Book Learnin vs. Dirty Hands

I would love to hear, from your point of view, whether a fine arts degree worth its pursuit. Our province has many opportunities for folks in the creative community to work in the industry — both amateur and professional — and I am beginning to hear from people who work in the field that hands-on experience far surpasses a degree in terms of getting work and learning the craft.

The debate rages on: experience versus education. I’ll admit up front that any bias is because I have a B.S. in Broadcasting. Still, I’d wager that in this industry the advantages are about 70/30 experience over education.

A lot of people go to school to get a head start on that experience. Most of my college evenings weren’t spent in the library, they were at the radio station, in the editing room, production meetings, the engineering shop. And on the barstool. At the time, I wouldn’t have had access to these resources otherwise (and I was as far from either coast as one could be). Being in a community of driven, competitive, like-minded students was invaluable as well – folks I could recruit for my vanity projects and vice-versa.

School forces you to work on a variety of skills that are probably outside your comfort zone that you’ll thank them for later. Most people just want to learn how to run the camera and some desktop software. No one aspires to be a boom operator, but it’s solid work. Script supervision is a critical, underappreciated skill.

College for me was right on the cusp of the internet’s coming-out party. Since then, I can honestly say that I probably learned as much in a couple of years lurking in the shadows of the masters on as I did in four years at university. But it can’t make you feel the unreal stress of deadlines, equipment failures, and personnel issues that are a daily reality. Only getting your hands dirty can do that.

Thus far, I’ve been referring to production jobs. Those are experience-driven. But that’s only one facet of the industry. School teaches you a lot of things most people wouldn’t seek out on their own, but are practical in the white-collar or no-collar sector. Law, theory, ethics, history, management, etc.

I realize the focus of your question was screenwriting. That’s a trickier one. I’m all for novelists or academic writers getting degrees, especially post-graduate ones. Screenwriting, however, to me is not a literary pursuit as most of us understand it. It’s about being able to tell a compelling story purely through visual and auditory clues, and doing so within a standard industry-accepted format that directors and actors and producers can interpret. It’s only a slight exaggeration that I would probably enlist a graphic designer or a video editor to write a script before I would someone who had a newspaper column. School can teach you how to pace your acts, how to develop characters, why past works were great, etc., but once you’re trying to sell that first spec script, you’re in a field of competition where no one cares if you’re degreed, only if your idea can make them millions. A huge part of successful screenwriting is marketing. Knowing how to sell your ideas. Also understanding actors, both feeding their egos with juicy parts and appreciating their process. Thinking like a director, making your camera cuts on the page.

There are many writing jobs that don’t involve writing features. I made a living writing video scripts and ad copy for awhile. Those were skills honed in school. But they came as a result of making contacts and networking and self-promotion.

Long story short (too late!), I wouldn’t go to school strictly for screenwriting. There isn’t much they can teach that you can’t learn through your own resourcefulness, if you naturally have what it takes otherwise. The competition in the script world is so beyond ridiculous, you’re better off using the money to buy yourself some time off, and spend it writing. A lot. That’s what writers do. And thickening your skin and exercising your tenacity. Sounds like you’re on the right path, getting exposure at every level you can.

What do you guys think?

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications as Word Riot, Black Heart, Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, and Warmed and Bound, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night.
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2 Responses to Book Learnin vs. Dirty Hands

  1. Colleen says:

    Wow. Thanks for this. One of the points you make in favour of formalized education is the fact that students often have to work outside of their comfort zones. I think this is critical for two reasons. One is the really basic issue of not knowing what you love if you’ve never tried it. The second is that all experience — including working with other who are of a different mind-set from your own — are invaluable for any writer. I hope others will weigh in on the topic. Thanks again for sharing your insight.

  2. bigbrainbrad says:

    so… should i go to film school or not?

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