How to Write A Wildly Successful Web Series

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Issa Rae, the creator behind The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

In the last four years, I’ve written and produced three web series. My most popular and successful show, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, currently averages 150,000 views per episode, with almost 20,000 fans on Facebook and nearly 8,000 Twitter followers since its launch in February. The series has been featured in countless blogs, publications and news outlets, including The Associated Press, The Huffington Post, CNN, NPR, Essence, Jet, etc.

Is there a specific formula for gaining a massive following? Man, you tell ME!

I don’t claim to be an expert by any means. But, through years of trial and error, and intensive internet research, I’ve found that in order to write a successful web series, it helps to adhere to these five steps:

1. Write What You Know

Yes, it’s a bit cliché, but you can’t go wrong by writing what you know. Even if you’re a horrible writer, your own knowledge and experience is unrivaled. Nobody knows what you know like you know what you know. The way you see things is pretty unique.

My first web series, Dorm Diaries, was a realistic mockumentary about what it was like to be Black at Stanford University. I’m Black and I went to Stanford. Boom. Easy. I took advantage of the fact that I was in school, had tons of material from my network of friends alone, and wrote archetypes based on what I observed and experienced on campus. Because I had been engulfed in that environment for several years, the ideas came naturally to me and made for some great/juicy storylines that several of my classmates could relate to, which brings me to my next point:

2. Write Unique Characters With Relatable Characteristics

The web presents an opportunity to showcase any character your sick mind desires. Want to create a cross-dressing, deaf/mute, corrupt politician who has a soft spot for saving children? Go for it! (Except don’t because I thought of it. And I like it now). But it’s extremely important that he possess traits that are inherently universal. Part of the allure of watching characters on-screen is to be able to put yourself in his or her shoes; or to be able to relate to what he or she is going through or what he or she is thinking.

3. Keep It Short And To The Point

Short-form content is crucial. If you’re new to the web series scene and you don’t have any attached “names” in your piece, then the shorter your episodes the better. A viewer is less likely to take a chance on randomly clicking a 9 minute video than a 1-2 minute one. I learned this the hard way. My first web series had 10 minute episodes, my second had 7 minute episodes, and my most recent had 3-5 minute episodes until we hooked the audience. Even then, I was hesitant to extend the episodes past 6 minutes. Presenting yourself with a page limit (i.e. 4-5 pages) challenges you to be creative and get to the point of your story more quickly.

4. Write Within A Reasonable Budget

Are you going to produce your own web series? If so, then I’m certain you’re going to have to think about being cost efficient while writing. If not, then act like you are–and write to save money! It is ridiculously important to write feasible and affordable scenes. Writing in a helicopter explosion or a million-man crowd scene in the middle of the White House lawn is inexcusable; unless you have a budget or an amazing special effects team.

Otherwise, the most successful webs series are set in the most simple, accessible places. Because I tend to produce my own web series from my own pockets, I use the resources that are free and available to me: my apartment, my dad’s office space, my friend’s backyard, etc. As your series grows, then you may consider writing for more elaborate locations.

5. Recognize Social Media As Your Best Friend

While this isn’t necessarily a writing tip, it’s still extremely important to incorporate social media into your web series–from engaging your viewers through the comments section on YouTube, to publicizing your series on Twitter, to posting the series to your network of friends on Facebook–social media is the way for your hard work to be seen and publicly appreciated (or unabashedly criticized). Either way, the instant feedback from viewers is invaluable and may ultimately help to guide your writing of future episodes.

These are the five tips I’ve learned to abide by over the course of my experience with writing and producing web series. Again, I’m not saying that following these steps will ensure the success of your web series, but they will most certainly help!

Issa Rae is a producer/director/writer striving to make her mark on the entertainment industry.  Issa Rae has worked on various music videos and shorts. “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” often referred to as ABG, is Issa Rae’s third web series. It has been featured on several sites and publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, Vibe, Clutch Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Root, Shadow & Act, AOL, and an upcoming issue of Essence magazine. Rae recently signed with UTA and 3 Arts Entertainment with plans to turn ABG from a web series into a half-hour comedy for cable.

Have you ever thought of writing a web series? Are there any lingering questions you have about the process? I’ll try my best to answer your questions in the comments below!

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33 comments on “How to Write A Wildly Successful Web Series

  1. Ollin says:

    Hey Issa,

    So I am a big fan of your web series (and not I’m saying that because we’re former co-workers/fellow students at Stanford.) I probably would love it even if I didn’t know you.

    What I think is part of your secret, and you didn’t mention it here, but it’s your timing. Even with the joke you wrote about the deaf politician in this post–you timed that perfectly. I think if you want to create a successful comedy web series–or if you want to write great comedy in general–you need to have great timing.

    Any suggestions on how comedy writers can work on timing?

    Thanks so much for dropping by, it’s such a pleasure having you. :)

    • Issa Rae says:

      Thanks for having me, Ollin! And thanks for the compliment. I would say the best way to learn to have “great timing” is to observe and study the work of some of your favorite comedians. I’ve watched countless hours of Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, Community because, not only are they my favorite shows, but I learn a lot from them, stylistically. So I guess an extra tip would be to research other successful web series and to watch a LOT of TV!

      • Marissa says:

        i knew i was watching a ton of t.v. for a reason :). love your show and now i see it’s because we have similar taste in quality t.v. (arrested development rocks).

  2. Hi Issa,

    I’m currently in the process of doing a web series and can only hope that it is a wildly successful as yours. I have to say I was hooked from the first episode and have told every living being within earshot about you and ABG LOL!!! So lets just say Im a BIG fan of yours and commend you on how you have managed to make your own way and kinda pave the way for others.

    In the process of picking your cast, how important was it to you that they just melded together and bonded? I think that plays a vital role in your success too! The cast that I have managed to gather have bonded and have awesome off screen chemistry…so well and I think that it will show onscreen..making it more of a joy to watch…hopefully.

    • Issa Rae says:

      Well thank you so much, Shawna! Picking a cast that WANTED to be a part of the project was extremely important to me. It’s one thing to have a great actor, but one that feels like he/she’s there just to do you a favor is just not appealing to me. It’s always important to me that the dynamic on set is light-hearted and easy-going, but that we’re all ready to turn in a great performance as well. Thanks for watching and BEST of luck with your own web series!

  3. Tee says:

    I think more important than your timing is that your audience was STARVING for something that isn’t slapstick or demeaning as we’ve seen from many predominantly Black shows in the past. Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl speaks to so many of us Awkward Black Girls on a level that we’ve never seen from shows in the past.

    This show is everything we could have ever asked for. Which is why we support it and will continue to support it, as long as you ask.

    You are an incredibly talented writer, actress, producer, all of this is true. But Black women have been STARVED for something as funny and original as ABG.

    So, thank you so much Ms. Issa Rae for letting all of us ABG’s out there know that we’re not alone.

  4. Marcia says:

    What a great post! I can see your characters and am going to go look for your web series, Issa Rae! It’s not something I’d feel capable of doing, but I applaud your courage and your success! I could even apply some of your tips to a written blog series. Congratualtions on creating something that strikes a chord with so many young women!

  5. Tee says:

    Oh yeah… and when are you going to let me be an extra?

  6. Akim says:

    Do you plan on putting ”Akward Blak Girl” on television?

  7. PatriciaW says:

    Love the series and the tips. I’m not a filmmaker, but they apply just as well to fiction writing. I think what makes the series work is first, that it’s different. Not another version of the overly worn sitcom tread we’ve seen time and time again. Also, that the characters look like every day folks and the situations are every day scenarios. Universal in theme and content to which you bring a unique and fresh voice. Congratulations on your success!

  8. Salome says:

    Sweetheart, it’s Salome! I’m just here to spread the love – Awkward Black Girl to Awkward Black Girl.
    <3

  9. Hello Issa Rae,

    I will say this now, excuse me for ANY typos that might occur in this message because I don’t plan on going back to correct them. I have a great deal of respect for your work. I was referred to your web series yesterday. I have watched every episode twice already. Very good work. I love witty humor. I am a writer as well from Chicago. I am currently working on a few projects which includes a web series. I would love to collaborate creatively. Umm. What else.

    If ever you are looking for a writer please contact me. I just followed you on twitter. I am rather ignorant to twitter’s navigation efficiency, but I did just read your 5 steps and it mentioned utilizing social networking as a tool. I hope this gets to you in time. I smiled most of this message, I just don’t put “LOL’s” on my jokes. I just assumed you would get it. Awkward.

    Peace and Blessings,
    @Bravo_Bang

    P.S.) How tall are you?

  10. Simone says:

    I watched each and every one of the ABG episodes yesterday while laying in bed with my husband. I had my headphones on while he was watching tv and he was looking at me like I had gone crazy bcuz I was laughing so hard. I cannot remember laughing that hard at a series, especially one that was based on a black person, in a long time.
    I recently graduated with a degree in Media Production and I quickly discovered that Houston’s pickings are low. I have started researching ways to get around all that and make a mark in this industry. There’s so much out there. I’m really glad I found you. U and ur team are awesome and I wish you many blessings now and in the future. You have inspired me.

  11. [...] How to Write A Wildly Successful Web Series In the last four years, I’ve written and produced three web series. My most popular and successful show, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, currently averages 150,000 views per episode, with almost 20,000 fans on Facebook and nearly 8,000 Twitter followers since its launch in February. Source: ollinmorales.wordpress.com [...]

  12. Ashley says:

    Wow,

    So let me congratulate you for your big success! You completely deserve it. ABG is hilarious. it’s definitely a series that is a Laugh out Loud moments.

    I’m actually a 17 years old girl that is one of your biggest fans and wants to accomplish just as much as you did. I have been thinking about coming up with a Web series since forever! It’s hard coming up with an idea someone could relate to, or having people give some time to actually watch the work someone put into. I do have some ideas but its more on the half hour sitcom. What should i do? Since i am currently in high school its harder to have time but also its harder to find cast that may not think this is stupid or find time for. I had friends that did what to do something but the lack of accessible places or diverse people- we didnt have any males- made me stop all together. i dont know what to do. I want to become a director/ screenwriter some day and watching your videos did encourage me all over again but i am still at the same current dilemma. Please do you have any advice for a 17 year old???

    Thanks so much,

    Ashley

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Ashley,

      Not sure what Issa thinks, but I encourage you to keep going and never give up. Try your best and show up, that’s all you can do, and you know what? That will make you a success, good luck to you!

  13. Higherliving says:

    Hey, just want to say I’m glad you’re doing your thing and I find your web series extremely funny. But I also have to ask that as an African American wanting to make a difference in the content that is put out, Why use the N-word?

    To me it just seems to help solidify the stereotypes that we have to fight against. I would think you as a positive person would recognize that and strive not to have that in your dialogue.

    We are a diverse people and we all don’t utter that word and it would be nice to see adult African Americans on a show that don’t use it.

    I guess, I just would like to see someone from the younger generation show respect for the people of the civil rights era that sacrificed their lives for us not to be called or to use any form of the N-word.

    The English language is so full of other words, why continue to hang onto a word that caused such misery in the past and continues to be a rallying call for racists today?

    I hope you answer my question, I mean no disrespect to you. It just hearts my heart every time someone of color doesn’t realize that the N-word will never lose it’s horrible stigma. The past can’t be re-written by substituting an “a” for the “er”

    Continued success and blessings

    • Higherliving says:

      Sorry for my typo. Meant to say: “It just hurts my heart every time someone of color doesn’t realize that the N-word will never lose it’s horrible stigma. The past can’t be re-written by substituting an “a” for the “er”

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Higher Living. Fascinating question.

  14. OMG! I found your post while looking up “how to write for Huffingpost” on google, which led me to your ABG Youtube series. I never laughed so hard as on all of them, but especially Ep. 7, which also touched me at the end. Very inspiring and best of success! I hope this series continues.

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