The 5 Mantras of a Screenwriting Career Coach

This week, as I was talking to various writers in various career stages, I got to thinking about some of those things – my mantras, if you will – that I find myself telling writers more often than I would probably like to admit. These mantras are not all my own; some are evolutions of others’ words, others’ ideas evolved over time and put to good use. But what’s common to all of them are that I’ve repeated them through my many years of one-on-one work with professional and emerging writers, addressing challenges that writers encounter at various career stages.

These mantras, in all likelihood, will not change your life, but I wanted to share them here in case you find some use for them now, or at a later stage when you are facing your own challenges:

The secret to writing is writing.

Over the years, a number of industry friends have touted screenwriting to be akin to a blue-collar job. While writing, obviously, doesn’t have the same physical demands as an agricultural or manufacturing job, it is a job that – in the very least – requires the repetition of the physical act of writing. One foot after the next, brick by brick… whatever the euphemism, the secret to building and moving your screenwriting career forward is writing, and the one thing that the writing requires is words on page. We can talk all day about craft and structure and the magic of story, but it’s the act of putting all of that on the page, consistently, purposefully and thoughtfully, that creates the progress we want to see.

No one gets a gold star for fast.

If there is one question I continue to hear all too often, it is: “How long SHOULD the writing take?” While I am all for setting timelines, deadlines and accountability, the reality is that, even in the face of the most thoughtful planning, writing takes what it takes, and even with the best outlines in place it is not a paint-by-number situation. The idea that writers should be able to execute their work in a specific window of time, specifically when developing their own original work, often comes at the cost of quality and in-depth content development. No one has ever said “Your pilot (or screenplay) is great! Too bad you took too long to write it.”

In other words? Don’t rush the writing. Of course, the more the writer works her process, the more efficient it will be, but when developing her own work on her own timeline, it should not be rushed. With that in mind, it’s about finding the balance between giving the material the space needed to develop into meaningful, thoughtfully realized work, and knowing when to let go because the work is there, and any additional work on it will really only produce diminishing returns.

Of course, this conversation doesn’t apply to writers working on assignment, with a set timeline and strict deadlines. In those scenarios, the writer has to do what they have to do in order to push through and meet those deadlines as best she can, developing the best work she can in the time allotted for her.

Structure is freedom.

The above mantra, in my experience, is true for both your writing routine, as well as the writing itself. How do I mean? Let’s break it down:

In your writing routine, much as with life, the structure provides the framework on which to hang the journey. It allows you to approach it with clear expectations, and make the most of the journey that you are going through. The more you are used to your writing routine, the more conditioned you will be able to perform in it. The clearer the structure, the more you will be to enjoy the actual doing, while also not stressing in those times when you are not writing, because you know the structure is there, the writing has its time and place, and you have been conditioned to meet it.   

And in uncertain times? Structure provides not only freedom, but also comfort.

When it comes to the writing itself, structure provides a roadmap for your storytelling journey, allowing you to enjoy the trip, make the most of it, uncover unexpected turns and go on fun detours, if you will, while always keeping your final destination in mind. Of course, final destinations, too, can change, but that is a different conversation, for a different time.

Momentum is hard to build and easy to lose.

An added bonus of structure? It helps build momentum. Momentum for your writing practice, as well as momentum for the story being constructed on the page. Momentum takes time to build. We’ve all heard that it takes 21 days to build a habit, and this is very much the case here as well.

However, as easy as it is to build, it is equally easy to lose and for the writer to suddenly find herself feeling creatively lost and potentially stalled in her career. Therefore, it’s important to try and always have clarity on all screenwriting-related tasks, be they creative, strategic, networking-in-nature or educational. Even when a lot of effort is required, it’s going to be easier to keep it going than get it started over again. 

Make the most of every opportunity that you create.

Opportunities to market yourself, to get your screenplay or short film out there, don’t happen every day. First, they come with the completion of the work itself, but after that… those opportunities can be harder to generate. Be it getting an 8 from The Black List, being named a semi-finalist in The Nicholl, having a new short film festival open for submissions for which your short film qualifies… Don’t miss those opportunities to get your work out there, seen and read.

Remember, fighting for your screenplay, short film or completed feature to get attention speaks to your belief in the work. I’ve written about it at length in the blogpost Don’t Drop the Ball! Seize Your Screenwriting Opportunities. The bottom line? Take pride in all you’ve been able to accomplish, and get the work out there.