Screenwriting Output: How Much Should You Write in a Year?
As a career coach, the single question that I am asked most often by both new and somewhat seasoned writers is: How many screenplays or pilots should I be writing in a year? In other words: How quickly should I be generating new content? For most writers, both new and emerging, the feeling that they’re not writing fast enough, not generating nearly enough content, seems to be prevalent.
I’ve written about screenwriting velocity in the past. The fact that, at the end of the day, no one will give you a gold star for writing a less-then-great screenplay or pilot quickly. If it’s not great, your velocity just doesn’t matter. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the quality on the page rather than the speed with which you got it there. Don’t get me wrong: Once you become a professional screenwriter, your ability to deliver pages in a timely manner will be important to your success. But when you get started, nail down your process and develop your sensibility, it’s a lot less about speed, and a lot more about craft.
Which… I think is why I’ve always hesitated to write about this, quantifying the output for a writer who’s newer to screenwriting. Or even a more seasoned writer. Because sometimes the writing takes what it takes. However, all too often I see writers who are younger in their career focus on velocity rather than quality, which usually ends up detrimental to their development. Years ago, I worked with a writer who was 3 screenplays into his development. Each screenplay took about 15 months to develop, give or take. So yes, in time, I would have liked to see him accelerate his process, and assumed that the more he would write, the more efficient his writing process would become, as is usually the case. And he seemed ready to bide his time and put in the hard work. After all, there’s no such thing as successfully short-changing process. That is, until he met with a successful, working writer who told my writer that he – working writer – makes a point to generate a new screenplay every 3-4 months. Full stop. No questions asked. My writers shows up and tells me: I’m going to write my next feature in 3-months or less. To which my question was: How are you going to develop entirely new work in a 5th of the time that it took you to develop in the past??? The writer had no clear answer. Nor did he have the process to support this attempt. Long story short, that screenplay took 18 months, rather than 15, until it was anywhere near ready.
An important note here: Over the years, I’ve seen many emerging writers try to write in accordance with the discipline of professional scribes, despite not having had the same experience, clocked writing hours or, in other words, training. Nothing teaches you how to write faster then working in a writers’ room. And Open Writing Assignments usually come complete with their own time table. And a paycheck. Which allows the writer to focus on the writing, and nothing else.
Most emerging writers are not financially independent; rather then just shifting all their time and attention to writing once they’ve decided to learn the craft, there’s usually a full or part-time job in there. Perhaps a family. Maybe friends. In all likelihood, some other time commitments. So even without knowing their craft and/or their process, they are not working with the same allowance for writing time that a working writer has, which is important to remember. On top of which… if they are at the earlier stages of their writing journey, they bring with them significantly less experience born of trial-and-error, which once again would set them back as far as efficiency is concerned. All of which is to say: The earlier you are in your writing journey, the longer it will likely take to get to a really stellar pilot or screenplay, on a per-script basis.
Of course, there are ways to accelerate your process and learning, which would then benefit the length of time required for your development. In addition to always writing, reading and watching (the three ways in which every writer is sure to improve their craft), many writers take to craft-driven screenwriting books, while others sign up for writing classes. Some of my favorites (in purely alphabetical order) include those taught by Corey Mandell, Jen Grisanti, Pilar Alessandra and Script Anatomy.
But once you start to have your process down, and have a clear(er) understanding of how to get your screenplay or pilot from here to there, how long should it really take? On a panel with a manager friend some years ago, I heard him say that he expects his writers to write 2 x pilots and 2 x screenplays a year. In other words: A new project every quarter. Now, full disclosure, I work with a number of writers that he represents, and know for a fact that none of the people he and I have in common generate new work at quite that pace. But… I know, I know. You haven’t read this far to know what I don’t expect, or to hear me dispel information that is out there. So, all that aside, here is what you should aim for:
If you’re just writing your first, second or even third screenplay or pilot, try not to worry about how long it takes. You are still very much learning the craft, and, as mentioned earlier, that is going to take the time it takes, and should not be rushed. Sure, take all the classes and plan all your deadlines, but remember to stay flexible because you’re going on an unknown journey which will require learning and adjustment, and everyone goes at a different pace when developing their craft.
Once you have a strong handle on your craft and your process and have nailed down a consistent writing routine that allows for regularly scheduled writing sessions, the goal should always be to develop great work. Sure, no one will hold it against you if you develop it at a rapid pace. In a perfect world, I love to see writers develop at least two new pilots or one new screenplay per year. The only thing I tend to allow a limited amount of time for is a spec episode for an existing TV show, as those have VERY limited opportunities, and the more time you spend on your spec episodes, the less time you will have for your originals which are just bound to take your career further.
So there you have it:
In a perfect world, where your writing routine is humming and you’re able to write productively and consistently, 2 new pieces a year, especially if you’re writing for TV.
If you’re writing screenplays, you can get away with one great screenplay per year.
And if you write a pilot and a screenplay? Or 3 new projects in a year? And they’re all great? No one will hold that against you (although… don’t get used to it! most new writers can’t generate that volume of great quality content year after year). But if you find that it takes you longer to get there, please please please don’t be hard on yourself! At the end of the day, for most writers negative self-talk will not help them write any faster.
Even just putting this in writing, I can hear the question: If I’m taking too long with a particular screenplay or pilot, should I set it aside and go to a different project that can be written faster, instead?
Here again I will remind you: The goal is to write something great, not something fast. And the writing, as said more than once already in this blogpost, is going to take what it takes. If you’re in the thick of development and have not gotten your screenplay or pilot there yet, that’s okay! As long as you have clarity on how to better the work, stay the course and fight for that pilot or screenplay. The only times to set something aside is if it’s either (a) just does not work, no matter what you try and you don’t know how to solve it or (b) if you’ve gotten it as far as you can, and it’s time to leave it and move onto the next. One thing that I always tell my writers is that you always want to leave the work at its most leave-able place whenever you can, rather then abandon it half way. So finish that last draft, make those final changes before you put it down in favor of another pilot or screenplay.
Now, there is something to be said for trying to train yourself to write within the parameters of open writing assignments or episodes for TV, which do come with a clock and specific timeline expectations for outlines and drafts. Writing assignments move fast; TV episodes move even faster, and I am all for undertaking the exercise of writing at that pace once you’ve mastered your craft. However, it’s important to remember that both assignments and episodes of TV come complete with specific elements and framework already set – it’s a puzzle made of predetermined pieces – which makes for a different exercise then writing entirely on spec.
If you continue to write and develop your craft consistently, you will likely find that no two years are exactly the same. One year, you may develop two completed new screenplays or pilots and already have an outline for the next, while another year a single screenplay may dominate and challenge you in every way. And some screenplays or pilots that are very much worth the fight might take longer than that. Writing is unpredictable, and every project poses a new challenge. But as long as you prioritize quality over velocity, and fight to tell the stories that are meaningful to you in the most authentic, fully-baked way, each screenplay or pilot will prove to be not only instrumental to your growth as a writer, but also to the career that you are aiming to build for yourself.