But am I Really Getting Better? Gauging Your Screenwriting Progress
Here is something that came up in Screenwriters Support Group and with one of my coaching clients a couple of weeks ago: If you’re writing all the time, taking classes, working on your craft, getting notes, doing all those things they tell you to do to improve your craft… what are the markers that confirm that you are indeed making substantial progress with your craft? That you, as a writer, you are getting better and better?
Now, naturally, this blog post comes with a couple of big caveats. The first one is this: This is a business of opinions. Therefore, it’s going to likely take more than a single opinion to confirm that, from script to script, your writing is indeed getting stronger. Unless the one opinion you’re relying on is that of a buyer or a decision maker (in which case… write to her sensibility all day long), you will likely get a mix of opinions about your writing, from somewhat negative to very supportive. Or at least that’s what we’re aiming to get to.
The second caveat is slightly more complex: Just because you’ve written a great screenplay or pilot, it does not mean that your next one will automatically be great. The challenge of screenwriting is that, for most writers, the more you do it, the more challenging it gets. Therefore, craft is a continuous exploration for anyone who seeks to pursue this as more than a hobby.
Alright, all of that said… How do you know when your craft is indeed getting stronger? That your screenplays or TV pilots are landing as you had hoped?
Most writers will have a consistent guide they develop with, be they a reader, a consultant, a writing instructor, a writer friend whose taste and experience they trust, or a writers’ group within which they develop their content. So this will be the writer’s first barrier, the first “gold star” they need to get. In earlier career stages, it’s about getting that all-important sign off from a person in the know who served as a guiding light for the execution of the pilot or screenplay.
However, once the screenplay or TV pilot is through its incubation period, it’s important to amass a collection of opinions, to confirm that it indeed lands as you want it to, as well as expose you to contrary opinions, so that you may consider them and determine whether there’s anything that was missed in incubation, that you want to adjust before the material goes out in earnest. Earlier in your career, you may opt to pay for additional reads if you don’t have sufficient writer friends ready and willing to read your work and provide the sort of notes you need to help push it to the next level. I’ve written about the getting-the-script-ready of it all in a previous blogpost. The important thing?
Part of this stress testing is about solidifying your confidence in the work. Because you are going to get a lot of No’s out there, and those will likely shake your confidence, so it’s critical to have substantiated confidence in your work.
Initial markers that your craft is improving may be found in going to a particularly harsh reader, be they paid or otherwise, and getting initial marks that are stronger than those you received on previous screenplays and drafts. Specifically if you utilize a reader or reading service that employs a grid in their coverage, as well as the traditional Pass/Consider/Recommend guidelines, that is a quick and surefire way to tell that your marks are getting stronger. HOWEVER, and this is an essential point, the important thing is to get improving marks from one reader/reading service that you trust, rather than shop for the best marks you can get.
Screenwriting competitions are a great way to gauge whether your craft is getting stronger, and your material is starting to rise to the top of the heap. Earlier in your journey, you may opt for smaller competitions to see how your material fares. While it won’t mean much to the industry, it should be meaningful for you to know that your screenplay is able to make it to the top 20 of 500 screenplays submitted. As you gain more confidence in the work, and receive more feedback that suggests that you were successful in the execution of your screenplay or pilot, you may opt to become more ambitious, go for some of the bigger competitions, and see how the material lands there. Don’t expect to be named a finalist in The Nicholl or Austin Film Festival’s competition right out the gate; if you are able to make 2nd round or Quarterfinalists of the big competitions in your early submission, that is already an indication that your writing is moving in the right direction, and resonating with its readers.
Writing fellowships, writing labs, and the TV networks’ writing programs are all worth submitting to as well. Of course, everyone wants to be accepted into a program, but even seeing your work progress to 2nd round, or get you an interview is a great indication that your writing is rising to the top.
Note that you will likely not see your material progress in every competition, lab or fellowship you submit to because, once again… business of opinions. Different readers have different sensibilities. In other words? Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Submit to half a dozen, ten, even twelve competitions, and see if your screenplay or pilot is able to move up in through the judging. If it does nothing across the board, you might want to revisit the work, or evaluate whether or not it’s a screenplay or pilot primed to perform well in this setting.
Just for perspective, consider Crosby Selander: In 2020, his screenplay Bring Me Back was named finalist to Script Pipeline’s Screenplay Competition, and went on to sell in a splashy seven-figure deal. This was not the only competition Crosby submitted his epic Sci-Fi Romance to. But it did not place in any other competitions including The Nicholl Fellowship.
CLICK HERE to access my full list of 50+ Screenwriting and TV writing competitions, labs and fellowships.
Another way to appraise your screenplay’s performance is an evaluation from The Black List website. Much like the case with coverage and readers, here, too, the evaluation comes complete with an overall score. While everyone is eager to receive the coveted 8, the reality is that a score of 7 is not too shabby either, though it won’t likely generate the desired industry impact. Once again, I do recommend paying for more than one evaluation if you decide to go this route, as different readers will have different opinions. However, if you pay for a handful of evaluations and all come complete with very low scores (i.e 3s, 4s and 5s) without any significant variation I would consider taking another look at the material before sending it out further.
Often times, it’s hard to see progress. You’re writing and writing, getting notes, rewriting, never sure if the writing is indeed moving forward. Because of this, it’s important to remember… Getting an 8 on The Black List is a big deal. Even a 7 is worth celebrating, because it indicates the work is moving in the right direction. Making semi-finals in the ABC/Disney program, or the WB TV Writing Fellowship, or the CBS TV Mentoring Program, or The Script Lab, are all earned by your writing, which means that your writing is being noticed out there. The same can be said for competitions, and other such opportunities where your work is given a vote of confidence. While everyone wants to have their screenplay or pilot widely read, passed along from one person to the next without always pushing the boulder uphill, it is important to recognize (and celebrate!) when markers show your work is improving, and feel encouraged that, challenging though this journey might be, you are on the right track.