ‘evil’) component to getting commissioned. For those who are yet to experience a treatment, they give an overview, or synopsis, of your series/film/drama, allowing a look at the world you wish to create and the characters that populate it.

Treatments can vary in length – from a couple of pages to a bible. And one thing’s for sure...they’re not going away. In fact, they’re becoming more and more popular.

I’ve written treatments for radio, TV, and film. I’ve even had to write them for theatre. Sometimes you get paid for doing them. Sometimes you don’t. Some writers hate having to sum up a whole story without having written the script first.

I personally quite like writing them, and find them a useful tool when I come to writing the script itself. Even if you have written the script, you’ll sometimes get asked to provide a treatment too.

Writing for TV

Much like radio, TV programmes are made both in-house by the major broadcasters, and by independent production companies who have to pitch to the broadcasters. 

If you have an excellent TV idea or script it is worth targeting both. Send a treatment of your idea together with a sample piece of writing.

  • BBC, Sky and ITV have development people within their own comedy and drama departments who you can write to directly.
  • The ‘Indies’ often also have heads of development. I constantly find myself watching great TV programmes I wish I’d written and making a mental note of the production companies behind them when the end credits roll.

Obviously, if you already have the script, send that too. It’s worth checking out the BBC Writersroom website, which not only has helpful hints and tips on scriptwriting and the submission process, it also advertises opportunities for writers and competitions across all media.

Some of these are region-specific:for instance, an Emmerdale Writers’ Initiative is currently searching for talented writers from the local area, or a new biennial award of £10,000 for Wales-based drama writers sponsored by BBC Cymru Wales and National Theatre Wales.

The BBC Writersroom is a great place in general to send scripts (TV, radio or film). They’ve changed their submissions process and now no longer give feedback to every script sent. But if they like your writing it can lead to being invited to a meeting, masterclass, or a BBC writers’ academy.

Writing for film

It’s really hard to get a film made in this country, but it’s not impossible. If you think you’re sitting on the next King’s Speech, then spit it out.

"One thing’s for sure... nothing’s going to happen if you leave it sitting in the drawer."

Now the UK Film Council is abolished, the British Film Institute has taken over their development pot for new British films. Check out the BFI’s website for application procedures for individuals.

Independent film companies are also worth contacting – from the mammoth Working Title, to the smaller companies (depending on what budget you think your film can be shot for).

Companies such as Warp and Shine run competitions and initiatives for new feature films. The Microwave scheme is also worth a look if you have a low-budget idea.

Each year the London Film Festival, in association with Creative Skillset, runs an initiative called Think-Shoot-Distribute (I took part in 2011) for 25 emerging film writers, directors or producers to participate in a week-long event of workshops, masterclasses and meetings with commissioners, development people and distributors. They also have a small number of bursaries for people living outside of London who wish to apply.

Don’t forget short film. A short can be a wonderful calling card for commissions, and a great way to learn your craft. There are a whole host of short film script competitions out there, from the Pears Short Film Fund, to the John Brabourne/Big 5 Award.

Writing competitions

Competitions... well, somebody’s got to win them. If you have the time to fill out the applications (sometimes they can be quite arduous), then what’s the harm?

Some writing competitions involve an entrance fee. So I would say, pick your battles, or else you could end up spending a fortune. Theatre companies like Paines Plough, Manchester Royal Exchange and Soho Theatre run competitions that could lead to prize money, productions, or an agent.

The Sitcom Mission is a TV comedy script contest, attended by industry professionals. The BBC Writersroom and a Facebook group called Playwriting UK provide very up-to-date info on competitions – both nationwide and region-based.

Writing for theatre

Go to the theatres’ individual websites to look at their script submission policies – they will vary. A lot of new writing theatres have literary departments with reading panels where your play will be read by at least one person, discussed at the readers’ meetings and feedback sent to the writer.

"TV or film commissioners feel appeased if you have a track record in another area like theatre."

Soho Theatre, the National Theatre and the Royal Court are among many theatres that have workshops and groups they may invite you to.

If you’re under-26, the Young Writers’ Programme at the Royal Court is a great place to launch a career in theatre (I started writing there, and feel I owe them everything!)

Many theatres around the country run youth initiatives or community outreach programmes for local writers.

There are many fringe theatres around the UK that deal primarily with new writing – Theatre 503, the King’s Head, Finborough, Arcola, Oran Mor in Glasgow (whose A Play, A Pie and a Pint season commissions 50 minute plays which run for a week, over a lunchtime...with a pint and a pie included!) to name but a few.

If you think your play is particularly commercial, then send it to West End producers. The odds on a theatre actually producing an unsolicited script are small, but it could start a dialogue with them... and who knows where that may lead.

Writing for video games

 I’ve never written for video games or online video gaming, but I have acted in them. I know that there are a whole team of writers making sure that Lara Croft has something cool to say when she blows up an enemy vehicle.

If this is your bag, then write directly to the companies that make the games. If you have an original idea, you’ll probably need to storyboard it, write character breakdowns and really illustrate the world you wish to create.

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