What to Expect When You’re Building a Screenwriting Career: Learning The Craft

As promised in the maiden voyage of this series, What to Expect When You’re Building a Screenwriting Career I wanted to use these posts to help illuminate what writers should expect as they build their screenwriting career, whether they are starting out or already on their screenwriting path.

While I have firmly positioned myself on the career end of things, rather than story, there is one thing that I know to be true: There is no screenwriting or TV writing career to be built without first mastering the craft. While writers in earlier stages of their careers have told me things like “I know I could write better than that” or “If I got into a writer’s room I could totally write TV,” the craft question is not a hypothetical one; you prove your knowledge of and prowess with the craft on the page.

However, craft doesn’t (usually) come in a single day or a first script. Even though some writers will inevitably bring more of a story-telling instinct to the page, at the end of the day writing for the big or small screenplay is never easy, though when done right it can appear deceptively simple. As Bellevue Production manager John Zaozirny told me when I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:

“There are people that write their first couple of screenplays and they emerge born. But that’s rare.”

Don’t get me wrong: Most writers hope to find the craft miraculously on display with every page of their first screenplay or TV pilot, but, at least in my experience, that hardly ever happens. Mastering the craft is a process of learning, trying, refining, and learning some more. With that in mind, I wanted to break down what a writer should expect when learning and developing their craft:

Expect to learn the craft over multiple scripts and multiple drafts
To say that learning the craft takes time is an understatement. For most writers, it will take many scripts, and many rewrites of said scripts, to really learn and hone their craft. Which… for those writers who truly want a screenwriting career, this shouldn’t be a problem; because it will take a lot more than one idea to build that screenwriting career, let alone keep it going over many years and many projects. All of which is to say: Don’t be disappointed if your first screenplay or pilot is not a home run. It rarely is, for anyone. What it is is your first and best opportunity to learn the craft, to develop your voice; it’s the first step into the screenwriting career that lies ahead.

Expect your first, and potentially even your second and third screenplays or pilots, to be “learning scripts.”
As Ryan Saul, now a lit manager with The Cartel, who previously was an agent with APA once told me:

“That first screenplay that you write, burn it. It’s not ready. But, you know, the first one you write that’s for yourself. Put it aside. Write the second one. Maybe then you kinda find the voice a little bit. Put that one aside. The third one you write, you’re gonna learn a lot from the first two you’ve written. The great thing about being a screenwriter is it’s a fluid document that you’re writing. If you put that first screenplay aside and you realize something that you’re writing in the third screenplay would work in the first, steal from yourself. Go back to that first screenplay and then hone that one. Re-write it. And maybe that screenplay that you wrote – maybe burning it is an overreaction. That first screenplay that you wrote becomes your first spec. But only after you’ve gotten to understand your craft a little bit. Very rarely is the first screenplay that you’ve ever written – you’re done and let’s go.”

While it is difficult, try not to put the pressure of being “the one” on any one pilot or screenplay, especially when it’s early in your writing adventure. That pressure can prohibit you from learning, as well as, potentially, stifle your creative spirit. Yes, you are writing these projects in order to have them light the path into the career that you are seeking, but learning the craft is something that will happen iteratively and gradually, and there’s no forcing it to happen any other way.

Expect to always be writing.
The secret to writing is… writing! Yes, I know, deceptively simple, but nonetheless true and important. There is no other way to keep developing your craft, to keep fighting for your career no matter what stage it’s in, without writing with consistency, continuity and focus.

Here’s what Verve super-agent David Boxerbaum told me about that:

“I always say great writers write. So if you’re a writer, you should always be writing no matter what. It should be your job 24/7 to be sitting down and writing and focusing on furthering your career, furthering your craft. Because it is a craft and it’s a talent. Most people say they’re a writer because they wrote one script and that’s that, and now I’m a writer. Well, if that’s your job, that’s what you want to call your craft, you should be continuing to hone that craft every day.”

Expect good writing to take time.
Don’t get me wrong: Any writer who wants to build a career in this industry has to figure out how to write at a steady, productive clip when working on original material. Once you get into the deep end of the pool with writing assignments and TV staffing opportunities, you won’t have the luxury of stretching the writing process over months and years. In the professional space, deadlines are generally given by a set number of weeks by the end of which material is expected to be delivered.

However, when learning your craft and creating your own original material, expect to allow the writing to require some time to develop and percolate. Anyone who knows me knows that I love planning and deadlines; however, the further we get from when we originally set deadlines, the more we discover about the work, and the more adjustment is required. Don’t get me wrong: I remain very much all for setting deadlines for the development of your work. But I also urge you to continuously re-examine your deadlines and adjust as needed because it’s much more important to write a great screenplay or pilot than it is to deliver on deadline.

Expect to have to learn the craft, however you want to go about it.
As John Zaozirny said, few writers arrive fully formed as they begin their screenwriting journey. For most, if not all, writers, some level of study and craft development is going to be required. Therefore, be sure to have clarity not only about what you’re writing, but also about how you’re developing your craft, in order to give your screenplay or pilot the best chance possible. New writers break in not only on great ideas, but also on execution; how those ideas are realized on the page. In order to find your voice and develop well executed drafts, you have to allow for some study of the craft.

The reality is that it doesn’t matter how you learn, as long as you do, indeed, learn. Whether it’s taking classes or reading screenplays, working with consultants or devouring screenwriting books only to then put everything you’ve learned into action, the important thing is to be sure to allow the learning of it all the time that it deserves. Screenwriting, whether for the big screen or small one, is an intricate and complex craft. Writers set themselves up for growth when continuing to examine the intricacies of how it all works.

Not sure where to look, as far as learning is concerned? Check out my Resource Guide to get you started.

Expect every new screenplay or pilot to present its own craft challenges.
Writing is a complicated craft. In my experience, part of what keeps writers hooked on it for years and decades is the fact that no two projects are the same, and each new screenplay or pilot will challenge its writer in new, interesting (and sometimes entirely overwhelming) ways.

One of the working writers that I had the privilege of working with for years would announce that she is ready to quit the business entirely every time she set out to write a new project. She would tell me that she will never again have an idea as strong as the one at the heart of a previous project recently sold, that she doesn’t have a clear way into her new pilot or screenplay, that she wants to quit while she’s ahead, and therefore it’s probably time to go. To my relief, after a few days of intellectual gymnastics, she always found her way back to the writing, her way into the new story she was excited to tell. But this always reminded me that writing, and by that I mean good writing, always brings exciting new challenges for those who choose to engage with it. 

Expect brutal notes to provide great opportunities for learning.
Every writer loves getting feedback that her screenplay or pilot is great. That she did a great job writing it. That the characters are leaping off the page. On the flip side, I’ve also spoken to those writers who are unnerved by critical notes, so much so that they’ve kept those notes in a drawer and never looked at them for a year or more.

Critical notes can be hard to take. They can be off-putting. Frustrating. Infuriating, too, when the readers just didn’t get what the writer was going for. But the truth of the matter is that there is a lot more to learn from constructive criticism than there is from the compliments. Therefore, seek out sources from which to get smart but challenging notes. It doesn’t matter whether those come from other writers, screenwriting teachers, readers or consultants. The point is to find those naysayers whose taste level the writer respects, and respond to their unique notes that help make the screenplay or pilot even stronger. This is not to say that every note should be taken and addressed; it’s for every writer to decide which notes help them crystalize and elevate the story they are trying to tell, and which notes may be taking their story in a direction in which they have no interest. More on this in an upcoming blogpost later in the year!

Expect rewriting to be where the real work happens.
The reality of writing is that, for the most part, when working on original material, a single draft will rarely, if ever, do the trick. Sure, when you’re writing on assignment these days you get one step: (your first draft) guaranteed, as opposed to the 3-step standard (first draft, second draft, polish) of decades past. But when working on your own material, expect a lot of rewriting ahead.

For many, that first draft will be, as it is known, the vomit draft; getting words on the page, so that they could then be massages, maneuvered, re-thought and rearranged again and again until the writer arrives at an industry-ready draft. And for most, that is going to take a significant number of drafts, getting notes on those drafts, and then rewriting again and again.

Last year, a writer of mine told me: “Alright, I’m at draft five hundred; I think my pilot is ready to go to my agent.”  For the sheer exercise of it, we decided to count the drafts. And mind you, this was a very intricate pilot she had on her hands. She didn’t quite reach five hundred drafts, but we were solidly around draft seventeen, with many drafts and sets of notes behind us, when the writer felt that the pilot was indeed, finally, ready. And she was right; that same pilot went on to sell to a major network.

Another writer that I’ve been working with for years worked on a very small, intimate, personal feature spec based on events that her own family experienced. With something like this, you might think that rewrites would be limited, as the writer is intimately familiar with the story and characters she is committing to the page. But in this case too, the writer, who is a seasoned professional, took more than a handful of drafts, and a number of sets of notes, to arrive at the draft she was finally happy with. Writing material based on real people and experiences presents its own set of challenges, and so, once again, it took what it took, writing, rewriting and refining on the page, to finally get to an industry-ready draft.

Expect to get better from script to script.
It’s a simple rule of craft: The more you practice it, the better you will become. The more you write, get notes, rewrite and get more notes, the stronger your writing will be.

When submitting materials to reps who like the writing but don’t respond to the material itself, you may hear (or read in their response) something akin to “if you are still looking for representation, I’ll be happy to read the next thing when you have it.” Or else, when meeting with a potential rep who likes your writing but is not quite ready to sign you, you may be told “Let’s keep this conversation going. Send me your next thing.” These things are said to you out of politeness; every phone call and email takes time from reps and executives that they simply don’t have to spare. Instead, this is based on one simple truth: You will get better from script to script, as long as you continue to consistently write and work on your craft. If you do that, challenge yourself from script to script, push yourself to find your voice, to develop your skills, you will be able to make a go at a substantive screenwriting career.