Pearls of Wisdom from Working Writers: MY WRITING PROCESS

Over the many years of working with screenwriters, I’ve learned one simple truth: While writing in the scripted space adheres to a particular – and often rigid – structure and set of rules, the writing process itself looks different for every writer.

With that in mind, I turned to clients and friends in the professional space hoping to glean some insight into the processes that worked for writers who are now working professionals. I wanted to know: What is your writing process?

Here is what they told me:

Moises Zamora, head writer on Netflix’s SELENA bio-series offered: “I’m conceptual at heart. I start with the big idea and then develop further. However, sometimes I have been more intuitive and begin with a theme or a character and find its structure later.”

Melissa London Hilfers, who sold the specs scripts UNDONE and UNFIT and is currently on assignment for the JAGGED EDGE remake with Halle Barry told me: “Outline, outline, outline. The outlining is torturous, so the writing can be fun. If the writing isn’t fun, I didn’t outline properly. That’s not to say I won’t deviate from an outline — there are times when the script or characters sort of reveal themselves in the process, which I love. But for me writing without an outline would be like getting in the car and setting off for some distant place I’ve never been without the GPS.”

TV Bob Dearden, currently on iZombie (and who generally sat down with me for an interview a couple years back) said: “It’s a mess. Once I have an outline, I try to write a very loose version of the script, but it’s not even a “vomit draft” or whatever people call it. It’s less than that — more like a bunch of notes-to-self in script form, and maybe the odd specific line or beat that I feel strongly about. I do this because I want to get through the story once, quickly, to get a sense of the overall story before I start getting bogged down in the specific lines or transitions or whatever. Once I have this overlong, note-to-self draft, I do another, more thoughtful pass, then another, and another, until I have it whittled down to something resembling a script.” 

Feature writer Josh Renfree who recently completed a feature writing assignment told me: “I would say it’s still evolving but right now it seems to be best in a standard brainstorm, outline, research, more outline, pages. I find that I write best in 4-6 hour blocks and that I break this up by allowing myself 15minute bursts of going down the research rabbit hole.”

Greta Heinemann, who is finishing up her 4th year on NCIS NEW ORLEANS as mid-level Writer-Producer, and who previously won the Final Draft Big Break contest, as well as launched the Writer’s Wright productivity journal, had this to share: “(My process is) a painful, never-ending crawl under barb wire. Ha. On the top-level steps, it used to be a very neatly organized process of “idea finding” and conceptualizing followed by a very thorough break/outlining phase and a very fast outline-to-draft conversion. But, as a working writer my attention is no longer with just my personal projects, so I’ve had to grow and adapt by finding ways to shift my focus more efficiently and drop/pick up my personal projects with interruptions due to work. Lately — on a more macro level — I’ve found it helpful to keep the mood of my characters and worlds alive in my day to day life by i.e. listening to playlists on my commute to work. Then, when I write (often at 5am, before work in the writers room starts, or around 8pm when work if the writers room wrapped) I usually start by re-reading and rewriting what I’ve written previously and then forcing myself to add horrible pages onto the body of the script that I plan to revise and make better with every writing session that follows. This accomplishes three things: It reminds me of the flow, tone, style and headspace of my original piece vs. the show I work on. It makes my pages better with ever writing session and, by allowing myself to write horrible pages, I take the pressure off of myself and crank out about 10 pages in one day (naturally, they’re horrible… but rewriting is easier than writing. Especially when you’re on a show).”

To learn more about her process, check out Greta”s guest blog post 10 WAYS TO WRITE MORE.

Successful novelist and working TV writer (currently a Writing Producer on CBS’s TELL ME A STORY) Hollie Overton said: “I’m a very compulsive writer. I get anxious if I don’t have at least a few ideas percolating at all times. Even when I’m working on something, I’m always looking for that next project. I now split my writing between books and TV. When I begin writing a new TV show, whether it’s a pilot or a pitch, I’m always thinking about the characters first. Once I know who these people are and what they want, I break the story. My manager is involved in this development process. We have very similar sensibilities and I value her opinion. We go back and forth on the material until we both agree that it’s ready and then it gets sent out.”

Jimmy Mosqueda, who recently completed his first staffing season on SCHOOLED, had this to say: “I tend to be a morning writer. I’m usually freshest in the morning, when the sun is up and I can drink as much coffee as I want without worrying about it impacting my sleep later on. I enjoy going to coffee shops, but it has to be the right vibe. I’m picky. Sometimes it just makes more sense to stay home and write, especially if I’m doing research and need the space and reliable Internet access.”

Sarah Acosta, who did a season on SHOOTER and recently sold a show to Amazon offered: “I start with a few premises or ideas. I then get my reps input on marketability. From there, I do an expanded pitch document building out the tone, the world and my main characters. Each project has its own pulse — sometimes I use notecards to break the story and sometimes it just flows straight to outline.”

Savy Einstein, whose feature project, currently set up at Screen Gems, recently attached rising star Constance Wu for the lead, shared with me: “Get an idea. Get really excited about it. Fill a notebook with thoughts and characters. Hate the idea. Hate myself. Read the news. Hate the world. Revisit notebook. Fall in love with the idea again. Cover walls with colorful post-its. Write the outline. Write the script. Rewrite the script. Repeat.”

Funny lady Nora Nolan who got her TV writing start on TRIAL & ERROR and is currently on Netflix’s PARADISE P.D. said: “Now I work very closely with my manager at every stage. He gives me feedback on pitch, beat sheet, outline, and draft and I don’t move on to the next step until we’re both satisfied with the story. I don’t take every note he gives, but I consider all of them.”

Finally, Paul Puri, who is currenly staffed of CHICAGO MED said: “(My process is) Quite mixed. I need non-lyrical music or silence. I’ll work in spurts. I usually free write 10-20 pages of wandering thoughts on a project before it starts to take shape. Then characters, pitch, outline, script.”