The Biggest Lessons I Learned from My Screenwriters
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that one of my biggest assets as a coach is the amount of writers I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years, the commonalities I’ve been able to observe among them, and, most importantly, everything that my writers have taught me about the writerly experience.
From simple truths to inspiring lessons, my successful writers who range from staff writers to showrunners and A-list studio writers, have continued to illuminate my path and practice. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from them along the way:
Every hour writing is an hour gained.
In other words, no writing is ever a waste, even if it doesn’t result in something viable, a marketable script or even a better version of an existing draft. Every hour that you sit down and write, explore your voice and develop your storytelling, is an hour in which you hone your craft and deepen your ability as a storyteller.
Not every concept is a winner.
While some concepts feel solid right out of the gate, not every concept lives up to its initial promise. Even for the best, most seasoned writers out there, there are those concepts that, try them every which way, they just can’t crack. Sometimes a simple concept can surprise you by becoming an exciting screenplay or pilot, while other times a concept that initially seemed like a sure thing doesn’t quite work the way you thought it would when you get down to it. The key is to know which concepts to keep fighting for, and which concept should be perhaps revisited with fresh eyes at a later time.
Great writers write shitty drafts.
Even the most experienced and successful writers will find themselves writing drafts that do far less than hit it out of the ballpark. That is just part of the nature of writing, and no writer is above it. What can at first seem like fool-proof may turn into a dud; what the writer is certain they can make work on the page can fall short in a draft. Even with all the knowledge and experience amassed over years of writing in the professional arena, there is no guarantee that a screenplay will deliver right out of the gate or that a TV pilot will leap off page in that first, second or even fifth draft, and it is, in fact, expected that even with the best pre-work, development will still sometimes take many drafts, notes and challenging rewrites to deliver a successful draft. Remember that every new project is different from the last. Therefore, what worked for the writer in development before, may not always work again.
If your heart’s not in it…
It really doesn’t matter how smart a business decision is, or if you found a project that you know the industry will love, so writing it should be a no-brainer. If your heart is not in it, it’s not in it, and there is no getting around it. Most writers come at writing from a place of passion, so while you do want to always be thoughtful about your decisions both strategic and creative, never, ever ignore what your heart is telling you.
Writing can be a painful and uncomfortable process.
For most writers, the writing experience itself is not always a pleasant one, at least at the onset of a new project. Often times, more experience writing can mean more challenge in the writing process itself. In other words, the longer you do it, the harder it can get. Over the years, many writers have confided this in me as their deep dark secret, at the core of their prevalent imposter syndrome (more on that in a minute). I’ve heard everything from: “I don’t actually enjoy the writing” to “I do everything I can to avoid sitting down in front of the computer on some days.” The good news is that many, if not all, of these sentiments do subside as development marches on, with writers finding their groove as they get deeper and deeper into the writing process of any particular project.
Writing takes what it takes.
“I wrote this so much faster than I thought I would!” said no writer about any original project EVER. Even for the best planners out there, writing, specifically in the earlier stages of discovery and development of a project, will take what it takes, and, try as you might, you just can’t rush the process along. Being a planner myself, many of my writers will have deadlines and milestones on which they have set their sights. But for many, those can become more like guidelines. Because, well, you can’t rush the work. It takes what it takes to develop the building blocks. To break story. To get it on the page. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back, but for writers eager to fight for quality over speed, there is usually an acceptance that even the best intentions can’t always keep you on your pre-scheduled track.
Most writers struggle with imposter syndrome.
Struggling with self-doubt? Then yes, you are probably a writer. And many of my most established, most successful writers do continue to struggle with imposter syndrome on an ongoing basis. From writers just starting out and wondering whether the depth of their body of work, the still-developing quality of their material, or their lack of professional credits or big contest wins implies that they are not REALLY writers, to working scribes worried that this next room or this next writing assignment will be the one that will unmask them as the screenwriting fraud that they fear they really are, imposter syndrome is one that can strike anywhere, at anyone. I’ve worked with hundreds of writers over the years, and can say with absolute conviction that only a very small percentage (think: a handful) had conviction in their craft, their voice and their vision at every turn. In other words… To be a screenwriter or TV writer means having no shortage of self-doubt.
Comparing yourself to others is par for the course.
Sure, we all hear the advice: Don’t look sideways. Keep your eyes on the prize. We hear it not only in writing, but also with our counterparts in everyday life. It’s not just who-sold-which-pilot-to-HBOMax, but also who-bought-which-house, who’s-driving-which-car… which is to say… It’s only natural. Therefore, even the most disciplined screenwriters will find themselves unable to keep themselves from comparing their trajectory to someone else’s. It can start with something obvious, like comparing yourself to another writer in a writing class, or someone who’s had similar beginnings but then somehow rose from obscurity and shot to success. In later stages, it could be someone who was in a writer’s room with you whose name then showed up in headlines, for a show sold or a feature making a splash. It can also be an unavoidable comparison to someone who got the feature assignment for which you were passed up, and who then went on to become a studio’s favorite. The frustrations are real. The desire to compare unavoidable. But in the end… Those sorts of comparison never really do anything for anyone, so might as well try to refocus on the task or the hurdle at hand.
It’s the writers who continue to challenge themselves who break in.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from my very diligent, very focused, very hardworking writers, it’s this: Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. To step outside of your comfort zone. To try new things. To do those things that scare you, be they a type of writing, a size of project, or an environment you worry you won’t thrive in. Embrace the things that scare you. Don’t shy away from them. And of course, be sure to live a full, rich life. Build your writing career courageously, with a balance of big dreams and hard work. It’s those writers who challenge themselves on every front, both personal and professional, who are able to make their careers go their way.