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7 Tips For Becoming a Screenwriter

We learnt the hard way so you don't have to.


Whether you’re a super keen newbie or a wearied semi-pro everybody needs help navigating this industry. Sometimes it's actionable advice and other times motivation is the thing we need. When I was starting out the main ‘advice’ I ever got was “It's really hard”. Gee, thanks...helpful. The truth is, industry folk find it hard to give advice because there isn't one clear path when it comes to screenwriting. There isn't a neat career ladder to climb - think less Career Ladder and more Snakes and Ladders :s So people just say 'it's hard' because they're either too exhausted to hold your hand through it all or they're actually not sure how to help you.


I’ve assembled some advice that I wish I’d known when starting out. Whilst it's true that there's no hard and fast rules or tricks that will ensure your success as a screenwriter, in the same breath; there are definitely things you can be doing that will set you apart from the rest and they're listed below.


1) You Need to Study

Watch films and TV. Duh. But don't watch so much that you don't write. There's a balance. Part of learning how to tell good stories is to watch good stories. It takes time and it takes educating yourself in every way you can. It might not look the same as getting a degree but it doesn't mean you shouldn't put that same amount of time and effort into it. There is a huge assumption about writing = that you can just write what you're thinking and if you're talented then it will be good. It doesn't work like that. Of course talent is important but there's so much more involved. There’s a little writer’s fable that sums it up perfectly and it goes something like this:


A successful doctor approaching retirement is enjoying himself at a friend’s party. As he mingles, he notices a depressed looking man drinking by himself in the corner. Intrigued, he goes over and starts up a conversation. Upon learning that the depressed drunk is a writer he excitedly says ‘I’ve always wanted to write. I’m going to become a writer when I retire’. The depressed writer looks up at the man and replies ‘What a coincidence, I was thinking about becoming a doctor when I retire.’

It's the assumption for me!

This stuff takes time. Dedication. Skill. It takes so much work. Doctors, Vets, Lawyers and the like spend years in school and training — as a writer you need to as well. Do you think just because it’s entertainment it’s all frilly and subjective? It’s not. Whether it’s actually training at film school, taking workshops, online courses, or self-taught; you need to dedicate the time to your craft.


· Watch Films/TV.

· Read scripts.

· Write. Write. Write.

· Rinse and repeat.


There are so many free resources and low cost items out there to help you. Script Stable has a great Cheat Sheet and Script Planner to download for free. You can also read the scripts of almost any film online for free nowadays. It will really help you to understand structure and storytelling. You’ll get a sense of the format and the tools you can use. You’ll start to see what you like and what you don’t. You’ll become more familiar with the form. It’s like going to a foreign country to learn the language. You need to immerse yourself in it. Writing for the screen is its own language — you need to learn it and that takes time. Being able to ask where the toilet is in French, does not mean you speak French. Knowing how to write a line of dialogue underneath a character's name does not mean you know how to write a screenplay.


2) Take Action


If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard this bit of advice, I’d be diving into my riches like Scrooge McDuck BUT clichés are cliché for a reason. The number one advice from every successful writer to every other writer is to: WRITE. No, seriously, you need to be writing. Stop daydreaming and write! A mantra that really helped me go from professional daydreamer to screenwriter was:

Writers write. Thinkers think.

I still repeat this to myself when I’m feeling particularly distracted. Screenwriters are some of the most ‘daydreamy’ people I have ever met and before you feel too attacked; that’s a compliment. Screenwriters are creative, passionate people with stories to tell and worlds to create. The rub is that sometimes daydreaming about making a film and winning an oscar is way more fun than actually doing the work of writing your screenplay. But at the end of the day, you can’t call yourself a writer unless you actually write.


By all means, take time to think and create but if you’re not putting your fingers to the keys… then what are you doing? Say it with me:

Writers write. Thinkers think.


3) Forget Perfection

Perfectionism is the enemy of many a writer. It’s far too easy to get analysis paralysis for fear of your work not being good enough. You’ve got to find a way to dodge that bullet like Neo and Trinity. Get moving. Get to your laptop. (Get to your pad of paper if that’s your thing.) You just need to start. It doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish. Better still, accept that it will be rubbish. Throw perfectionism out the window. I like to do this by giving myself permission to be a terrible writer. Whether it’s a ‘Terrible Treatment’ or a ‘Dodgy Draft’, not having to get it right the first time takes the pressure off perfectionism within seconds.


Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction.


As writers, it’s in our nature to want to be brilliant. We don’t want to write subpar work and we certainly don’t want anyone to think of us as a subpar talent. But we can’t become brilliant unless we’re writing and writing and writing. You can't get good if you're so scared you're going to be bad that you don't write at all. Embrace being bad and you'll get so much more done.


Furthermore (and brace yourself because here comes another cliché) writing is re-writing. You’re so bored of hearing this, I know. I'm bored of saying it. But it’s how it is. Writing is re-writing = the truth. Just get your fingers to your keypad. Even if you type the WORST treatment and your sentences sound something like:

- The main character is called Sam and he is a funny man -

Don’t worry about it. That’s one more sentence than you had before. Yes, it’s terrible but at least it’s something. Get the bare bones of your idea on the page and then you can flesh it out later once you've got your blueprint. Writing one terrible paragraph is so much better than not writing anything. The more you do it the more you’ll feel your fear/anxiety/existential dread start to lift.


Writing is a skill and it’s not a skill you’re going to develop if you’re not doing it. The more you write, the more you’ll want to write and the better you’ll get. Remember that every Film/TV Series that’s ever had the glory of winning a BAFTA (other award ceremonies are available) started as a terrible draft. Don’t let it stop you. It’s empowering to know that every first draft you write, whether it’s a treatment, a script, or a TV bible is going to be terrible. That’s totally ok because it’s not going to stay terrible. Repeat after me:

Writing is RE-Writing

AND

Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction.


4) You don’t need an agent (yet)


Almost every writer/aspiring writer is obsessed with getting an agent but the truth is, while yes you do need an agent… you don’t need one when you're first starting out. What you need is to graft and polish. Once you have a killer script (or as good as it’s going to get for now) you should be entering it into competitions and not sending it to agents.

When you’re first starting out, there’s not a lot that agents can do for you. But winning or being shortlisted/longlisted/runner up in a competition or scheme can do A LOT for you. It is the kind of thing you can promote your writing with in order to get an agent down the line.


I know you'll want to ignore this advice. You might be thinking that you're the exception and actually your writing is so fantastic and your ideas are so original that an agent will sign you from your first screenplay but please trust me on this one. Instead of potentially ruining your first impression with an agent by sending in work that’s not ready, better to test the kudos of your work out on competitions (that you might win). Competitions are your friend. Especially trusted schemes that offer feedback or get you in an industry initiative. Think of it as submitting your screenplay to a reader but at the same time you’re in with a chance of winning a shiny new badge on your CV.


Some of Script Stable's favourite screenplay competitions can be found here Script Competitions to enter 2023. There are many other great screenplay competitions out there. Do your research, it’s a quick google search. Remember though that it’s quality over quantity. Better to have 1 win with an established and trusted competition than 10 wins with pokey little comps the industry hasn’t heard of. And yes, before you complain — there will be entry fees. It’s worth it. Think of all that money and debt you’re saving by not going to med school. It's one of the best ways you can be productive as a writer. You will learn lots. You will get better. And you might just win.


5) Have a Plan (and a Plan B)


I don’t mean an ‘If I don’t sell my script within one year I’ll quit’ kind of plan. If that’s your plan, do yourself a favour and quit while your ahead. Ain’t nobody selling their first script within their first year of writing.

I’m talking about making sure you don’t keep all your eggs in one basket when it comes to your scripts. Don’t be developing just one project for years on end thinking it’s your cash cow. You need to be savvy. Best rule of thumb is to have at least 3 projects on the go:

1. The script you’re pitching to producers (that’s a fully developed/written script accompanied with treatment).

2. The script you’re currently writing.

3. And the project in your back pocket — the idea you have typed up in a simple one-page doc (if you don’t have it typed up, don’t talk about it yet).

Does that sound like a lot? It’s not. That’s the bare minimum. You need a portfolio of work. Not only will it show your range as a writer but you will become better with every script. No agent is going to take you on as a client from reading one script. Even if it’s great, and chances are that if it’s your first script; it’s not going to be great. It might have potential, sure, but your work only gets good when you keep writing.


There are of course exceptions to this rule. But they are really rare. Don’t dine off the ‘exception examples’ you are the rule. Stick to the rules if you want to succeed. And remember that most exception stories have behind-the-scenes info that is missing from the star-spangled version you’ve heard. There's no such thing as an overnight success. There's no exception stories that you know the entire story of. Don’t live on a hope and a prayer. Even if it’s a very lightly pencilled plan — plot out the projects you’re going to be working on and the career steps you need to be taking when the time is right. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Have the script you’re pitching, the script you’re writing and the one in your back pocket.


6) Get Out There

We all hate the idea of Networking but just label it as something else and get on with it. Networking doesn't exclusively have to be about meeting people - although being a writer can be a very lonely existence, so meeting people is advisable.

Instead of 'Networking' let's call it 'Getting Out There'. It's a bit like dating (gulp, not much better) in the loose sense that you have to put yourself out there to have a chance in hell of meeting anyone. Don't put too much pressure on the situation, you don't have to meet 'The One'. The illusive person who's going to open up the industry to you doesn't exist, so relax. But you will very likely meet like minded people. Like minded people you can go to other events with. If these people become your friends and collaborators over the years then even better. Don't underestimate building a circle of friends who share your ambitions. Together you can help each other as you develop as a screenwriter.


Go to Film Nights, Festivals, Writing Classes - there's loads of social events that can help you not only develop your skills but also allow you to meet fantastic people with the same interests as you. I really recommend films nights and festivals as you'll also be watching people's work and likely meeting the filmmakers after.


Even if you go to these events and don't talk to anyone at all you'll still benefit from watching the films and getting a sense of what you like/don't like. It won't be a wasted trip. But it really is a good way to meet new people because everyone there is expecting to meet other filmmakers and chat about the films they watched, so the majority of people are very open to starting up conversations with the other guests.


But if that is a bit overwhelming for you right now then get online and find 'your people'. Sign up to Shooting People and other filmmaking networking sites like Mandy, FilmD etc. These networks can be amazing ways to meet people and find your crew. If you're looking to Produce Your Script these are the types of places to find your collaborators. Facebook groups for screenwriters and filmmakers are a good place to join too. Follow social media pages that tell you about opportunities or offer tips. There are lots of small but great steps you can take to 'Network'.


7) It’s a Job

If you want this to be your job, you need to treat it like your job. Some days you won’t feel like writing. Tough! Do you think a lorry driver always feels like getting up at the crack of dawn for their job? Nope. They still have to go to work and so do you. Get your bum on your seat and get writing.


The habits you create now can make your life easier (or harder if they’re bad habits). Considering that this job is hard in its very nature, do yourself a favour and get into good practices now. Write every day, even if it’s for 10 minutes. You’ll be surprised at where 10 minutes a day for the next few months will get you. You could write a sitcom pilot within that time. Don’t think you can? Try it. Chances are, you probably have more than 10 minutes a day to dedicate to your screenplay (clue: you just spent 10 minutes reading this post).


Ironically, I’ve found that the less time I have, the harder I work and the more I get done. On the flip side, when I have a full day to write, I procrastinate like you would not believe. No matter how much (or little) time you have, remember that this is a job and not a hobby. Even if right now it is actually a hobby, you need to act as if it's your job. Like anything in life, if it’s important to you, you’ll make the time for it.


I personally know people with full-time jobs and families who get up early/go to bed late in order to make time to write (and finish!) their screenplays. That’s not to make you feel bad about your current efforts if you're not doing that — everybody is on their own journey and you need to work out what works for you. You certainly don’t have to know everything about screenwriting before you start, or be a perfect writer. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s totally fine if you’re only taking baby steps right now, we all had to learn to walk. My point is don’t hide behind excuses. If you want it to be your job, then treat it like your job and one day it might be.

If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If it’s not, you’ll find excuses — Ryan Blair

In conclusion: screenwriting is really hard… but surely anything worth doing is. You're clearly passionate otherwise you wouldn't have made it to the end of this post. You’re in the right place. This IS your sign. Keep going. Keep writing.



Wanna 'procrastinate' a bit more instead of actually writing your screenplay? You might like these other blogs:

Any 'aha' moments for you today? Tell us what your favourite tip was in the comments. What's your next step on your screenwriting journey?



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