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.