Traits of Successful Screenwriters
Full confession: I am an Excel junkie. I love data. I love slicing and dicing. I love finding commonalities and consensus. I can spend hours sorting data this way and that, exploring the various conclusions it gives me, seeking out new information within it I might not have seen. But sometimes, working within this industry, there are no clear answers. The variants are too great to draw any specific conclusions from. So I have to find new ways to look at the data, and see what new knowledge I can gather from it.
That’s how I came to think about the common traits of successful screenwriters. After all, in today’s industry where the spec market is challenged and the television space is ultra competitive, there is no one sure path to success (then again, was there ever? No matter. I digress). Regardless of how hard the collective “they” continue to tell us breaking into the industry is, the reality is that new writers break in all the time. Case in point? As I am writing this, one of my writers got into the WB Television Writers Workshop (yay!!!!) while another is actively shopping his pilot with a production entity all around town. What does that mean? It means that despite all the deterrents, and despite the fact that there is no one clear path to success, screenwriting success is, indeed, happening. And if we can’t look to the common paths that got these writers close to their Hollywood dreams, what we can look at is the common traits these varying writers have exhibited on their paths to becoming a screenwriting professional.
Before I take it further and really dig in, a disclaimer: Of course, there will be outliers. While I don’t know them myself, I am sure I am sure there are a few writers out there who’ve broken in in recent years who maybe weren’t very consistent, or hard working, or were entirely socially inept. I am certain of it. But I am also just as certain that the common qualities displayed in the vast majority of successful writers have been a great asset to the writers who possessed them in this quest for breaking in.
It goes without saying that every writer breaking in should be creative, have their own voice, unique vision, and skill set on the page. But beyond that, what are the qualities that successful writers possess?
- Persistence – One door closes? They go to another. One relationship doesn’t bear the fruit they had hoped for? On to the next. A general meeting went south? That means sending a thank you card shaking it off, and moving on from there. You think I am kidding? One of my writers, a two time television writing fellow, looked at coming out of fellowships without getting staffed. What did she do? Sat down to write her next TV spec, with the aim of submitting it to the next wave of fellowships for which she had not yet been accepted. Even after she received her last-minute staff-writer position on a network show before the first TV writing fellowship deadline came to pass, she buckled down to finish her BATES MOTEL spec. Because, you know, just in case.
- Killer Work Ethic – Come hell or high water, these writers are at it all the time. Writing. Networking. Reading. Watching. Meeting other writers. Going to panels. Taking classes. Something is always getting done. Sometimes – dare I say it – even a little too much. Every writer has his own routine. Getting up early to get writing done before the day even starts, or writing late into the night. Carving out chunks of hours to write or finding the perfect coffee shop where they can put their heads down and focus for hours at a time. The point? They do it, day in and day out. If they are not in script, they are in outline. If they’re not in outline they are breaking new ideas or generating pitch docs or other supporting materials. Writing is a job for them, long before they’ve collected their first paycheck.
- Determination – Sure, these writers have doubts, but nothing is going to deter them. Whether in the film or television space, they are on course for a career in this industry, and are determined to stay the course no matter what comes their way. I’ve seen these writers go through disappointments, heartaches, health issues, relationship problems and all the rest. But despite all of this, never once have they taken their eyes off the ball, and continue to plow forward towards their screenwriting career every day.
- Resilience – Of course rejection hurts. Getting a “pass” on a script you love, getting dropped by your agent or losing out on a job (be it a TV staff position or feature writing assignment) stings everyone just the same. Whether it’s fixing a broken script (or even rewriting it from scratch), reaching out to friends or managers in search of a new agent or doing an immense amount of research to figure out what to write next, they are always moving forward, keeping up the momentum with hardly a missed step. Sure, they have their tough moments. Having had the privilege of being there for many such moments and witnessing them first hand, I can promise you that. But then they get right back on their feet, right back in the game before too much time can pass.
- Humility – These writers will never, under any circumstance, see themselves as misunderstood geniuses. A person they respect read their script and didn’t like it? They’re going to figure out what they didn’t do right. Producers are asking for changes? They’re going to figure out how to make those changes work. Their showrunner steals their sequence into his episode? Consider it flattery and get right back to the task at hand. Sure, it stings. But that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. These writers always stay on task and get the job done. Figure out what’s not working, get any and all insight, and, no matter what, never EVER get precious.
- Community – Okay, Community is not a trait but… bear with me. These writers make it routine to foster and keep an active, rich community around them. They know many other writers, some of whom are ahead of them, some at their own level, and a few who are behind. They offer up notes (and in return have a trusted group of quality writers to get notes from when the time comes). They participate in writers groups and often more than just one, continuing on with this practice even when they’ve forged further ahead in their career than their group counterparts. They share their experiences but never boast about them. They allow others to root for them and partake in their journey. They are inclusive. They are candid. They are (there’s that word again) humble.
- Likability – Ever hear agents and managers say that 60% of getting hired into a TV writers room is personality? This is where likability comes in. While agents, managers, showrunners and producers don’t have to love you, they do have to want to spend time with you and believe that they can, fundamentally, get along with you. After all, if they don’t gel with you personally right out of the gate, how will they manage you when things get off track? Careers in this business are very much built on relationships, which these writers never forget. On any given day I can talk to my industry colleagues about one of them, and hear back such comments as “He’s such a great guy” or “I just love her.” They’ve been sent into rooms for pitch meetings and generals, and walked out with people rooting for them. These writers make a point not just to get along, but also to connect. From thank you cards to thoughtful conversations, they allow their industry counterparts to really get behind them.
Other traits come to mind, too. Traits like: Generosity. Consistency. Ambition. But I think by now you get the idea. The point is not to master each one of these traits; instead, it is to figure out whether you can take a little bit from each in order to bolster your chances and better your efforts. No writer is perfect, and it is important to remember that. But the writers who do break in do tend to have mastered at least a few of the above traits.