Script Angel: Turning Screenwriting Dreams Into Achievable Writing Career Goals

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.

The path to screenwriting success is littered with the remains of those that didn’t make it. They may be just as talented as those that do and we’ve all had days when we’ve thought about giving up, usually after a particularly painful rejection, but the difference is that you’re not going to quit. The dream, that ambition to be a successful screenwriter and sustain a long career as such, is a powerful one.

writing career goalsDreams and ambitions are fantastic motivators and are often what got us into this mad world in the first place but they are distinct from goals. Maybe your screenwriting dream is to be the go-to screenwriter for your favorite movie director and earn millions of dollars in the process.  Those kinds of dreams can come true but measuring your success in such a way sets you up for disappointment. For me, dreams and ambitions are what you hope/wish will happen but may not necessarily be entirely in your control.  Setting your dreams as achievable goals can be really destructive. If your goal is to win a particular award or secure a particular manager or sell your spec to a particular studio and that doesn’t happen, you’ve failed.  Dreams are often dependent on the decision of others and mistaking them for goals and beating ourselves up when we fail to achieve them is no way to stay motivated.

Good goals, on the other hand, are achievable by your own actions. For example, winning the Nicholl Fellowship is a wonderful ambition but that decision is not in your hands so it is not a good goal. What that ambition can do though is motivate you into setting goals that will improve your chances of success in the Nicholl Fellowship, for example, finishing that ambitious drama spec that you’ve been thinking about for years but never tackled. Even if you don’t place in the Nicholls, your goal of finishing the spec in time for the submission deadline will have been achieved and you’ll have a fantastic spec script that may well do other wonderful things for you instead.

The idea of SMART goals, first developed as a business and project management tool, has been around nearly thirty years but much of it remains fantastically useful, even in the creative industries.

Specific – your goal should be easily describable to others, even if they don’t really understand what all this screenwriting nonsense is about. “I’m going to finish the first draft of my spec screenplay” is a specific, easily explainable goal.

Measurable – how will you know you’ve achieved your goal? Can you measure it? “I’m going to get inspired” is vague and difficult to measure whereas “I’m going to go to a new art gallery every month” is specific and measurable – either you did it, or you didn’t.

Achievable – be honest about the amount of time you are able to commit to this. If you’re regularly not achieving the goals you set, go easier on yourself. Once you start achieving the goals you’ll feel more positive and more motivated.

Resonant – this was originally for Relevant (and I’ve seen ‘Realistic’ here too) but for creatives I think that Jennifer Lee’s suggestion (in her book ‘The Right-Brain Business Plan’) that it should be for Resonant is more useful. Your goal should make you excited. If you get out of bed and feel ‘oh god, not another day doing x’ then you’re doing the wrong thing or the right thing the wrong way.

Time Bound – deadlines! Yes, they might make you want to curl up in a ball or run away but my goodness they can be motivating. I love deadlines so much that when I’m working in Development I set fake ones and when that’s not enough I dive back into script editing on a drama in production to get a fix of those very real deadlines provided by a crew of 100+ people ready to shoot the script. Tight deadlines aren’t for everyone and writing fast, under pressure certainly doesn’t suit all writers but realistic deadlines are a must if you’re to achieve your goals. I’d also suggest that your goals are a mix of short, medium and long-term goals. Have goals that are for each day or at least for the week, as well as those that it might take a month or a year to achieve.

Those SMART goals are a great place to start but I’d add to that making your goals positive. “Don’t screw up the query letter” is a negative goal and the chances are your brain will actually just see “screw up”. Instead turn it into a positive goal like “send out ten well-crafted query letters by the end of November”.

We all know that dreaming of being a writer is much easier than actually keeping your bum on your chair and producing the writing. SMART writing goals are invaluable for producing the material that will get people excited. Those goals should of course include the actual writing of actual pages of script but can also include things like research and improving craft skills, maybe taking a class in an area of screenwriting that you know you need to hone.

Of course, if you’re not achieving your writing goals then haven’t got the work to send out into the industry. But once you’re producing at least one new spec every year then you need to make sure that you’ve got goals that will help you advance your career and get your writing noticed. These might be querying agents, pitching at the London Screenwriters Festival  or the Screenwriters World Conference, finding a mentor, joining a local or online screenwriting group, or improving your networking skills.

Try to find a balance between goals that are achievable and those which, if you’re really honest with yourself, are way too easy. As Kate Leys said to me recently, it’s good to scare yourself a little sometimes!

It’s also important to make a commitment to your goals. At the very least they need to be written down, ideally somewhere where you can see them every day. Make yourself accountable, even if it’s only to yourself. Even better is to be public about that commitment, whether that’s on a blog or just by telling other people who you know and trust. Maybe commit to a mentoring scheme, like the one I offer at Script Angel, that means you’ll have someone with whom you’ll agree deadlines and who will help you to keep on track over the months to come.

I know that the new year is traditionally a time of reflection and goal setting but why wait? I’m guilty of this too, having planned to use my Christmas vacation to think about how to move Script Angel forward, but really that’s just putting it off and wouldn’t it be so much better to just do it, right now!

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