Script Angel: Developing Screenwriting Habits for Career Success

Hayley McKenzie is a Script Editor and founder of Script Angel, helping screenwriters elevate their craft and advance their screenwriting career. Follow her on Twitter @scriptangel1.

Life is full of habits, both good and bad. While most of the time we focus on breaking the bad habits, success often comes from developing good habits. Screenwriting success is no different.

screenwriting habitsLots of aspiring screenwriters come to me for feedback on their script and the standard of writing varies enormously. But the quality of writing in that early draft is rarely indicative of their future success. What almost always bears out is that those who have made screenwriting part of their everyday life and developed good habits are the ones most likely to make progress and break into the industry.

Habits are routine behaviors done on a regular basis. They are recurrent and often unconscious patterns of behavior and are acquired through frequent repetition.  Developing good habits can be as hard as breaking bad habits. I know how tough it is but the benefits are huge. Like everyone working in film and television, I too was once on the outside looking in, reading scripts for free trying to figure out how to make this pay the bills. Making writing (or in my case script reading and editing) part of my everyday life, even when it wasn’t my day job, was crucial to developing my career.

Lots of professional writers talk about writing all day since it is, after all, their job. They talk about how it’s just like any other job – you get your ass in the chair at 9am and work through until 5pm. And you read it and think ‘well, lucky them!’ but you’re so exhausted from your non-screenwriting 9-5 job, the one that pays the bills, it’s all you can do to read your kids a bedtime story and not fall asleep in front of the television. So you try to write a bit at weekends, when there’s a bit more time, but then life keeps getting in the way so maybe you’ll just write when you’re on vacation. And it’s OK because it’s nice to write in your spare time.

But is it enough to just write every now and then? If you want to turn this screenwriting thing into a career the answer, I’m afraid, is probably no. Writing screenplays is just like any other activity; playing a sport or learning a musical instrument. You’ve to do it regularly to become any good at it. We all know that the friend who plays tennis every weekend is going to get a lot better a lot more quickly than the friend who plays once a year on vacation. I know it’s hard. No one is pretending that it isn’t. Sacrifices have to be made and you need to be willing to pay the price.

So you’ve made a commitment to writing every day but what if you’ve only got an hour a day? Surely it takes that long to get ‘into the zone’ so frankly, what’s the point? Well, why not try the Pomodoro Technique? Yes, several uninterrupted hours might be preferable but if that isn’t possible are you just going to give up? No!  There’s more info on the Pomodoro Technique here but the basic principle is this; work for 25-minute chunks of time. If you’ve got more than 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break then start another 25 minute chunk. If you’re only doing 25 minutes once a week then sure, it probably will be a struggle to get into ‘the zone,’ but if you did 25 minutes or an hour yesterday and you’ve been mulling your story since then, getting back into the story world really doesn’t take an age.

So you’re going to write every day, but when? Are you a lark or an owl? Learning when you’re at your best is a sure-fire way to improve the quality of the work you’re producing. It’s worth experimenting with this as many people end up thinking they’re best at one time of day just because that’s the habit they’ve developed. Try both for a couple of weeks each and see which one really suits you. It’ll take a few days for your body clock to adjust to the early morning or later evening so don’t give up too quickly. I know that I can work late if I have to (I’ve script edited on shows where everyone’s working till past midnight every day) but I know from experience that I produce better work during the early hours (6am-8am) than I do at night. Find what works for you and then build it into your routine.

Other habits worth experimenting include place and noise. Do you work best when sitting at a desk or relaxed on a sofa? Do you get more done sitting in a busy café with lots of background chatter or in a big park with nothing to hear but birdsong? Do you need complete silence or are you better with music on? Lots of writers I know put on soundtracks to movies that are in the same genre as the one they’re writing. It may be that different environments work for different stages of the screenwriting process. A lot of writers I know like to be somewhere busy like a café when in the early stages of developing an idea but need to be at a desk in a quiet room when actually writing the scenes.

Screenwriting is a pretty solitary profession, but some writers thrive when bouncing ideas around and find that writing with a partner works for them.  Why not give it a try? Join a writers’ group and find who clicks with you then see if there is a story that appeals to both of you and take it from there. You never know, it could be the screenwriting practice that unlocks the door to success for you.

We’ve all heard the saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different result. We need to be able to change what doesn’t work. Finding the screenwriting practices for you and then making those a habit is sure to help you produce better work.

Next time we’ll look at developing habits that help you get from the germ of an idea to a polished, killer screenplay.

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