10 Years in Coaching: 10 Screenwriting Career Lessons Learned
There are so many conversations that go into a decade of career coaching. So many writers I’ve sat down with. So many sessions. In the decade I’ve been coaching emerging and professional screenwriters, I’ve met with close to 2,000 individual writers. Coached upwards of 150 hours per month. Read more scripts than I can begin to count. So many cases studies. So much advice given. So many situations assessed. Trajectories defined, then adjusted. Strategies built. Plans followed, or, in some cases, changed. Brands built. Courses corrected. In other words? So many lessons learned.
Coaching has taught me a million lessons about myself but… don’t worry. I have no desire to bore you with any of that. But it also taught me so much about the writerly experience, which, inspired by my arrival at my 10-year business anniversary last year, I wanted to share with you here.
So what are those lessons learned? Here are a few that come to mind, in no specific order:
The secret to writing is writing
Talk about starting a list with a whimper, not a bang! But – simple as it is – it’s also true, and all too often overlooked. The secret to a writing career (rather than a movie made or a cinematic story put to paper) is the writing of things. The writing of many things. Not having once written, but writing. On at least a somewhat ongoing basis. Finding the writer’s voice. Developing it on the page. Coming up with the next thing, and the one after that. Continuing to affirm the message: I am a writer. I am here to stay. I am evolving and developing my craft. I’m only going to get better at my craft. I am ready to do the work that it will take to be a screenwriting professional.
Every writer has their own unique process
Having process down – knowing what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to their scripted development – is critical for anyone who wants to work in the industry in any sort of collaborative manner: In a writer’s room. Doing a writing assignment. Even getting notes on an original spec screenplay or pilot and turning in a revised draft. The writer has to be comfortable building screenplays, pilots and episodes of TV from the ground up, whether starting from scratch or first pulling something apart.
That said, every writers’ process is a bit different, and it’s important that, along with understanding their voice, a writer knows how to go about tackling a project, be it an episode of television or a page-one rewrite, once they’ve landed the job. Of course, if the job is in a writers’ room, the writer will have to adopt whatever process the room has going on. But when working on their own, it’s crucial that the writer knows their next steps once sleeves have been rolled up. Is it brainstorm pages or a particular set of pre-writing tools? Throwing storylines into grid form, or putting cards up on a wall? Outlining directly in Final Draft, or starting out in prose? There are endless options. But for a writer to be successful, they have to have a clear understanding of how they develop content long before they get that first big job.
As much as I love planning… You can’t rush a script
I am a planner. It’s the role that I play in my family (my husband and I joke that I am for planning while he’s for emergencies, which is… not wrong). It’s what I do every day as part of my job. What are our next steps? What’s the deadline? The milestone? And what comes after that? However, years of working with writers have taught me that you can only plan so much with a script. Or, if planning is your thing, then plan to adjust a fair bit along the way, because every new script brings with it new challenges.
You can absolutely plan up to the next big milestone, be it pre-work, outline or a draft. But then, you’re going to be dependent on where things went right for the draft, and where they might have gone off track. You are going to be dependent on notes, and those note-givers, be they consultants, teachers or friends, to stay on track. And there’s rarely much telling in the beginning of the writing process whether the script will require many or few drafts.
A writer recently asked me: “Is it enough to plan for two sets of notes (i.e. feedback) for every script?” My answer? depends on the script. And there’s very little telling at the outset of things. With that in mind, I am all for planning up to your next deliverable (even if just “delivering” to yourself, your writers group or competition deadline that aligns with WGA strike mandates in the time of a strike), then re-assessing, and planning your next deadline or milestone from there.
No one gets a gold star for fast
All too often, and especially when developing original content on spec, there seems to be way too much emphasis put on doing it FAST. Don’t get me wrong: If you can write an amazing pilot or feature spec in a short amount of time, no one is going to hold it against you. But no one is going to acknowledge your speed if they think your pilot or screenplay is not without its faults. In fact, they might hold the velocity in which you wrote it against you.
This is NOT true when developing something on assignment or in a writers’ room during non-strike times; there, producers will aim to hold you to the agreed-upon schedule (that may expand and extend in its own right as more notes go back and forth). But writing with clear parameters is very different than writing something on spec.
Writers can take HUGE leaps from script to script
There’s a reason execs and reps who don’t yet want to get in a business relationship with a scribe invite the writer to send in their NEXT script, rather than their previous one. That’s because growth happens in the writing, so the more the writer writes, gets notes and then rewrites towards the best version of their screenplay or pilot, the better they will become.
Both reps and execs make a point of “tracking” those writers in whom they see potential, but with whom they’re not ready to work just yet, so when they offer to read the writers’ next project, they are usually not just being nice. Over the years, I’ve seen so many writers get passes from a potential manager only to get signed on a consequent pilot or screenplay.
A career in TV writing is not for everyone
You hear a lot about it: There is so much work in TV (well, when writers are not on strike)! Whether or not that’s actually true – especially for emerging writers looking to break in – is certainly one conversation worth having, but the one I want to focus on here is this: A career in TV writing, even post strike when we will hopefully transition to more fair pay models, is not one that fits with every writer out there. TV writing, by nature, is much more process driven, and a much more iterative process. Not only does it bring with it high expectations and tight schedules, it also requires the management of – for lack of better words – office politics. The world of TV writing is one where, for the most part, the writer has to work her way up and rise through the ranks. Therefore, it’s not only her writing skills that will be critical, but also her ability to manage relationships, gain fans, create allies and continuously network. While TV provides a clear upwards path, it is also a world in which we hear all too often about writers who “get stuck” in the lower levels of a TV writing staff, unable to make the push to mid- or upper-levels. In other words? While many writers have built fantastic, dependable, consistent TV writing careers, it’s not easy. Which is why, at the time this blog post is being written, writers are actively striking.
Many writers come to TV writing excited by the idea that in TV writer is king. Or, in the very least, the showrunner is. But being crowned king is more often a long, demanding journey, one that some writers may not be prepared for. Until the pandemic, TV writing was, for the most part, an office job, requiring boots on the ground here in Los Angeles. For writers not comfortable adhering to writing in the showrunners voice, developing in accordance with the strict process dictated by the showrunner and the show’s network executives working their way up over a good number of years, TV writing may not be the right fit.
It’s important to understand the career you’re going for… Before you get there
Listen to writers working in the industry today, and they will tell you: it took them a long time to get there. Because building a screenwriting career takes what it takes (and writers do get there!) it’s important to know why you are doing what you’re doing in the name of your screenwriting career, not just the what of it all.
So ask yourself: What sort of career do you want to have? What do you want to be known for? What is your brand? Your natural genre space? Are you writing features, and therefore don’t need to consider moving to Los Angeles just yet? Or are you writing TV, and therefore considering not only a move, but also writing the sort of samples that are positioning you for the sort of writing jobs you would like to get?
I can’t tell you how many times writers have told me they really wanted to be comedy writers but have only written dramas, or shared that they would like to staff on anything prestige TV, despite the fact that network procedural-type pilots populated their body of work. It’s important to think through your options, so that everything you write, what you watch and read for writerly purposes, primes you for the writing career you want to have.
Persistence is a big factor when it comes to success
Somebody once asked me if all great writers end up breaking in. My answer, without even thinking about it, was: All too many talented writers end up quitting before they make it. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t have quit and found fulfillment elsewhere if they were able to do so, but for those who stick to it, who fight for it, persistence is a big part of it. Keep developing your craft. Keep building and nurturing both writerly and industry relationship. Keep creating opportunities. Learn. Grow. Write, rewrite, repeat. Register your work. Protect yourself. But once the strike is over keep pushing, and you give yourself a good fighting chance of getting there.
Every writers’ path to a screenwriting career is going to be a little bit different
While it’s important to learn from other writers, to identify what worked and didn’t work for others that came before you, it’s also incredibly important to keep in mind that every writer’s journey is different in some way. Whether it’s how they broke in, or the opportunities created by lived experience brought to the table, there days there seems to be a unique element to every breaking-in story. So don’t try to mimic exactly what worked for another writer in pursuit of this career. Instead, learn from them what you can and then bring it to your own journey as you aim to carve your own breaking-in path.
Community is key
The writing journey, traveling from emerging to professional, is rarely an easy one, and is often longer than anyone expects it to be. Therefore, it’s important to have other writers on that journey with you, to provide support, feedback and advice, to help process and recover from disappointments and celebrate the wins. In fact, the working writers who have come in to speak at my Screenwriters Support Group have cited their community as one of the most important factors for their longevity, consistency and, ultimately, success.