Writers on the Verge: How to Succeed in Screenwriting – The DON’T List

By Lee Jessup

There are lots of things you SHOULD do for your screenwriting career, and I will visit those in a future column. But just as important as knowing what you should do is knowing what you absolutely should not do, what would only hold you back or hinder you from moving your screenwriting career forward. In that spirit, I’ve put together my very own DON’T list, derived of various, critical DON’T's I share regularly with my slate of aspiring and professional screenwriters in our sessions:

dos-and-dontsDon’t be precious about your work.

Every choice you make in the script should be on the side of telling the best possible story in the most cinematic way. Therefore, you can’t be precious about your characters, scenes, or even bits of dialogue. If it doesn’t serve the script, it simply doesn’t belong there. Kill your darlings. Mercilessly.

Don’t exceed 120 pages. 

Really. Seriously. Not even by 1 page. That’s the first thing executives look at.

Don’t over-incubate your script.

Not exposing your work – early and often – can easily put you in the danger zone. Getting feedback from industry professionals or members of a writers’ group can help you push the work forward, or identify problem areas early on. Writing a screenplay is a unique task – it’s not only about what you’re putting on the page, but also about how it’s being received on the readers’ end. Therefore, making sure that your script is being received as you intended and that no unexpected hiccups are showing up in the work is integral to its success.

Don’t work on the same script for years and years.

I see it all the time – writers who work on the same script or the same concept in different formats (feature script, short film, pilot, play, web series, etc.) for months and years, determined to make it as strong as it can be. While much can be said for not giving up on the work, it is equally as important to know when the time has come to let a script go and accept that you’ve done for it all you could, even if just for the time being. Professional screenwriters are expected to finish a new screenplay every 4-6 months; while you are not expected to match that velocity right off the bat, you should aim to bring your scripts to the finish line on a regular basis, then move on to the next.

Don’t rely on family and close friends for script feedback.

Most parents & friends – love them -  are just not blessed with the screenplay analysis gene. You want to hear how brilliant you are and how promising your script? Go to your mom or dad, to a spouse or a good non-industry friend. But if you’re going to really push your script to the next level, you should turn to other working writers, industry friends or even seasoned, reputable readers for feedback and insight on your work.

Don’t underestimate the importance of screenwriting education.

One of the commonalities I see in most working screenwriters out there: They’ve taken a screenwriting class, at some point, somewhere. Be it a weekend intensive or as part of an academic track, most successful writers have at some point taken classes. Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Screenwriting requires talent, of course, but it also requires a high level of craft. And what better place to get a handle on the craft then in the safe, nurturing environment of a class? In order to be successful at this screenwriting thing again and again, you need to have mastery of the tools at hand. The best way to gain this is education, no matter the format. Study screenwriting, and increase your chances.

Don’t worry about anyone stealing your work.

So often I meet with writers who avoid sharing their work or even speaking of it out loud in public places in fear that it can and will be stolen from them. However, it’s never my pro writers who do that; it’s the first timers, the novices, the ones who haven’t “broken” yet. Pro writers know that it’s not just about the idea: It’s about what you do with it. So lets be clear: Loglines can’t be stolen, which is the very reason they can’t be registered; you can’t register a concept. A screenplay is the writer’s take on a unique idea, and can be developed a million different ways, depending on the writer who is developing the narrative. So don’t worry about anyone stealing your idea; even if they liked it, their treatment of the material at hand is guaranteed to be entirely different than yours, as it would emerge from their unique sensibilities. As for the screenplay itself, if the proverbial “they” love the concept so much, the reality is that it’s cheaper for a Hollywood production company or studio to buy your script outright and have a professional screenwriter rewrite it from scratch than it would be for them to outright steal it. If your material is registered with the WGA and copyrighted, you have little to worry about. After all, that’s why the screenwriting gods created arbitration.

Don’t do one thing at a time.

Parallel efforts – that’s what it’s all about. If you’re trying to build a screenwriting career, you can’t afford to do just one thing at a time. While you write, be sure to network, to read, to submit older scripts into screenwriting contests. And while you’re busy getting your new script into the industry, start developing your next pilot or feature spec idea. Neither a network nor a body of work ever just “show up,” so you have to actively do work on both fronts to ensure that you are giving your screenwriting career the best possible chance.

Don’t set unrealistic goals for yourself.

The fastest way to grow frustrated while trying to make it as a screenwriter? Set unrealistic goals and see how quickly you get there. While writers should absolutely aspire for greatness – getting representation, signing an option, selling a script or even winning an Academy Award – goals should be things that are both attainable and within your control. If you aspire to find representation, then your goal would be to contact a number of agencies or management companies in a given quarter or a given years. While you can’t control the outcome, your goal should be one that is directly related to your effort, and therefore does NOT automatically set you up for failure.

Don’t assume that you can’t move forward without representation.

All too often I meet writers who are all but paralyzed in the face of building their career. The reason? They don’t have representation. While most every writer out there thinks their career would move forward if only they had someone hustling on their behalf, the reality is that very few writers out there are “representation ready.” Long before you’ve been picked up by a representation company, you can start building those all-important industry relationships, be they through pitch events, listing services, contest wins, or good, old-fashioned networking. One of my clients went as far as getting one script optioned and developing two projects with independent production companies. At no point of building these critical relationships did he have an agent or a manager representing him. Of course, now that he did, everyone wants to talk to him.

Don’t worry about rejection.

Your job is to get your script read. If you’re not getting rejected, it probably means that you’re not getting your screenplay or pilot script seen by enough people out there. Every script gets rejected; it’s the nature of the beast. The point is to find the one industry pro or company who will put their weight behind it. In the simplest terms, if you’re not getting rejected, you are probably not doing right by your script.

Don’t blame it on the industry.

Getting rejections and nothing but? If you’ve been getting your script read by anyone and everyone, entering it into contests and not placing, listing your script on such services as The Black List and (if you’re lucky enough) Spec Scout but not getting any bites, the problem is likely not with the industry; it’s with the script. The industry knows what it’s looking for, and if your screenplay has been out there for a while without getting you any interest whatsoever, it’s likely not it. Whether it’s subject matter, genre or execution, you may want to consider assessing where the script failed to deliver, then move on to new, more marketable work.

Don’t try to please everyone.

Not everyone is going to like your script. This is, at the end of the day, not a fact-based business. Therefore, the success or failure of a script is often subjective. Same can be said for your writing. Know what you’re good at and stick to it. Capitalize on your core competency and ride it as far as you can. If you’re a comedy writer, don’t try writing a horror script just because someone said they might have interest in that sort of work; if horror writing is not within your wheelhouse and does not gel with your sensibilities, you are likely not the writer to deliver it. Similarly, if you are a comedy writer, you likely have your unique brand of comedy. Not everyone is going to respond to it, just as not everyone loved Bridesmaids. You have to find someone who responds to your work, but don’t expect to please everyone, because that’s never going to happen. Stick to your strengths and you will give yourself the best chance.

Don’t wait.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is stopping and waiting. Finish a script, stop and wait. Win a contest, stop and wait. What are you waiting for? Your screenwriting career is not going to build itself, and time (not age!) is your biggest enemy. The more you wait between scripts, the more time will get away from you. The more you wait to capitalize on every win, the most nullified it will become. Time, in this particular case, is NOT on your side. You want to make sure that you are consistently moving forward, either creatively or strategically, in order to position yourself for success.

Don’t quit your day job.

The average amount of time it takes to build a screenwriting career is anywhere from 3 to 10 years. So unless you have the sort of cash reserves that can carry you through this time period, don’t quit your day job. Desperation, which often surfaces when not knowing where next month’s rent will come from has a very specific stench, which you don’t want anyone to pick up on you. So don’t put yourself in a do-or-die situation, as it will likely not serve you. Instead, use the routine you’ve created in your life to set and sustain a consistent writing schedule. In the long run, it will take you much further!

Have another major DON’T in mind that I did not mention? Share them in the comments below. I would really appreciate it!

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