Want to Improve Your Screenwriting Craft? Do These 3 Things
Last year, I had the great privilege of moderating a live Q&A with renowned literary manager John Zaozirny. If you don’t know John, or have yet to follow him on Twitter, you definitely should, as he’s been incredibly forthcoming with tons of useful information, and even put out a PDF of some of his most popular twitter threads. But much as I love and respect John, this blog post is not about him, but rather about something that he said during that Q&A that I’ve repeated many times before and since. It’s simple, but soooooo important. And, admittedly, it speaks to something that most emerging writers know, but to my surprise, very rarely do consistently, at least on 1 or 2 of the 3 fronts I’m going to break down here.
In the simplest terms, John broke down the three things any writer should do to consistently and effectively develop and improve their craft. You may read these and think that these are simple, you already know them. But if you’re not doing all 3 consistently read on to understand why they are so incredibly important.
What are those 3 things key to improving your craft that John spoke about?
You’re already doing all three consistently and methodically? Stop right here – you don’t need to read any further. But if you’re not… or not quite sure what I mean by consistently (or methodically for that matter) read on as I break it down:
Yes, I know, obvious. But you’d be surprised how many writers talk about writing a lot more than they actually engage in the writing. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you may want to check out my JUST DO IT blog post, but I digress…
It’s been said many times and in many different ways that the secret to writing is writing, which speaks to a simple thing: Writing is a craft, and to master it, you must engage in it. Engaging in it doesn’t only mean writing; it means getting notes, rewriting and then getting notes again. It means doing pre-work before jumping into pages, and planning the writing thoughtfully and comprehensively.
In order for your craft to improve you have to put it on the page, then challenge the work, stress-test it and iterate on it until it is not only the best version of the story that you want to tell, but also landing with most readers, be they other writers, executives, consultants, readers, competitions or coverage services in a manner that confirms that your work is landing as you want it to. Of course, not everyone is going to love your work – expecting everyone to respond to it is unrealistic; but in order for the work to be deemed “ready” you want to have critical eyes sign off on it.
Coaching Recommendation: In general, I encourage my writers to try and write a minimum of 10+ hours a week. Now, if the writer is juggling a job, a family, and other commitments, 10+ hours a week may not be possible, but the closer we can get to that threshold, the better. And, to clarify, writing hours may not be hours in which the writer is only writing pages; they may include anything that is writing-related, from research to pre-work to outlining qualifies.
It’s equally important to create a clear writing routine and carve out those writing hours, as time rarely just presents itself; know when you’re writing, but also know what you need in terms of days off from writing. Create a writing routine that can sustain over time, as building a writing routine is a marathon, and writing needs to be conditioned accordingly.
Over the years, I’ve heard every reason for not reading other screenplays and pilots regularly: With regular jobs, families, kids, relationships, networking and other commitments, there’s just not enough time to also sit down to read screenplays and TV pilots with any consistency. Reading for writers groups, especially if the writer is in more than one, dominates all of the writers’ reading hours. Reading screenplays can be tiring. Disenchanting. Some writers have gone as far as to tell me that they don’t read other screenplays or TV pilots because they don’t want their own voice or work to be tainted or influenced.
To me, not reading screenplays or TV pilots is akin to wanting to be a pop singer, but not listening to the radio. The reality is that no one breaks in in a vacuum. Emerging writers are trying to surface in a dynamic, evolving industry. Therefore, it’s important to understand the tastes and trends of the industry, not in order to chase them, but in order to be able to understand where among them the writers’ own work would fit in.
Often, we hear reps and executives talk about voice. But we also know that voice is one of those things that’s impossible to define, although you absolutely know it when you see it. Reading screenplays and pilots allows the writers to start understanding voice analytically. Additionally, regular reading informs writers of what’s already being explored in episodic and long form cinematic content in the particular genre space that they themselves are writing in. This information is important not only to their own writing, but may also come up in meetings, as executives, reps and producers refer to other screenplays in the industry regularly. It is always in the writer’s benefit to appear professional and knowledgable.
Reading screenplays and pilots is a great way to explore and learn from how others handle character development, story engines, theme and plot devices. Studying how other writers utilize those in their own writing, specifically screenplays and pilots that have been well received in the industry, can be instructive to the development of the writers’ own voice and craft.
Coaching Recommendation: In a perfect world, I encourage my writers to read at least 4 screenplays or pilots a month, or at least one a week. This is not to say that they will love every screenplay or pilot; it’s important to develop taste and opinion, and identify what works for the writer, and what doesn’t.
If reading content is obvious, watching is doubly so, and for many writers is an easy item to check off the To-Do list. However, it’s not just how much (as in, how many hours) you watch, it’s also what you watch.
For every writer, it’s important to watch material that falls within that their format (film/TV) and genre. As mentioned above, in order to appear professional, you have to know the space that you are writing in. And that means the other content that’s being produced in that space. So if the writer is a 1-hour crime drama writer, it’s important they are well versed in the 1-hour crime dramas of the past five years, as well as features in the crime-drama space. As the writer gains traction in the industry, they will find themselves discussing this content with reps, execs, producers and other writers, both to steer material and to establish common ground.
All too often, I will talk to writers who watch a lot of content that is either not in their space (think writers who write comedy but watch 1-hours drama almost exclusively) or who watch a lot of reality, soaps, or home improvement content. No one is saying that a writer can’t watch those shows for fun, but when it comes to viewing for the sake of craft, it’s important that writers fill their writerly diet with a fair share of content that falls within their own space so that, once again, they can study how that material is developed for screen, and use it to inform and inspire their own writing as they develop it, always adding and building onto an existing genre, with full awareness of what’s been done within it up until now.
Coaching Recommendation: As watching movies and TV shows is something most of us do a fairly regular basis, I recommend for my writers to watch 5-10 hours of content that falls in their genre or genre-adjacent a week if at all possible.