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Writing Tips from TV: Lessons from Project Runway

I love Project Runway. Drama + high fashion + catty fighting = Awesome. But probably the most fun part about this show is watching creative minds at work. But what lessons can a writer take away from this show?

#1) Be original and true to yourself.

Sounds corny, but every season, someone learns this lesson the hard way. What happens is, the designers are often given a challenge to make something for a particular brand or for a specific famous designer’s line. And there is at least one person who takes their instructions too literally and their designs end up looking like cheap knock-offs rather than inspired creations.

Don’t let this happen to you. Yes, you should read lots and lots of books to study your craft, but there is a fine line between learning from a good author and trying too hard to be just like them. Try to create your own voice and style, don’t try too hard to be your favorite author.

#2) Even if you sketched out a plan before hand, don’t be afraid to make big changes as you go along. In Tim Gunn’s words: Make it work.

On Project Runway, the designers are given time to sketch, then time to buy fabric, and then time to sew. Sometimes a designer will start off making what they thought would be a masterpiece based on their sketch, but in practice actually looks like a "hot mess" (catchphrase from a past contestant on the show). Loser always try too hard to stick with the design they have when they know it’s not good and end up making excuses to the judges about why their design sucks. Winners aren’t afraid to revise their plans completely–even if it wasn’t what they originally envisioned.

#3) When receiving feedback, know when to listen to and when not to.

This is hard to do. When Tim Gunn or Nina Garcia tells you that there’s a problem with your design you should listen. But what about feedback from fellow designers? Everyone has seen the catty remarks where one contestant will tell the cameras that so-and-so has no talent and has made a terrible dress–which of course ends up winning at the end of the day. On the flipside, we have also seen designers get told several times that they "aren’t taking their vision far enough" or that "those shorts shouldn’t be large enough to fit two people" and then end up being sent home by the judges because they didn’t listen to their fellow contestants’ advice.

But how do you know the difference between good advice and bad? This is tricky and I have trouble with this in my critique group. I’m sure I’ve given people bad advice and I’m sure people have given me bad advice, but ultimately, it’s up to the author to decide what changes to make based on feedback. My critique group buddy Peta offers some advice on this in her blog and I think what she says is really useful: if it’s one person’s advice don’t change it unless you agree with it. If it’s two people- -think harder about your choices as you keep going. If it’s three people–you know something’s wrong.

#4) When working as a team, be a team.

They often have group projects where designers have to work in groups of 2-3. They generally have their own designs to make, but have to make them work together as a whole. Losing designers don’t collaborate and end up with 2-3 pieces that don’t fit together at all. Winning designers do put their own spin on their own dress to make it their own, but they also make sure they end up with a cohesive line of clothes.

When working as a co-author, you need to do the same thing–cooperate with your partner. Incorporate both of your individual ideas into one cohesive final product. (Interested in more tips about writing with a co-author? Check out my "Tips for Writing With a Co-Author" blog series.)

#5) Stand behind your final work

When it’s time to face the judges, contestants on Project Runway who are confident about their work are often able to convince the judges of the merit in their often imperfect creations. The judges come away thinking something along the lines of: "This person had a great concept for their design. With a few revisions, here and there, this person’s work could be genius." Likewise, when it comes time to submitting your work to agents and editors, don’t sell yourself short by sounding too coy or self-deprecating in your query letter. You are the only one who knows the merit in your work and if you don’t stand behind it, no one else will.

Have you learned any tips from Project Runway? Note: Writer Dorothy Crane Imm actually wrote a really great article about this in a past SCBWI Bulletin (July/August ’09 issue for those who are members), but I thought I would give my own spin on the subject since I love this show so much. If you can’t read her article, check out her recently published story Ghost Walk in Gatlinburg at Story Station.

Leanne Marshall Runway photo from Maddsmadds / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tim Gunn photo from Photophonic / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Hershey dress (designers were asked to make a dress from materials sent by Hershey’s) photo from mkmabus / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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