Tips For Writers, Via Dan O'Shannon

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


You might have heard of Dan O'Shannon, author and screenwriter for many beloved television shows, most recently ABC's smash series Modern Family. A class at my university was lucky enough to have him speak during the entire duration of the hour. He answered questions and gave us insight on writing in the professional atmosphere. I found him incredibly entertaining and insightful, so I thought I'd share some of the things he said with you!

One of the questions that was asked was Do you have any advice for writers? His answer will probably stick with me for quite some time, as well as the rest of what he said. He told us that "writing is magic" and went on to explain that quite some time ago, when there were many people who could not read or write, the lay people were blown away by the idea that somebody could etch words onto a surface and that same etching could be taken to someone else hundreds of miles away who did not witness it being written and be seen just the same. Without having been told what happened, these people who were not there to see the writing process could feel what was felt by the writer in that exact moment. Through writing, you can essentially "freeze a moment". In that sense, writing is truly magical.

He also said something I completely resonate with, "you're writing yourself in all of these different characters." You have to treat writing like you're not an omnipresent being who knows everything about everyone. You are that single character and you must get inside of their head and utilize their knowledge, not your own as the "all knowing author". Another quote from his time speaking that I quite liked was, "I have to exist in order for this to work." If you as the author were not here at this exact moment, would these characters exist? Would they function the same way? How dynamic would they be? Without you, the characters would be nothing.

This may seem like common sense, but the amount of people who get into careers for the wrong reason is astonishing. Do not do it for the money. If you're lucky, the money will follow. Certain careers seem glamorous to people and they assume that if they choose it, they'll be cashing hefty checks left and right. If that's your reasoning for going into a career, not passion, then you are going to be unhappy through and through. You'll reach your point of economical success and will realize how unfulfilling it really is. If you don't love something but are suffering through it to make more money than a job you'd truly enjoy, that's just silly. I am a firm believer in doing what you love. If that means taking a pay cut, then so be it. Perhaps it is not the most sound or economically savvy way of life, but for me, happiness trumps all.

Another tip that might not have to do with writing so much, but just is a fun little tidbit, is to send fan letters to people who inspire you. It could be an author of a novel or a screenwriter for your favorite television show. He attributed a few of his friendships to him sending letters to various writers that he respected. This doesn't mean send a letter to Miley Cyrus saying you love her music and think she's a cool gal (I mean, do that if you really want to, I suppose). If someone's work has truly touched you in a way you cannot describe to anyone else, tell them. You never know what may happen.

Dan O'Shannon speaking for this class opened my eyes to a lot of things that I wouldn't have otherwise known about show business and what goes into writing, especially via the medium of television. If you get the chance to watch his interviews online, I highly recommend it. He is an extremely intelligent and funny guy, and I think you'd really enjoy what he has to say. Trust me, he has a lot to say. I wish he could have spoken for more than an hour in this class! I could have listened to him all day.

I will leave you with his four factors leading to your success with writing at a professional level:
  1. Talent
  2. Ambition
  3. Compatibility/Being able to work with other people
  4. Luck
*Check out Dan O'Shannon's book What Are You Laughing At? A Comprehensive Guide to the Comedic Event about what comedy is and why we respond to it the way we do. 

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