Jesse Garrard researched and developed a method of prewriting (preparatory writing work) to help analytically-minded screenwriters defeat their writer’s block.
I set out to solve a problem that I had been personally dealing with throughout my studies as a Communication major. I have really struggled with writing. As a Comm major, writing is an indispensable skill, regardless of emphasis. My emphasis is Video Production, which means not only do I have to be a good technical writer (essays, professional emails, reports, etc.), but also I need to be a great creative writer. Not all Video Production students put such a high value on writing, but writing films and videos is a passion of mine, as well as a skill I want and need to be able to bring to the workforce.
My struggle was not with grammar, conventions, spelling, or formatting. I excel at those things. But who cares? Robots excel at those things. To bring value to the workforce, you have to bring more to the table than that. For example, the ability to tell an effective story.
I had good ideas, like everyone does from time to time, but I also had extreme difficulty getting my ideas from my head to the page. It didn’t feel like writer’s block per se–I knew what it was I wanted to say–it felt more like I was paralyzed. It took me a while to figure out the source of that “paralysis.”
I eventually discovered that, besides the obvious fear and perfectionism, what was holding me back was a lack of organization and preparation.
None of my classes nor any of my peers had had much to say about prewriting, a term I had learned in grade school, but understood very little about. Obviously it involves “writing before writing,” but specifically how do you do it, in a way that actually yields better results?
That’s what I set out to learn.
To be specific, my goal was to make the creative process easier for the analytically-minded screenwriter, such as myself.
My hypothesis was that a structured and principled approach to prewriting would help separate the technical tasks from the creative tasks in the mind of this person, resulting in less writer’s block, less perfectionism paralysis, and more words on the page.
Thus, my project this semester had three main phases: researching storytelling and creativity in general, creation of the ideal prewriting method, and testing via some sort of peer-review.
I pored over many different materials while researching the subject. This is probably the stage that took the most time, because I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for until I found it. It was like putting together a 1000-piece puzzle without the picture on the box. You have to let the pieces tell you what you’re creating. I simply learned as much as I possibly could, took copious notes, and pulled out the information that I thought had the most utility.
Eventually everything I had been studying reached a saturation point, coalescing into a singular, purpose-driven idea for a prewriting method. It was the closest thing to a “eureka moment” I’ve ever had, though the method was far from finished.
There were two main sources that really helped me solve the puzzle: a book called Story by Robert McKee, and a BYU-Idaho class on “Design Thinking” that I took on accident. Both of these sources really helped me understand the importance of creating “from the inside out,” and how to go about doing that. The rest of the sources filled more supplemental roles.
Some of my research materials
What I came up with was essentially a compilation of all of the best bits of information (screenwriting exercises, storytelling principles, and real-world applications), but set into a structure, or order-of-operations, if you will, that follows the theory of Design Thinking.
In fact, I would say it’s precisely the order of things that makes this special. If you click on the PDF linked below (a text-only breakdown of the method, that I handed out to my testers), you will see that the majority of the exercises and applications are terms you’ve no doubt heard before (outline, pitch, treatment, etc.), but the way in which you utilize these tools makes a big difference in terms of stimulating your ability to get words on a page.
The focus group
I had been testing the method, which I dubbed “Inside-Out Prewriting,” on my own while devising it, and when I finally reached a point where I was comfortable sharing it with others, I was actually quite pleased with it. I had created a tool that helps me solve my problem.
But I knew that my one perspective wouldn’t be enough to ascertain my method’s actual usefulness. I wanted to create something that would help lots of people, not just myself.
First, I organized a focus group. I taught the participants the basics of the prewriting method, and then had them participate in selected exercises from the method. The focus group session was only an hour long, so each of the exercises were brief, simplified versions of the full thing, but everyone was able to grasp all the concepts being discussed. I asked for their initial impressions, thoughts, feelings, concerns, critiques, and words of praise, and took note of everyone’s feedback.
After that, I had some of the focus group participants and a couple others participate in a long-term, at-home study, where they were to create a full outline and treatment for a short film over the course of two weeks, using Inside-Out Prewriting. Then I interviewed them individually, and took more notes on what worked well for them, and what didn’t work well for them.
If there were a fourth phase to this project, it would probably be “fabrication” or “distribution” or something like that. Some way of making this method a tangible good or service that I can offer to others. I had planned on designing and printing booklets (with dry-erase pages, no less) that explained the method, but after receiving feedback from the focus group and testers, I found that I need to take the project in a more digital direction. A mobile app, or web app, for instance.
There are other changes I need to make as well, based on the feedback I received from the testers, before I can move forward with making this into an actual product. Specifically, some important tweaks to the structure of the method itself. One of my main concerns was finding the balance between offering concrete, real-world exercises, and not being too prescriptive. I was right on the money in a lot of spots, but there were some problem areas that need to be reworked.
I never would have guessed that my Senior Project would end up being so much of a research project. As a Video Production emphasis, the tendency is to want to make a short film. And the Visual module in me wanted to design some booklets or something. But I found that, while research isn’t something I’ve focused on as much throughout my studies at BYU-Idaho, this project really tugged and pulled at all the skills I have been developing these past few years—technical writing, critical thinking, creativity, knowledge of design, business, and of course, communication.
Moving forward, I’m not going to drop this project just because Senior Project is over. After implementing the feedback from the testers, I will probably make “Inside-Out Prewriting” into a video series for the internet. After that I will look into getting an app made, as well as a tangible version such as a booklet.