Before beginning my writing journey, I often had a romanticized version of what life as a writer would involve. My experience was limited. Most of my playwriting knowledge came from researching YouTube videos of already-successful playwrights offering “tips,” and cultural adages that, when applied in practice, miss the mark. It’s often tricky for successful playwrights to explain their process in a way that offers tangible educational value, though I’ve found their advice more specific and (sporadically) useful than the platitudes that have entered permeated the cultural psyche. As a new playwright, you may have come across many of these clichés yourself and integrated them into your own work. “Surely these phrases—which have become wildly commonplace—must have value!” you say in great distress. To which I would actually agree… to a point.
Your First Draft Doesn’t Have to be Perfect… It Just Has to Exist!
There isn’t a play to exist that qualifies as “perfect.” But it also can’t be… bad.
Let me explain.
Let’s suppose we had a scene consisting of these four lines of dialogue:
Swordfish, swordfish. Swordfish swordfish swordfish.
Swordfish swordfish swordfish swordfish.
Now let’s suppose this block of dialogue was copied and pasted repeatedly until you had a rock-solid 80 pages of script. Is it a play? Technically. Is it a first draft? Well, yeah. Does it have the potential to be… anything? Unless your target audience is a niche demographic of swordfish-fetishists… probably not.
So you say: “Okay Graham, I can’t just write anything in my first draft, but arguably there will be bits and pieces in there that I can use in later drafts?” I would strongly advise against writing an entire play just to find the “bits and pieces you can use.” I suggest a mixture of being the gardener and the architect when writing. At the very least, you should know your protagonist’s needs, what stands in the way of those needs, and perhaps some vague ideas of events in your beginning, middle, and end. This is the best way to write your first draft.
Then you say, “But Graham, isn’t every writer’s process different? Couldn’t some writers use their first draft as a glorified brainstorming session?” Sure! I suppose I could also make an omelet by raising a chick for its eggs. It just seems inefficient when I’m hungry right now, and there’s a Whole Foods down the block. These writers are wasting a huge chunk of time by not planning ahead. Changes to your first draft will happen—it might not turn out as you’d hoped. But you will save so much time with a small amount of brainstorming.
One last note on this. I’m not critiquing free-writing as a tool in your brainstorming. This method of non-judgmental, stream-of-consciousness writing can help in discovering a multitude of ideas for your play. But make sure this phase of discovery is limited to the confines of an exercise. You’ll find that most of your work is utterly useless when stream-of-consciousness writing is drawn out longer than 10-15 pages at a time.
You Should Be Writing Every Day!
“Don’t write every day!” you scoff. You sip your Earl Grey in a red velvet reading chair. “One can hardly consider themselves a playwright unless they sit down to work for at least thirty minutes a day. How can one call oneself a writer when they don’t write? Heavens!”
Like all the clichés in this article, this one comes from a well-intentioned place. Many beginner playwrights suffer from a specific type of anxiety. The prospect of sitting down at a desk and beginning the work of writing is overwhelming. “What if my play doesn’t come out like I pictured in your head? What if I run out of ideas? It all seems like it will become just a huge waste of time.” This issue is exceedingly common, but for most people, the solution isn’t “writing every day.”
I’m a big fan of the concept of “minimum viable effort.” Want to start working out? Try running for a half-hour, three times a week. Still too much? How about two days a week? How about one? “Of course I can run one day a week—anyone can run one day a week!” you reply. Great! Then do that.
“What’s the point?” you might reply. “Running for such a small amount of time each week seems like a huge waste of time if I’m unable to get the gains I want.” This line of thinking is useless. Less than useless—it’s counter-productive. What’s the difference between someone who runs once a week and someone who doesn’t run at all? It’s the difference between someone who gets the benefits of 52 runs in a year as opposed to zero. It’s no secret that small changes add up to something big over time. It’s the consistent doing of a task that leads to motivation over time. Not the other way around. Meaning the person who makes the effort of running at least one time a week will more than likely be running more than that, simply because they’re motivated to, despite not feeling the pressure to run more than their minimum viable effort.
“That proves my point!” the devil’s advocate says. “If you encourage someone to write for a little bit every day, won’t they gain the motivation to write more than that in the long run?” Not exactly. My point is that writing for a little bit might be your minimum viable effort, but it’s not everybody’s. Writing is hard, and for a lot of people, even thirty minutes a day can be overwhelming, just like how not everybody can run for thirty minutes a day, three times a week. Something that people don’t talk about enough: writing is hard. I’d suggest you set your own minimum viable effort to start. Something that makes you go, “Obviously I can do that! That’s so easy!”
This also prevents the common mistake people make when they go a day or two without writing. People will fall into a thought pattern that goes something like, “I didn’t write for X amount of days! I’m probably the worst writer to ever exist, so I should cut my losses now before I waste any more time.” The trick isn’t to write for a week straight and then not write for three months. The trick is to write for one, two, three days a week consistently in a way that allows you to let go of guilt if you miss a few days here or there. Remember—the motivation to write more than your minimum viable effort will come naturally. And if you aren’t able to write more? No biggie.
It’s also important to note what constitutes “writing” in the first place. In line with my criticisms of “stream-of-consciousness first drafts,” there will be many cases where writing without planning a bit ahead will result in a bunch of unusable drivel. Sometimes playwriting consists of lying face-down on your bed and thinking about your play. This is a vital part of the process and should not be overlooked. The trick is to intuit when too much of the play is in your head and the rest needs to be put down on paper.
Write What You Know!
I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t write what you know. In fact, skip this last section entirely if you feel compelled to write a play from personal experiences. Because that’s the whole point that I think this cliché misses—you should be writing about what you need to write about. Spencer Tunick’s book, The Playwright’s Guidebook (one of my favorite books on playwriting), calls this the “ur play.” The play or plays deep inside your psyche, desperately looking to be revealed.
Like most clichés in this list, “Write what you know” is a lie that has become commonplace due to the grain of truth within it. I’m not arguing against writing material that connects with you, work that’s embedded with your style and voice. This is essential. But the danger of this cliché is in how beginners (like me) may get this confused. Instead of following where their curiosity leads—always an excellent impulse for an artist—they’ll say, “I don’t feel qualified to write on that subject. After all, I should just ‘write what I know.’” Therein lies my issue with “write what you know:” when followed too closely, it can inhibit a playwright from pursuing their “ur play.”
Let’s say you’ve been dreaming of writing a play set in London in the early 1800s. You’ve mapped it out in your head—you can picture the perfect set, conjure the wittiest lines of dialogue infused with the musicality of a dry upper-class British accent, become giddy at the thought of the exquisitely detailed period-specific costumes. This is your ur play. But you know that there are gaps in the dramaturgy and the prospect of researching such a specific time and place is, understandably, daunting. So you sigh, resign yourself to the idea that perhaps this play should be written by someone else with more knowledge on the subject. A history professor, perhaps. Or your cousin, with particularly esoteric knowledge of Mack the Knife. But not you—society has told you to “write what you know.” Ignore the impulse. Know your place. And yet… no one else will write this play, will they? After all, it’s your ur play. What a shame that it must be lost to the world.
I’m boundlessly happy for you if the thought of researching your play before writing thrills you. But for someone like me—someone who finds research dry and intimidating—I suggest you begin your process without it. Write your drafts from your imagination—childishly, impulsively—and research when you’re in rewrites or when you feel utterly compelled to do so. Be sure not to let research sap the joy of writing a play from you. After all, research exists to bring texture and authenticity to your play; they are not a replacement for character and action. Treat it like an attendant that bestows upon you the permission to explore lives and experiences outside your own, and whom you have no obligation to keep around if you find them dragging you down with a sea of worthless trivia.
You might think I’m too harsh on these old-timey adages. Hell, maybe they’ve helped you along in your writing. But I’m not trying to take away any wisdom someone may receive from these clichés. I’m doing the opposite—digging through the surface-layer of what they appear to say so that I might provide some practical writing insight. After all, cultural messages are powerful tools and must make sure that these ideas have value, else they should become reinterpreted or made obsolete. All that to say—dig deeper and follow the impulse.