Former Hollywood screenwriting agent Nancy Nigrosh, MFA, created an assessment to show would-be writers how to make it in the real world.
Instructor, UCLA Extension Writers’ Program
MFA in Film, TV, Digital Media/Dramatic Writing; MA in Education; BFA in Film and Television
For 23 years, Nancy Nigrosh, MFA, has worked as a top Hollywood agent representing world-class directors, writers, and authors.
Her clients have earned critical and commercial acclaim, festival honors, and prestigious awards—including the Academy Award. She has sold scripts at seven figures and supported enormous success for her studio writers. Her clients included Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean, Collateral). She has also sold memoirs by clients, including Olivia Newton-John, Deborah Harry, and Holly Robinson Peete, while also brokering film and television rights for authors, including Legally Blonde author Amanda Brown and best-selling author Jodi Picoult.
A few years ago, she added instructor to this extensive resume. In 2013, she joined the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program to teach novice writers of all ages about a writing career—with an emphasis on the word career.
Nigrosh explains that her focus is on the business of writing, not so much the writing itself.
“I don’t teach what to write,” she says. “I walk into class and tell my students, ‘I know you’re all great writers—now what do you do? How do you have a career?’”
Too often, she has found that those questions leave her very talented writers at a loss for words.
Great expectations … with no road map for success
Nigrosh says that many of her writing students have bought into some pervasive cultural myths. These include the notion that anyone can write, that a writing career is like winning the lottery, or that someone will simply discover your first effort. For the most part, these are pure fiction.
“Students don’t just walk into class uninformed,” says Nigrosh. “They often walk into class thinking they know more than they do. They enter with misinformation, which can be worse than entering with no information at all. It’s much harder to change the perceptions of someone who [already] thinks they know about a writing career.”
Nigrosh does not view this as the fault of the writers. Instead, it is the result of the system that helped them become great writers in the first place. “My experience is that education tends not to include the real world as much as it should,” she says. “I counter that by grounding my students in how the real world works.”
That need for real-world grounding is what led Nigrosh to find an answer that truly helps set them on the right track. And it starts with each writer taking a look at their own character.
Career discovery through self-assessment
Nigrosh takes a unique approach to her instruction. As she stated, it does not focus on the writing itself. But it also does not focus solely on the operational nuts and bolts that a typical course on the business of writing would cover: the specifics of contracts, details about option agreements, formulas for screenwriting, how payments are usually made (e.g., advances vs. royalties), and so on.
“I don’t teach that way,” says Nigrosh. “I teach about how to have a career. Everything I do is to help talented people get a reality check about the specific position they eventually want,” she says. “I want them to switch their focus from ‘What do I want to write?’ to include ‘How do I want to earn a living?’”
The centerpiece of this approach is the heart of her innovation: a self-assessment that takes place throughout the course, and that is designed to help writers embrace their creative identities through self-discovery. Her process helps them identify the genres that best match their passions, the outlets that are most likely to use their creations (e.g., screenplays, books), and the methods and channels through which they might be able to market themselves as artists.
“I believe in authenticity and passion. I want to infuse real-world understanding into those essential character traits. I want my students to know how their ideas and values fit into their plans and the world’s plans.”— Nancy Nigrosh, MFA
Course description: “How do I have a writing career?” is a critical question that is almost never asked. This course provides a deeper inquiry by asking, “How do I have a writing career aside from the writing I do? What are the stages an aspiring writer has to go through to become a professional writer?” The course further asks, “Who are the writers I’ve read and admired? How are their lives similar or different from mine? How can I compete for the attention of professional readers? What is my public profile as of today?”
See resources shared by Nancy Nigrosh, MFASee materials
Lesson: The three-step self-assessment for career preparedness
Nigrosh has divided her semester-long self-assessment into three core segments that she believes educators can easily adapt for other topics (more on that below). Her goals for the assessment are also threefold:
- Question your assumptions. She provides writers with mind-benders to get them to rethink what they “know.”
- Use powerful visualization as a step toward actualization. Nigrosh creates a fact-based, image-driven scenario to help students envision themselves in unfamiliar situations.
- Stay open to learning. “No matter what you end up doing for a career,” Nigrosh says, “you need to remember that there will always be more that you’ll need to know.” To provide them with a framework for learning from the masters, she guides them through a case study presentation on a notable writer whom they admire.
With those goals in mind, Nigrosh dives into the three core segments of her assessment.
Segment One: Taking an illusion-shattering survey
Each class is presented with a 10-question survey, created by Nigrosh to specifically bring up issues of writing career myths that she has seen over and over again in her career as a literary agent. The idea for the survey came to her after teaching a few classes in which she realized what an uphill battle she faced with regard to students’ strong misconceptions about the writing industry.
The survey’s number-one benefit: It is an eye-opener for students in that it typically reveals how little they actually know about the business of writing.
The second benefit? “I learn each individual student’s roadblocks early on, and that helps me shape my focus for that student and, ultimately, the [entire] class,” Nigrosh says. “I can then tailor the [course] to the particular needs of the students in the current class.”
Segment Two: Sharing of authentic personal experiences
“When you are an expert and you share your authentic story of how you became an expert, students can start to visualize themselves doing the same,” Nigrosh explains. So she tells the class the story of her career—warts and all. She focuses on her failures as well as her successes. The idea is to create a narrative that students can latch onto, find relatable, and picture in their minds.
That ability to visualize can help writers see where they currently are in their career journey, as well as the steps they should take to get where they want to be.
Segment Three: Diving into the details of success
To reveal some of the nuts and bolts of success in the writing biz, Nigrosh begins by instructing her students to consider two things:
- Look at different types of writing, such as journalism, theater, film, television, nonfiction, fiction, short stories, poetry, blogs; and types of genres, such as nonfiction (biography, historical, political), fiction (horror, crime, children’s), etc.
- Assess your writing skills to identify a particular genre.
Those questions are the basis for a case study presentation that students develop in groups of three or four. Each student is responsible for his or her own case study, but the others in the group serve as an “advisory board” that offers feedback as each individual’s presentation is in development.
To develop their case studies, Nigrosh suggests that students consider the following:
- What contemporary writers do I admire who are masters of the genre I identify with?
- Which of those writers do I most admire?
- If I study my chosen writer’s career trajectory, by doing research about that writer’s life and career, what are some interviews or keynotes that writer has given, in print or video?
- How is this notable writer’s life similar or different from mine? Does my current public profile reflect my personal values and potential as a masterful storyteller in my identified writing genre?
- [Students ask each other:] Who are the professional readers? How did my role model compete for their attention? How can I compete for their attention?
As students flesh out the case study presentation, they must also contemplate how their discoveries dovetail with their own career goals. This is a key component of the final presentation, where each student declares a professional identity (e.g., I am going to be a screenwriter like _____) and explains how they are going to make a living at it based on what they have learned from their case study. Nigrosh asks the students to focus on how they will apply what they learned to their work—an idea that they can revisit throughout their careers.
Because Nigrosh’s goal is for her students to find success as professional writers, the trajectory of former student Zimran Jacob is one she is pleased to share. “When [he] took my class,” she says, “he was working as an assistant in the accounting department of the Los Angeles offices of Gaumont, a company that produces and distributes French-language films and television. He had started writing but was unsure about the steps he would need to take to have a writing career.”
Now a television script writer, Jacob’s story has appeared in the UCLA extension newsletter, where he credits Nigrosh’s course with helping him move forward. He has since been awarded a writing fellowship through the Writers Assistant Network.
Based on the following comments to Nigrosh, students seem to love her reality-focused classes.
“I look forward to telling others [that] my success started in Nancy’s class when I took myself seriously for the first time. She broke down and stripped away the mystique of being a professional in a way that made it seem attainable.”
“I know that the idea of professional identity as she exposed us to will continue to resonate in my life, identity, and career.”
“The course invigorated my drive to be more disciplined and focused on my goals.”
“She made us identify and share our aspirations. I liked how we were made to get to know our classmates and the sense of collectively supporting each other’s aspirations.”
“The first class I ever had that focused on professional behavior and strategy that would help me find employment.”